Guy Fawkes mask

Ainsworth’s Guy Fawkes: Tragic Hero, Catholic Martyr

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason, why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes – the man who tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, assassinating James I so a popular revolt could install a Catholic monarch – has become synonymous with anti-establishment protest. This modern symbolism began in the British comic strip V for Vendetta, a dystopian revenge tragedy with an anarchist heart by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1982 – 1988) produced during the darkest decade of Thatcherism (filmed in 2006). In the twenty-first century, the loosely associated and politically unaligned ‘Anonymous’ network of hackers and activists has taken as their emblem the ‘penny-for-the-guy’ mask worn by Moore’s protagonist, along with the ethos of the character. Just as ‘V’ once spoke to the people of an imagined fascist Britain that seems to be getting closer in fact every day, Anonymous broadcasts regularly to the world. History becomes fiction becoming history again; but while the cultural significance of Moore’s subversive hero is huge, the connotative seeds of Guy Fawkes as a revolutionary freedom fighter, rather than a terrorist to be burnt in effigy, were in fact sown in a relatively obscure early-Victorian novel…

Alan Moore V Cover
Cover to the collected edition of V for Vendetta published by Vertigo (DC Comics), 1990.

Although the Newgate Controversy of 1839 had compelled the historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth to move away from the highwaymen that had made his name, he did not entirely abandon his interest in outlaws. While working on his historical epic The Tower of London – a much less controversial project than Jack Sheppard, the novel it followed – he was also writing a brooding gothic tragedy based on the life of Guy Fawkes.

Guy Fawkes: or, The Gunpowder Treason. A Historical Romance was serialised in Bentley’s Miscellany (which Ainsworth also edited, having succeeded Dickens the previous year) from January to November 1840, and then published as a triple-decker novel in July 1841. At the same time, Bentley published The Tower of London separately in monthly instalments from January to December 1840, releasing the book before Christmas as soon as the serial ended. Both projects were illustrated by George Cruikshank, and Ainsworth’s friend Samuel Laman Blanchard designated them ‘Twin-born romances’ in The Mirror (qtd. in Carver: 2003, 232), notably one with a Catholic hero, the other Protestant (Lady Jane Grey). Because The Tower of London is such a seminal work – a bestseller in its own day, British schoolkids were still being made to read it in the 1940s (1) – Guy Fawkes tends to get forgotten, but it remains, nonetheless, a fascinating and surprisingly subversive piece of creative non-fiction, more than worthy of the author of Rookwood and The Lancashire Witches.

Guy Fawkes begins in the Summer of 1605, by which time the gunpowder conspiracy was already reasonably well advanced. The focal point of the text is the attempt to destroy Parliament on November 5 and Robert Catesby’s failed insurrection in the North, a response by increasingly desperate Catholics to the on-going religious persecution following Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome, that had intensified after King James succeeded Elizabeth. The story ends in the Spring of 1606 with the execution of the last of the conspirators. The narrative is divided into three books. ‘The Plot’ begins with the graphic execution of two seminary priests in Manchester, because under King James’s anti-Catholic laws, their very presence on English soil was a capital offence. The execution is briefly interrupted by the ravings of the prophetess, Elizabeth Orton, seeking a blessing from one of the condemned men. She escapes the pursuivant (an officer appointed by the Privy Council to seek out recusants) and his guards by diving into the Irwell. This scene introduces the novel’s two protagonists, both of whom attempt to save the half-mad woman: Humphrey Chetham, a Protestant nobleman who argues with the arresting authorities on Orton’s behalf, and a soldier in Spanish dress who saves her from drowning, Guy Fawkes. Orton dies prophesying her rescuer’s death.

After this arresting opening, Book the First, ‘The Plot,’ remains in the North, with much of the action taking place around Ordsall Hall, the ancestral seat of the Radcliffes, one of many old Catholic families in Lancashire who live in constant fear of the Protestant authorities. Sir William Radcliffe broadly supports the conspirators, and his daughter is torn between the love of the innocent Humphrey Chetham (a union divided by faith) and a deep, clearly physical attraction to Guy Fawkes. In a gothic interlude, Fawkes meets the alchemist Dr John Dee, who raises the spirit of Elizabeth Orton, who once again predicts disaster. Similarly, in a pilgrimage to St Winifred’s Well, Fawkes receives a divine vision warning him against the plot. At the end of Book the First, the Radcliffes are discovered to be harbouring the priests Fathers Oldcorne and Garnet, and the conspirators flee to London as the Hall is sacked by government troops. Book the Second, ‘The Discovery,’ follows the events immediately leading to the failed bombing attempt on November 5, diverting only from the historical record to marry Guy Fawkes to Viviana Radcliffe, who does not approve of the plot and urges him to abandon it. Fawkes, like all the conspirators, is however bound by oath to prosecute the plan. Book the Third, ‘The Conspirators,’ follows the trial of the gunpowder plotters and Viviana’s attempts to move her husband to repentance. This he does, by her deathbed in the Tower, going to his own execution both bravely and contentedly. The novel concludes, as it began, with the execution of the priest, Father Garnet, the principal Jesuit of England (although how involved in the plot he was in reality remains a contentious issue).

Cruikshank, Guy Fawkes
‘Guy Fawkes in Ordsall Cave’ by George Cruikshank. Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes (1841).

As ever, Ainsworth’s historical mise-en-scène is a synergy of meticulous antiquarian research and gothic sensibility, featuring necromancy, ill-omens, violent death, and ghostly visitants, while Chat Moss (in the seventeenth century a boggy swamp to the West of Manchester) becomes a terrifying, alien landscape where horses and their riders are sucked up by a living morass beneath eerily glowing mist. This genre alchemy is immediately apparent in the opening scenes of the first act, during which Fawkes saves the half-mad prophetess, Elizabeth Orton. To aid their escape, Orton leads Fawkes to a secret place on the bank of the river Irwell:

Descending the eminence, and again entering the lane, which here made a turn, the soldier approached a grassy space, walled in on either side by steep sandstone rocks. At the further extremity of the enclosure, after a moment’s search, by the direction of his companion, he found, artfully concealed by overhanging brushwood, the mouth of a small cave. He crept into the excavation, and found it about six feet high, and of considerable depth. The roof was ornamented with Runic characters and other grotesque and half effaced inscriptions, while the sides were embellished with Gothic tracery, amid which the letters I.H.S., carved in ancient church text, could be easily distinguished (2). Tradition assigned the cell to the priests of Odin, but it was evident that worshippers at other and holier altars had more recently made it their retreat. Its present occupant had furnished it with a straw pallet, and a small wooden crucifix fixed in a recess in the wall. Gently depositing her upon the pallet, the soldier took a seat beside her on a stone slab at the foot of the bed. He next, at her request, as the cave was rendered almost wholly dark by the overhanging trees, struck a light, and set fire to a candle placed within a lantern.

After a few moments passed in prayer, the recluse begged him to give her the crucifix that she might clasp it to her breast. This done, she became more composed, and prepared to meet her end. Suddenly, as if something had again disturbed her, she opened wide her glazing eyes, and starting up with a dying effort, stretched out her hands.

‘I see him before them!’ she cried. ‘They examine him – they adjudge him! Ah! he is now in a dungeon! See, the torturers advance! He is placed on the rack – once – twice – thrice – they turn the levers! His joints snap in their sockets – his sinews crack! Mercy! he confesses! He is led to execution. I see him ascend the scaffold!’

‘Whom do you behold?’ inquired the soldier, listening to her in astonishment.

‘His face is hidden from me’, replied the prophetess; ‘but his figure is not unlike your own. Ha! I hear the executioner pronounce his name. How are you called?’

‘GUY FAWKES’, replied the soldier.

‘It is the name I heard’, rejoined Elizabeth Orton.

And, sinking backward, she expired. (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 11).

In this space, different ages seem to converge and coexist in a single moment. The cave is a natural phenomenon and therefore effectively prehistoric, it has been a place of illicit pre-Christian worship (the Anglo-Saxons taking Woden from the Norse god Odin), and the walls share pagan, runic writing with increasingly contemporary signs of Christian habitation, from the ancient Greek symbol for Christ carved on the medieval gothic decorations to the evidence of a very recent Jesuit hiding place. Through the medium of the dying seer, the future (to the reader the past) is also revealed from the edge of eternity. The textual construction of the cave is therefore based upon these various temporal co-ordinates, with each axis an infinity. This is Ainsworth’s perception of history at its most elegant, as a fourth dimensional drama with sets that could have been designed by Pugin, ranging across the streams of time where they converge, such as historically charged sites of great religious or political significance.

In Guy Fawkes and The Tower of London it would notionally seem that Ainsworth had once more entered the realm of his boyhood hero, Sir Walter Scott (whose style he had tried to emulate in his first novel, Sir John Chiverton, co-authored with school friend J.P. Aston in 1826).

The historical novel as we know it begins with Walter Scott (1771 – 1832). Scott wrote his first novel, Waverley or ’Tis’ Sixty Years Since (a story of the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion of 1745) in 1814, producing thereafter an average of two historical novels a year for the rest of his life, characterised by an innovative sense of the plight of the individual subject within complex and threatening historical processes. In his hugely influential study The Historical Novel, the Marxist philosopher, critic and cultural historian Georg Lukács identified the refinement and influence of Scott’s technique in the work of Pushkin and Tolstoy. His summation very much encapsulates the concept and device of the defamiliar in historical fiction:

What matters in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in these events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality … Scott thus lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age, he never explains the age from the position of its great representatives, as do the Romantic hero-worshippers. Hence they can never be central figures of the action. For the being of the age can only appear as a broad and many-sided picture if the everyday life of the people, the joys and sorrows, crises and confusions of average human beings are portrayed. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction (Lukács: 1974, 42).

Lukács called such a protagonist – typified, for example, by Scott’s Edward Waverley – the ‘mediocre hero.’

But Ainsworth’s approach to the stories of British history remains very different from the model left by the author of Waverley, a style that cost him critically but not commercially in his own day, and lead to his excision from the mainstream of Victorian literary study in ours. In his introduction to the 1968 Heron Literary Heritage edition of Windsor Castle, John Moore has described Ainsworth’s novels of this period as ‘history in gorgeous Technicolour’ (Moore: 1968, 16). This is a pretty fair assessment. Ainsworth was an author who loved melodrama and his work translated effortlessly to the Victorian stage. The closest correlative to his historical narratives today is therefore the lavish film or TV costume drama, in which the emphasis is usually on pageantry, romance and valour while the dramatis personae are always famous historical figures, a model that is romantic rather than defamiliar.

Already prejudiced against Jack Sheppard, contemporary critics such as Dickens’ friend and collaborator on Household Words R.H. Horne were also quick to label Ainsworth’s historical fiction in opposition to that of Scott, and, in their opinion as newly styled ‘Victorians,’ romantic and therefore worthless. In a collection of critical essays intended to capture the new Victorian literary zeitgeist, A New Spirit of the Age (1844), Horne wrote of Ainsworth that:

From the historical novel and romance, as re-originated, in modern times, by Madame de Genlis and Sir Walter Scott, and adopted with such high success by Sir E.L. Bulwer, and with such extensive popularity by Mr. James, there has of late years sprung up a sort of lower or less historical romance, in which the chief part of the history consisted in old dates, old names, old houses, and old clothes. But dates in themselves are but numerals, names only sounds, houses and streets mere things to be copied from prints and records; and any one may do the same with regard to old coats, and hats, wigs, waistcoats, and boots. Now, we know that ‘all flesh is grass,’ but grass is not flesh, for all that; nor is it of any use to show us hay for humanity (Horne: 1844, II, 217).

Whereas, in contrast, Horne continued, the significance of the ‘great’ writer of historical romance is in his ability to:

…throw the soul back into the vitality of the past, to make the imagination dwell with its scenes and walk hand in hand with knowledge; to live with its most eminent men and women, and enter into their feelings and thoughts as well as their abodes, and be sensitive with them of the striking events and ruling influences of the time; to do all this, and to give it a vivid form in words, so as to bring it before the eye, and project it into the sympathies of the modern world, this is to write the truest history no less than the finest historical fiction; this is to be a great historical romancist – something very different from a reviver of old clothes. (Horne: 1844, II, 218).

Horne’s belief in the primacy of the ‘vivid form’ as opposed to the ‘lower’ is a Victorian statement of what Lukács would later describe as the ‘conscious growth of historicism’ that he believed characterised the cultural significance of the historical novel, beginning with Scott (Lukács: 1974, 22).

Scott and Ainsworth
Portraits of Sir Walter Scott by Henry Raeburn (1822) and William Harrison Ainsworth by Daniel Maclise (1840).

There were some who did consider Ainsworth’s historical novels educational, however. When Ainsworth’s Magazine was launched in 1842, the Atlas delivered an endorsement so glowing that it was appended to later advertisements:

For a romance writer, possessed of such peculiar powers as Mr. Ainsworth brings to his subjects, it was an admirable notion to commence a series of historical illustrative romances, each of which should be made to throw open, as it were, the traditions and the mysteries of some particular locality. Thus, the Tower of London afforded the first specimen of what might be done in that way, and Old St. Paul’s, the second: and now, the author announces his intention of commencing immediately Windsor Castle. The indolent circulating-library reader gains something by such works as these. He gets a peep into old architecture and old history; he sees moving around him old characters, whom he has hitherto known only by the echoes of dull books which he has never troubled himself to peruse; he gets a glimpse of the ways and means of antiquary, of the visages and costumes of his ancestors, and makes a current flesh-and-blood acquaintance with people in far-off centuries, of whom he had never before known anything except by name, regarding them rather as inscriptions in an unknown tongue which he should never be called upon to decipher, than as human realities whom he should be thus tempted to sympathise with (qtd. in Carver: 2003, 245).

Ironically, this review attributes a similar quality to Ainsworth’s historical romances to that posited by R.H. Horne with regard to Scott and his supposedly more legitimate successors, although the two reviewers obviously had different classes of audience in mind: the ‘indolent circulating-library reader’ being most likely to gain by Ainsworth’s straightforward patriotism; historical knowledge transmitted by stealth under cover of an action-packed plot. As a literate costermonger once explained to Henry Mayhew:

‘Love and murder suits us best, sir; but within these few years I think there’s a great deal more liking for deep tragedies among us. They set men a thinking; but then we all consider them too long. Of Hamlet we can make neither end nor side; and nine out of ten of us – ay, far more than that – would like it to be confined to the ghost scenes, and the funeral, and the killing off at the last. Macbeth would be better liked, if it was only the witches and the fighting’ (Mayhew: 1985, 21).

Popular culture was, of course, of no interest to bourgeois critics like R.H. Horne.

In the same year that Horne published his damning essay on Ainsworth, Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky similarly wrote that to read a novel by Scott ‘is like living in the age he describes, becoming for a moment a contemporary of the characters he portrays, thinking for a moment their thoughts and feeling their emotions’ (Belinsky: 1956, 259). This again foreshadows Lukács and his work on the ‘classical form of the historical novel’:

Scott thus lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age, he never explains the age from the position of its great representatives, as do the Romantic hero-worshippers. Hence they can never be central figures of the action. For the being of the age can only appear as a broad and many-sided picture if the everyday life of the people, the joys and sorrows, crises and confusions of average human beings are portrayed. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction (Lukács: 1974, 39).

Ainsworth, however, wrote in almost total opposition to what Lukács described as the ‘renunciation’ and ‘conquest of Romanticism,’ which he defined as ‘a higher development of the realist literary traditions of the Enlightenment in keeping with the new times’ (Lukács: 1974, 33). His central characters were not the average or mediocre heroes so necessary to Scott’s historical project but the kings, queens and outlaws of England.

The Lukácsian model is seemingly so endemic to literary analysis, however, that any work of historical fiction that is not seen to conform is easily rejected as somehow artistically inferior and (particularly if the work was popular) therefore unworthy of anything other than a casual dismissal or a witty remark. Coupled with the curse of Newgate, this is a common and unhelpful approach to Ainsworth, being only partially more accurate than J. Hain Friswell’s suggestion in Modern Men of Letters Honestly Criticised (1870) that the author was simply not very intelligent. Following Lukács and, indeed, Horne, Professor Andrew Sanders has written of Ainsworth, for example, that:

His didacticism is of a peculiarly unimaginative kind, however, for he was not so much concerned with moral teaching as with the value of facts and dates. Many of his important historical characters are presented with a destructive ambiguity simply because he has not thought out the implications of his plots with sufficient thoroughness. This ambiguity is equally evident in the treatment of ordinary citizens. In his stories, unlike Scott’s, the common people are allowed to express the novelist’s prejudices without appearing to have evolved any kind of understanding of what is happening to them. They are rarely more than spectators observing events which they have no power to influence (Sanders: 1978, 37).

The critical implication is even more didactic than Ainsworth’s antiquarianism: any historical novel not written in the manner of Scott or Tolstoy, as defined by Lukács’s Marxist historicism, is badly written and deserved to be not just ignored but actively disremembered.

Once again, the comparison with Scott is misleading. As Ainsworth’s histories are concerned with the well-known stories of equally well-known historical figures of title, position and political power, it is actually more useful to compare his work with that of Sophocles or even Shakespeare rather than Scott, which remains the critical norm. Just as theatre audiences know that Oedipus will marry Jocasta and that Richard II will be usurped by Bolingbroke (and cinema audiences that William Wallace must die and the Titanic must sink), Ainsworth and his readers accepted that Lady Jane Grey was only a nine-day queen, that Guy Fawkes would never fire the fatal train and that both would be executed. In choosing then to retell such stories, Ainsworth overcame historical determinism by employing the codes of tragedy to his narratives, thereby embracing inevitability and exploring character; the purpose of the tragic plot, according to Aristotle’s model in his Poetics, being to show the protagonist’s moral defect (the hamartia), his or her recognition of its existence (the anagnorisis), and the consequences of its existence (the peripeteia).

Guy Fawkes and Lady Jane in The Tower of London are both tragic heroes. The common charge that Ainsworth’s historical characters tend to lack any psychological depth or insight may be ascribed to this dramatic status. Like the predictable ghosts of Tower Hill (in The Tower of London the shade of Anne Boleyn always appears like clockwork the night before an execution), these characters are robbed of agency and are instead doomed to act out the fate that history has dictated they must. In the female characters, this disposition is manifested by an almost angelic passivity, in the male, a brooding melancholy.

Cruikshank, Tower of London
‘Queen Jane’s first night in the Tower’ by George Cruikshank. Ainsworth, The Tower of London (1840).

Guy Fawkes and Lady Jane are therefore often forewarned by Cassandra in her many guises – such as Elizabeth Orton – but, like the Trojans, they pay no heed; how could they? ‘Go not to the Tower. Danger lurks therein’ Jane is warned by a mysterious old woman when she enters London (Ainsworth, The Tower of London, 413). As the Tower of London itself is a perfect gothic castle (complete with moat, secret passages, dungeons, forgotten prisoners, torture chambers, ghosts headsmen and sadistic jailers) – and the rise of Bloody Mary such a horrible history – Ainsworth needs little recourse to the supernatural in The Tower of London. In Guy Fawkes, however, the author represents prophecy as a much more necromantic act, and the deterministic universe of this text reveals Fawkes’s destiny through a series of spectacular supernatural signs and portents. Rather than playing on Catholic superstition as the eighteenth century gothic novelists had done (although the faith of the central characters must imply an element of this), Ainsworth presents the supernatural as an obvious companion to Christian belief, as he had done in his earliest short fiction. This can be seen in the vision of Saint Winifred in Chapter XII, for example. Such innocence also reflects an increasing nostalgia for a pre-Enlightenment past over an increasingly rationalist and secular present, when science, religion and magic were still epistemologically linked. This is achieved by the inclusion of the character of Dr John Dee: astrologer to Elizabeth I, teacher of Philip Sidney, mathematician, Cabalist, alchemist and, conveniently for Ainsworth, Warden of the Collegiate Church, Manchester between 1596 and 1604 (when he was accused, but not convicted, of witchcraft). The fluidity of the knowledge of the alchemist appealed to Ainsworth, and he used the character again in the unfinished gothic immortal story Auriol in 1844. This is another example of Ainsworth’s oppositional relationship with Scott, who presents alchemists, such as Herman Dousterswivel in The Antiquary and Alasco in Kenilworth, as either charlatans or under the ‘general control of superstition,’ ‘professors of this pretended science,’ and, ‘a species of dupe to his own imagination’ (Scott: 1838, 15).

Dee and his associate, Edward Kelley, are introduced in the opening, Manchester section of the novel. His principal scene is a quintessential example of Ainsworth’s black art, illustrating how effortlessly and effectively he can make the gothic gesture. Much like the opening scene of Rookwood, the action takes place in a charnel house:

The chamber in which Guy Fawkes found himself was in perfect keeping with the horrible ceremonial about to be performed. In one corner lay a mouldering heap of skulls, bones, and other fragments of mortality; in the other a pile of broken coffins, emptied of their tenants, and reared on end. But what chiefly attracted his attention, was a ghastly collection of human limbs, blackened with pitch, girded round with iron hoops, and hung, like meat in a shambles, against the wall. There were two heads, and, though the features were scarcely distinguishable, owing to the liquid in which they had been immersed, they still retained a terrific expression of agony. Seeing his attention directed to the revolting objects, Kelley informed him they were the quarters of the two priests who had recently been put to death, which had been left there previously to being placed on the church-gates (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 53).

Once more, we are reminded of the terrible laws against Catholics. It is Dee’s role to provide the early prognostications of Fawkes’s doom, which he does with the aid of a magic glass and, most memorably, the reanimated corpse of the prophetess, Elizabeth Orton:

There was a rushing sound, and a stream of dazzling lightning shot down upon the corpse, which emitted a hollow groan. In obedience to the Doctor’s commands, Guy Fawkes had prostrated himself on the ground: but he kept his gaze steadily fixed on the body, which, to his infinite astonishment, slowly arose, until it stood erect upon the frame. There it remained perfectly motionless, with the arms close to the sides, and the habiliments torn and dishevelled. The blue light still retained its position upon the brow, and communicated a horrible glimmer to the features. The spectacle was so dreadful that Guy Fawkes would fain have averted his eyes, but he was unable to do so. Doctor Dee and his companion, meanwhile, continued their invocations, until, as it seemed to Fawkes, the lips of the corpse moved, and an awful voice exclaimed, ‘Why have you called me?’

‘Daughter!’ replied Doctor Dee, rising, ‘in life thou wert endowed with the gift of prophecy. In the grave, that which is to come must be revealed to thee. We would question thee.’

‘Speak, and I will answer’, replied the corpse.

‘Interrogate her, my son’, said Dee, addressing Fawkes, ‘and be brief, for the time is short. So long only as that flame burns have I power over her.’

‘Spirit of Elizabeth Orton’, cried Fawkes, ‘if indeed thou standest before me, and some demon hath not entered thy frame to delude me, – by all that is holy, and by every blessed saint, I adjure thee to tell me whether the scheme on which I am now engaged for the advantage of the Catholic Church will prosper?’

‘Thou art mistaken, Guy Fawkes’, returned the corpse. ‘Thy scheme is not for the advantage of the Catholic Church.’

‘I will not pause to inquire wherefore’, continued Fawkes. ‘But, grant that the means are violent and wrongful, will the end be successful?’

‘The end will be death’, replied the corpse.

‘To the tyrant – to the oppressors?’ demanded Fawkes.

‘To the conspirators’, was the answer.

‘Ha!’ ejaculated Fawkes.

‘Proceed, if you have ought more to ask’, cried Doctor Dee. ‘The flame is expiring.’

‘Shall we restore the fallen religion?’ demanded Fawkes.

But before the words could be pronounced the light vanished, and a heavy sound was heard, as of the body falling on the frame.

‘It is over’, said Doctor Dee (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 54-55).

Fawkes thus knows his fate throughout the novel. There are numerous other omens, including an ecstatic vision during the pilgrimage to the Catholic shrine of Saint Winifred’s well (a warning from heaven as well as hell), at which Saint Winifred appears to Fawkes and tells him his plot will fail, being ‘not approved by Heaven’ (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 84).

The Orton episode is based in part upon a passage in Dee’s own memoir, Relations with Spirits, a copy of which Ainsworth owned along with several other rare books and manuscripts on the occult, and of which he did not believe a word, judging by his parody of nineteenth century Rosicrucian dreamers such as Lytton in his semi-autobiography Mervyn Clitheroe in 1851. Nonetheless, inserting such fantastic events into the nation’s history seems still to betray an innocent sense of longing for myth and magic in the face of an increasingly regimented present, while also joining English history to the gothic tradition. In Guy Fawkes, prophecy therefore performs a dual role as a code for both tragedy and the gothic.

It should also be noted that although Elizabeth-as-Cassandra is precise regarding the failure of the plot, she is ambivalent on the possibility of the restoration of the ‘Old Religion.’ This would be an inflammatory issue in 1840, when anti-Catholic feeling was still running high in the wake of recent and contentious legislation: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and Catholic emancipation.

Cruikshank, Guy Fawkes
‘Guy Fawkes laying the train’ by George Cruikshank. Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes (1841).

The Test Acts had excluded nonconformists from civil and military office. Office holders were required to receive the Anglican communion and swear allegiance to the crown, affirm the monarch’s supremacy as head of the Church of England, and repudiate the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The earlier Corporation Act was one of a series of parliamentary measures passed between 1661 and 1665 known collectively as the ‘Clarendon Code’ after the King’s chief minister, Edward Hyde, 1st earl of Clarendon. These acts were designed to re-establish the position of the Anglican Church following the Restoration. The Corporation Act excluded from municipal office anyone refusing to take communion in the Church of England, to swear the oaths of allegiance, supremacy and non-resistance, and to reject the Solemn League of the Covenant (an agreement between the covenanters and the Long Parliament in 1643 in order to secure Scottish military aid against Charles I during the Civil War). Despite the obvious problems associated with imposing religious tests upon candidates for secular office, the Acts were not repealed until 1828. Catholic emancipation, the achievement of full civil and political rights, was delayed until 1828 due to the resistance of George III and the Tories. Only when Irish Nationalist Daniel O’Connell was elected to represent County Clare that year did Wellington and George IV concede to the principle of full Catholic emancipation for fear of serious civil disturbances in Ireland. This became law in 1829.

Under such a yoke of determinism, the passivity of Ainsworth’s protagonists is as inevitable as their fate. As his central characters have no practical agency, the author therefore attempts to explore the spiritual dimension of precognition of one’s own death. This is a heightened sense of the intellectual state in which all humanity shares, as well as a theme already explored by the author for more gothic purposes in stories such as ‘The Half-Hangit’ and, most significantly, a Christian allegory. In ‘The Half-Hangit,’ death is an object of horror; ‘The Spectre Bride’ offers the worst prospect of eternal damnation; Dick Turpin’s execution is presented as a glorious, samurai death; and Jack Sheppard’s, although the complex symbolism of the triple tree is flirted with by the author, remains a final act of heroism rather than martyrdom. The twin histories, however, are much more self-conscious religious fables where, remarkably, Catholicism and Protestantism are accorded equal respect.

Vivianna is equally interesting in this context, and just as equally doomed. Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’ (Poe: 1984, 19), and this connection between femininity, art and death is similarly present in much of Ainsworth’s writing in a line that can be traced directly back to his early short story ‘The Spectre Bride.’ His principal tragic heroines, the Protestant Lady Jane and the Catholic Viviana Radcliffe, thus conform to a bourgeois aesthetic of virtuous femininity. They are therefore almost totally submissive to patriarchal authority in the form of their fathers, their husbands and their gods, before being eventually sacrificed upon the altar of history. This is the complete opposite of the independent, sexually aggressive and godless women of Jack Sheppard (who survive their narratives), and may be ascribed either to Ainsworth’s return to the Victorian fold or to an inevitable consequence of the tragic role. Both Lady Jane and Viviana are the victims of the political machinations of their husbands and fathers. Their dilemma is that they know, even if the men choose to ignore all the obvious signs, that they are doomed, but that they cannot break their marriage vows. Viviana constantly argues against the Gunpowder Plot, for example, and certainly knows enough to stop it, but the inevitable process of Ainsworth’s vision of history again renders her powerless:

‘I deny that the oath you have taken is binding. The deed you have sworn to do is evil, and no vow, however solemnly pronounced, can compel you to commit crime. Avoid this sin – avoid further connexion with those who would work your undoing, and do not stain your soul with guilt from which it will never be cleansed.’

‘You seek in vain to move me’, replied Guy Fawkes firmly, ‘My purpose is unalterable … Oppression can go no further; nor endurance hold out longer. If this blow be not struck we shall have no longer a religion. And how comes it, Viviana, that you, a zealous Catholic, whose father perished by these very oppressors, and who are yourself in danger from them, can seek to turn me from my purpose?’

‘Because I know it is wrongful’, she replied. ‘I have no desire to avenge the death of my slaughtered father, still less to see our religion furthered by the dreadful means you propose. In his own due season, the Lord will redress our wrongs.’

‘The Lord has appointed me one of the ministers of his vengeance’, cried Fawkes, in a tone of enthusiasm.

‘Do not deceived yourself’, returned Viviana, ‘it is not by Heaven, but by the powers of darkness, that you are incited to this deed. Do not persevere in this fatal course’, she continued, clasping her hands together, and gazing imploringly at his face, ‘do not – do not!’

Guy Fawkes continued in the same attitude as before, with his gaze turned upwards, and apparently lost in thought (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 141).

Viviana therefore represents the Catholic majority, who would never countenance violence, whatever the ends. She is the conscience of the text, offering a counter argument to armed insurrection. In his preface, the author explains what each of the central characters is intended to represent: Viviana’s role is ‘To portray the loyal and devout Catholic, such as I conceive the character to have existed at the period’; Catesby is the ‘unscrupulous and ambitious plotter, masking his designs under the cloak of religion’; Garnet is the ‘subtle, and yet sincere Jesuit’; and Fawkes the ‘gloomy and superstitious enthusiast’ (Ainsworth, preface, Guy Fawkes). The devout extravagance meant by the term ‘enthusiast’ would suggest a dissenting religion to an early Victorian audience (in balance, it is also applied to the Protestant ‘Hot Gospeller’ Edward Underhill in The Tower of London, a fictional creation who attempts to assassinate Mary and is burnt at the stake on Tower Hill). Radcliffe castigates such ‘enthusiasm’ in The Mysteries of Udolpho, and ‘dissent’ here implies a material rather than a spiritual attitude, and therefore renders Fawkes as another of Ainsworth’s outlaws. Viviana remains loyal to the end, however, rejecting the man she really loves (the bizarrely fictionalised founding father of Elizabethan Manchester, Humphrey Chetham) because of her religious conviction.

V for Vendetta poster
Advanced promo poster for V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue and written by The Wachowski Brothers (now sisters), 2006.

Given the revival of the latent anti-Catholicism of the English, awakened after the Emancipation Act of 1829, the Whig government’s concessions to the Irish Catholics throughout the 1830s and the attendant flood of Irish immigrants to the major cities, the preface to Guy Fawkes is nothing short of astounding:

The tyrannical measures adopted against the Roman Catholics in the early part of the reign of James the First, when the severe penal enactments against recusants were revived, and with additional rigour, and which led to the remarkable conspiracy about to be related, have been so forcibly and faithfully described by Doctor Lingard, that the following extract from his history will form a fitting introduction to the present work.

‘The oppressive and sanguinary code framed in the reign of Elizabeth, was re-enacted to its full extent, and even improved with additional severities The execution of the penal laws enabled the king, by an ingenious comment, to derive considerable profit from his past forbearance. It was pretended that he had never forgiven the penalties of recusancy; he had merely forbidden them to be exacted for a time, in the hope that this indulgence would lead to conformity; but his expectations had been deceived; the obstinacy of the Catholics had grown with the lenity of the sovereign; and, as they were unworthy of further favour, they should now be left to the severity of the law. To their dismay, the legal fine of twenty pounds per lunar month was again demanded, and not only for the time to come, but for the whole period of the suspension; a demand which, by crowding thirteen payments into one, reduced many families of moderate incomes to a state of absolute beggary. Nor was this all. James was surrounded by numbers of his indigent countrymen. Their habits were expensive, their wants many, and their importunities incessant. To satisfy the more clamorous, a new expedient was devised. The king transferred to them his claims on some of the more opulent recusants, against whom they were at liberty to proceed by law, in his name, unless the sufferers should submit to compound, by the grant of an annuity for life, or the immediate payment of a considerable sum. This was at a time when the jealousies between the two nations had reached a height, of which, at the present day, we have but little conception. Had the money been carried to the royal coffers, the recusants would have had sufficient reason to complain; but that Englishmen should be placed by their king at the mercy of foreigners, that they should be stripped of their property to support the extravagance of his Scottish minions, this added indignity to injustice, exacerbated their already wounded feelings, and goaded the most moderate almost to desperation’ (3).

From this deplorable state of things, which is by no means over-coloured in the above description, sprang the Gunpowder Plot (Ainsworth, preface, Guy Fawkes).

John Lingard (1771-1851) was a Catholic Priest as well as a historian, and spent most of his life in Ainsworth’s native Lancashire. His History was highly regarded in contemporary scholarly circles due to its author’s apparent impartiality, in particular his balanced presentation of the Reformation, and his meticulous use of original documents. He was also the author of The Antiquaries of the Anglo-Saxon Church (1806) and A New Version of the Four Gospels (1836). Although a priest, Lingard the historian had a reputation for intellectual objectivity. Now, like Ainsworth, largely forgotten, Lingard’s version of British history had even rivalled David Hume’s History of England in his own day. This was praise indeed from the intellectual establishment, as Hume’s History was long believed to have overcome the partisan politics that so often prejudiced the discipline of history (4).

As the historian John Kenyon has discovered, however, Lingard was nothing of the sort. Lingard’s mission had been to write a history which would not offend Protestant tastes while correcting what he saw as the anti-Catholic bias of previous accounts. His method was wonderfully subversive, if rather an affront to academia. He would initially go along with conventional Protestant prejudice, and then rewrite his accounts extensively in subsequent editions to favour the Catholic cause. Kenyon has found the following letter from Lingard, written in 1847 and warning a friend not to bother with his first edition:

I had then to acquire credit among Protestants, and was therefore extremely cautious – and I believe in that respect successful, for I was held by many to be a moderate, perhaps impartial writer; this made me bolder in the duodecimo edition (qtd. in Kenyon: 1983, 86).

Whether Ainsworth, a good historical scholar in his own right, had spotted this tactic or not, in interpreting Lingard’s research to mean that the Catholic population were the principal victims of Early Modern England (admittedly a difficult assertion to dispute, except under the reign of Mary I), and therefore suggesting that the Gunpowder Plot was an act of justified desperation rather than Jesuit-funded terrorism, Ainsworth was taking a potentially greater risk than he ever did in Jack Sheppard. As Mark Nicholls notes, the national standard was more usually that:

[T]he most vehement criticism of Catholics and Catholicism has come during periods when the critics feared, often with good reason, that the authorities were inclined to treat Catholics leniently. We see this in 1678-80 with the Popish plot, and as late as the 1850’s when the final stages in Catholic emancipation were marked by a resurgence of religious xenophobia in traditional bonfire night celebrations throughout the land (Nicholls: 1991, 47).

It is therefore surprising that literary historian Nicholas Rance has confidently described Ainsworth as ‘patriotic and anti-Catholic’ (Rance: 1975, 41). In his own day, Ainsworth seems to have had to field the opposite accusation because, like Scott, he often displayed a romantic affection for the Jacobites, leading his Edwardian biographer, S.M. Ellis, to include the following disclaimer in his book William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends:

Probably it was the author’s high praise of the Penderals, [Boscobel, 1872] and other Roman Catholic families who aided Charles II, which originated the prevalent belief that Ainsworth was himself a member of the Old Faith: it may be well to state here that such was not the cause; he lived and died a member of the Church of England (Ellis: 1911, II, 280).

Even in 1911, we can still see the stigma attached to Catholicism in England. Professor Rance’s comment, meanwhile, is a characteristic misreading of the companion novel to Guy Fawkes, The Tower of London, considered in isolation as a condemnation of Mary I rather than as the Protestant half of a balanced pair. Taken together, the twin-born romances justify the author’s claim that ‘One doctrine I have endeavoured to enforce throughout – TOLERATION.’ This plea for tolerance is also linked to the painful experience of the Jack Sheppard controversy, and Ainsworth concludes his loaded preface with:

From those who have wilfully misinterpreted one of my former productions, and have attributed to it a purpose and an aim utterly foreign to my own intentions, I can scarcely expect fairer treatment for the present work. But to that wider and more discriminating class of readers from whom I have experienced so much favour and support, I confidently commit this volume, certain of meeting with leniency and impartiality (Ainsworth, preface, Guy Fawkes).

This dedication to his public betrays his increasing isolation from the literary elite and, also, his growing annoyance with them. His confidence in his audience was well founded, however; Guy Fawkes proved to be extremely popular and The Tower of London the most successful novel of his career.

Rather than being portrayed then as a religious fanatic, Fawkes the tragic hero is a soldier: a brave and pious man who believes in his political actions; ‘My part is to act, not talk,’ he tells a confederate at Radcliffe Hall (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 91). (The original Guy Fawkes had ten years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands against the Dutch Revolt, which is why Catesby put him in charge of the explosives.) His hubris is complicated, because he has sworn a binding oath which he cannot break, despite the warnings of Elizabeth Orton and Saint Winifred, and recalling Jack Sheppard’s unbreakable covenant with Jonathan Wild in Ainsworth’s previous novel: ‘You shall swear by the Blessed Trinity, and by the sacrament you propose to receive, never to disclose, directly nor indirectly, by word or circumstance, the matter that shall be proposed to you to keep secret, nor desist from the execution thereof, until the rest shall give you leave.’ When Fawkes tells Father Garnet of his vision at the well, the Jesuit sternly reminds him immediately that, ‘You cannot desist, my son. Your oath binds you to the project.’ Fawkes agrees, but replies that, ‘I am well assured it will not be successful’ (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 84).

Knowing he is doomed to failure, torture and violent death (as do we), Fawkes’s real battle is not against the State, or even Fate, but with himself. His spiritual dilemma is almost Christ-like, and he must struggle internally to reject the worldly (his life, and his love for the beautiful and virtuous Viviana) and accept his fate as a religious martyr. The story of Christ also contains all the essential elements of tragedy: his death was foretold and inevitable, he knew his life was not his own and resisted the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, but his friendship with Mary Magdalene and his cry of agony and despair on the cross in the ninth hour reveal his basic humanity. Fawkes’s material conflict is fundamentally similar:

‘Why should I hesitate to declare my feelings? Why should I not tell you that – though blinded to it for so long – I have discovered that I do love you? Why should I hesitate to tell you that I regret this, and lament that we ever met?’

‘What mean you?’ cried Viviana, with a terrified look.

‘I will tell you’, replied Fawkes. ‘Till I saw you, my thoughts were removed from earth, and fixed on one object. Till I saw you, I asked not to live, but to die the death of a martyr.’

‘Die so still’, rejoined Viviana. ‘Forget me – oh! forget me.’

‘I cannot’, replied Fawkes, ‘I have striven against it. But your image is perpetually before me. Nay, at this very moment, when I am about to set out on the enterprise, you alone detain me.’

‘I am glad of it’, exclaimed Viviana, fervently. ‘Oh that I could prevent you – could save you!’

‘Save me!’ echoed Fawkes, bitterly. ‘You destroy me.’

‘How?’ she asked.

‘Because I am sworn to this project’, he rejoined; ‘and if I were turned from it, I would perish by my own hand.’

‘Oh say not so’, replied Viviana, ‘but listen to me. Abandon it, and I will devote myself to you.’

Guy Fawkes gazed at her for a moment passionately, and then, covering his face with his hands, appeared torn by conflicting emotions.

Viviana approached him, and pressing his arm, asked in an entreating voice, ‘Are you still determined to pursue your dreadful project?’

‘I am’, replied Fawkes, uncovering his face, and gazing at her; ‘but, if I remain here a moment longer, I shall not be able to do so.’

‘I will detain you, then’, she rejoined, ‘and exercise the power I possess over you for your benefit.’

‘No!’ he replied, vehemently. ‘It must not be. Farewell, for ever!’

And breaking from her, he rushed out of the room.

As he gained the passage, he encountered Catesby, who looked abashed at seeing him.

‘I have overheard what has passed’, said the latter, ‘and applaud your resolution. Few men, similarly circumstanced, would have acted as you have done.’

You would not’, said Fawkes, coldly.

‘Perhaps not’, rejoined Catesby. ‘But that does not lessen my admiration of your conduct.’

‘I am devoted to one object’, replied Fawkes, ‘and nothing shall turn me from it.’

‘Remove yourself instantly from temptation, then’, replied Catesby. ‘I will meet you at the cellar beneath the Parliament House to-morrow night’ (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 226-7).

The crisis faced and decided, rather than actually resolved, Guy Fawkes rides off to meet his destiny. The following section of the narrative, the second book, is a well-researched presentation of the failed bombing of Parliament (with still a little romance mixed up with it).

Crispijn van de Passe
Engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators by Crispijn van de Passe, 1605.

In English history, the Gunpowder Plot is as mysterious as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. There are theories ranging from the conspirators as independent fanatics, as members of an international Jesuit plot and even as agents provocateurs working for Robert Cecil (Earl of Salisbury and principal secretary to James I), in order to manipulate public opinion against the Catholics and in favour of the new, and less than universally popular, king, and who went to their deaths confident of a last-minute reprieve. What is certain is the damage the conspiracy did to the Catholic cause in England and the political advancement of Cecil on account of his role in the discovery and the subsequent show trials. Much of the mystery revolves around the identity of the author of the famous letter to Lord Mounteagle, which cryptically warned him to find some excuse to avoid Parliament and alerted the new Stuart administration to the imminent danger. The Houses of Parliament were then thoroughly searched, the mine found, and guards almost casually placed to await the bombers. Fawkes was caught when he arrived to fire the train. The Government had known of the plot for a full week because of this letter. Lingard admitted that all he could do as a historian was either, ‘enumerate the different conjectures,’ or ‘relate what seems, from Greenway’s manuscript, to have been the opinion of the conspirators themselves,’ this possible informer therefore being Francis Tresham, a Catholic landowner on the periphery of the plot (Lingard: 1830. VII, 32) (5). As Antonia Fraser has written in her history of the plot: ‘Candidates for its authorship have included almost all the main players in the drama’ (Fraser: 1995, 151).

Ainsworth attributes the letter to Mounteagle himself, which is as reasonable as any other of the theories. In this version, Mounteagle, who was a moderate Catholic, is aware of the conspiracy, disapproves of it because of the injury it would do to his Church, but must warn the king without implicating himself as an accessory after the fact. Where the evidence exists, such as the records of the imprisonment of the conspirators, the surviving transcripts of their examinations and accounts of their executions, Ainsworth remains very faithful to the original documentation. Although critics are often scathing of this author, Guy Fawkes Book the Second is a reasonable history lesson.

Ultimately captured, Fawkes undertakes his final, spiritual journey. Characteristically, he begins his captivity like a soldier, and with a wonderful bravado justifies his actions to the King:

‘Dangerous diseases require desperate remedies. My sole regret is that I have failed. My main purpose was to blow back the beggarly Scots to their native mountains’, returned Fawkes.

‘This audacity surpasses belief’, said James. ‘Mutius Scævola, when in the presence of Porsenna [sic], was not more resolute. Hark ’e, villain, if I give you your life, will you disclose the names of your associates?’

‘No’, replied Fawkes (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 260).

This extraordinary meeting really did take place and the ‘examination’ was duly recorded. Ainsworth’s dialogue is by all accounts accurate. Mucius Scaevola was a legendary hero of ancient Rome who attempted to assassinate the Etruscan leader, Lars Porsena. Captured and brought before his enemy, Scaevola held his hand over an open fire until it burnt away to show that he would never break under torture. Porsena was so impressed that he released Scaevola and made peace with Rome. Unlike Mucius Scaevola however, Fawkes was immediately put to the torture. The author resists the temptation to make these scenes sensationally graphic, and instead makes the process a redemptive one for his protagonist, again reminding us of Christ’s suffering on the cross. Now in the Tower and without hope, Fawkes’s situation parallels that of Lady Jane Grey in The Tower of London; the episodes depicting their despair, the temptations offered by their captors (Fawkes must name his fellow conspirators, Jane must renounce her faith), and their eventual spiritual equanimity and redemption being originally published concurrently.

As his central characters are the doomed heroes of a tragedy, the only positive closure that the author has to offer his audience is the salvation of his heroes’ souls. Fawkes is in Purgatory because he pursued the plotter’s path despite repeated warnings from heaven. Viviana surrenders herself in order to see her husband, and to make him face his mortal error, but it is only his political conviction that has enabled him to endure as long as he has:

‘I came here to urge your repentance. Oh! if you hope that we shall meet again hereafter – if you hope that we shall inherit joys which will requite us for all our troubles, you will employ the brief time left you on earth in imploring forgiveness for your evil intentions.’

‘Having had no evil intentions’, replied Fawkes, coldly, ‘I have no pardon to ask.’

‘The Tempter who led you into the commission of sin under the semblance of righteousness, put these thoughts into your heart’, replied Viviana. ‘You have escaped the commission of an offence which must have deprived you of the joys of heaven, and I am thankful for it. But if you remain impenitent, I shall tremble for your salvation.’

‘My account will soon be settled with my Maker’, rejoined Fawkes; ‘and he will punish or reward me according to my deserts. I have acted according to my conscience, and can never repent that which I believe to be a righteous design.’

‘But do you not see you were mistaken’, returned Viviana, – ‘do you not perceive that the sword which you raised against others has been turned against yourself, – and that the Great Power whom you serve and worship has declared himself against you?’

‘You seek in vain to move me’, replied Fawkes. ‘I am as insensible to your arguments as to the tortures of my enemies.’

‘Then Heaven have mercy upon your soul!’ she rejoined.

‘Look at me, Viviana’, cried Fawkes, ‘and behold the wreck I am. What has supported me amid my tortures – in this dungeon – in the presence of my relentless foes? – what, but the conscience of having acted rightly? And what will support me on the scaffold except the same conviction?’ (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 335).

Both characters are here also approaching an embodiment of the nineteenth century moral design: they are tortured, their faith tested and they must die before their implicit resurrection to the life eternal. As John Reed argues: ‘Victorian readers, accustomed to consider earthly existence as probation for eternity, did not find affirmations of the redemptive effects of suffering unusual in their literature’ (Reed: 1975, 8).

Fawkes, a national pariah, burnt in effigy for centuries, is therefore finally allowed salvation when he repents by Viviana’s deathbed:

‘I am now standing on the brink of eternity’, she said in a solemn tone, ‘and I entreat you earnestly, as you hope to ensure our meeting hereafter, to employ the few days left you in sincere and hearty repentance. You have sinned – sinned deeply, but not beyond the power of redemption. Let me feel that I have saved you, and my last moments will be happy. Oh! by the love I have borne you – by the pangs I have endured for you – by the death I am now dying for you – let me implore you not to lose one moment, but to supplicate a merciful Providence to pardon your offence.’

‘I will – I will’, rejoined Fawkes in broken accents. ‘You have opened my eyes to my error, and I sincerely repent it.’

‘Saved!’ cried Viviana, raising herself in the bed. Opening her arms, she strained him to her bosom; and for a few moments they mingled their tears together (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 346-7).

Viviana then expires, while Fawkes prays beside her. He is to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Because of his repentance however, the author explains, ‘Guy Fawkes’s tranquillity of mind did not desert him to the last. On the contrary, as his term of life drew near its close, he became more cheerful and resigned.’ Finally:

As the hangman adjusted the rope, he observed a singular smile illumine the features of his victim.

‘You seem happy’, he said.

‘I am so’, replied Fawkes, earnestly, – ‘I see the form of her I loved beckoning me to unfading happiness.’

With this, he stretched out his arms and sprang from the ladder. Before his frame was exposed to the executioner’s knife, life was totally extinct. (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 354) (6).

Cruikshank, Guy Fawkes
‘Execution of Guy Fawkes’ by George Cruikshank. Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes (1841).

Like Jack Sheppard (who was, according to Ainsworth’s version, killed by a stray bullet during the riot at his execution before he endured the trauma of slow strangulation), Fawkes has an easy death and achieves a rather unusual version of eternal salvation in the arms of Viviana, reflecting popular Victorian fantasies of the domestic as much as religious conviction.

In The Tower of London, the character of Lady Jane Grey assumes a similar spiritual trajectory, although from the opposite theological direction. She is Fawkes’s Protestant double, and the twin texts are therefore in symmetry: ‘My lord, I have lived in the Protestant faith, and in that faith I will die. In these sad times, when the power of your Church is in the ascendant, it is perhaps needful there should be martyrs in ours to prove our sincerity’ (Ainsworth, The Tower of London, 181). As Fawkes is to be a Catholic martyr, Jane is to be a Protestant one. After imprisonment and initial despair, she gains strength from her faith and refuses to recant to save herself or her husband and, rather like Viviana, becomes beautiful and serene through her suffering, supplications and eventual acceptance of her fate:

Entertaining no hopes of mercy, Jane’s whole time was passed in preparation for her end. Except the few hours of refreshment actually required by nature, every moment was devoted to the most intense application, or to fervent prayer. By degrees, all trace of sorrow vanished from her features, and they assumed a spiritualised and almost angelic expression. Lovely as she was before, she looked far more lovely now – or rather her beauty was of a more refined and exalted character. She was frequently visited by the queen’s confessor, Feckenham, who used every effort to induce her to renounce her religion – but in vain. When told that the sure way to Her Majesty’s favour would be to embrace the faith of Rome – she replied that, anxious as she was to obtain the queen’s forgiveness, she could not purchase it at the price of her salvation, and that the only favour she desired was to pass the brief residue of her days unmolested (Ainsworth, The Tower of London, 174) (7).

While, like Fawkes, she becomes actively cheerful as she finally rejects the worldly altogether and faces her own death:

No longer agitated by the affairs of the world, she could suffer with patience, and devote herself wholly to God. And thus she passed her time, in the strictest self-examination, fixing her thoughts above, and withdrawing them as much as possible from earth. The effect was speedily manifest in her altered looks and demeanour. When first brought to the Martin Tower, she was downcast and despairing. Ere three days had passed, she became calm and almost cheerful, and her features resumed their wonted serene and seraphic expression (Ainsworth, The Tower of London, 388-9).

She also sees a vision of her dead spouse, as did Fawkes, waiting for her just beyond the scaffold.

Cruickshank - Tower of London
‘The execution of Jane’ by George Cruikshank. Ainsworth, The Tower of London (1840).

Where these characters differ is in the actual nature of their martyrdom. At the time of writing Guy Fawkes, the redefinition of a traditional folk devil as a Catholic martyr would have been a very dangerous thing for the author (still bloodied from the furore surrounding Jack Sheppard) and for the British government. Fawkes’s political status therefore remains ambiguous. Viviana, the reasonable Catholic, facilitated his salvation by urging him to abandon his conviction that his war was a just one; Ainsworth’s historical frame, however, seems to suggest that it was. Lady Jane’s martyrdom is, of course, beyond dispute:

‘Do not question the purpose of the Unquestionable, Angela’, replied Jane, severely. ‘I am chastened because I deserve it, and for my own good. The wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, and fortitude is given me to bear my afflictions. Nay, they are not afflictions. I would not exchange my lot – sad as it seems to you – for that of the happiest and the freest within the realm. When the bondage of earth is once broken – when the flesh has no more power over the spirit – when the gates of Heaven are open for admittance – can the world, or worldly joys, possess further charms? No. These prison walls are no restraint to me. My soul soars upwards, and holds communion with God and with His elect, among whom I hope to be numbered. The scaffold will have no terror for me. I shall mount it as the first step towards Heaven, and shall hail the stroke of the axe as the signal to my spirit to wing its flight to the throne of everlasting joy.’

‘I am rebuked, madam’, returned Angela, with a look of admiration. ‘Oh! that I might ever hope to obtain such a frame of mind.’

‘You may do so, dear Angela’, replied Jane; ‘but your lot is cast differently from mine. What is required from me is not required from you. Such strong devotional feelings have been implanted in my breast for a wise purpose, that they usurp the place of all other, and fit me for my high calling. The earnest and hearty believer in the Gospel will gladly embrace death, even if accompanied by the severest tortures, at seasons perilous to his Church, in the conviction that it will be profitable to it. Such have been the deaths of the martyrs of our religion – such shall be my death.’

‘Amen!’ exclaimed Angela, fervently (Ainsworth, The Tower of London, 393).

And thus, the historical romance, for all its peripheral humour, gothic sub-plots and antiquarian detail, is ultimately rendered as an English Morality Play which seeks to redistribute moral value in the narrative of history via the evocation of tragic martyrdom across faith.

So ended Ainsworth’s ‘twin-born romances.’ As soon as the serials concluded, Ainsworth threw an enormous celebratory dinner at the Sussex Hotel in London and promptly began the next one, Old St. Paul’s, A Tale of the Plague and the Fire, his gothic apocalypse.

And as for Guy Fawkes… well, he’s still doing his thing. Today, November 5, 2016, Anonymous has called for its supporters to come together in hundreds of major cities across the globe to participate in a ‘Million Mask March’ as part of the greatest global protest in world history, mirroring the climax of the 2006 V for Vendetta movie. In Britain, this protest is directed at the erosion of civil liberties, the creation of an Orwellian surveillance state, and the Conservative government’s disregard for migrants, the poor, the elderly and the disabled. All the protesters will be wearing the iconic Guy Fawkes mask.

Anonymous - Disobey
The Million Mask March, 2015. Photo from The Independent.

For more about W.H. Ainsworth, you could always check out my books: The Life and Works of Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805-1882 (Studies in British Literature No. 75) – a bit pricey these days, but available in most good libraries – and Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner


  1. ‘It was this work that formed the impression of the Tower in most people’s minds throughout the Victorian Age, as it did mine as a schoolboy in remote Cornwall early this century.’ A.L. Rowse, The Tower of London in the History of the Nation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972), 250.
  2. Representing the Greek capitals IHC: (H, capital eta, C, a form of sigma) being the first two and last letters of Iesous (Jesus). Often misread as Jesus Hominum Salvator, ‘Jesus Saviour of Men’. This is High Church symbolism, stressing the continuity of the Church of England with Catholicism.
  3. John Lingard, The History of England from the First Invasion of the Romans to the Accession of William and Mary, 10 vols, vol 7 (London: Charles Dolman, 1830), 19. Ainsworth’s other principal source was David Jardine’s Criminal Trials (1835-40).
  4. See John Kenyon’s excellent study, The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1983).
  5. The Greenway manuscript being a contemporary copy of the sixth examination of Fawkes and the interrogation of Francis Tresham.
  6. This scene was later appropriated by Hollywood for the execution of William Wallace in Braveheart, dir. Mel Gibson, perf. Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau and Patrick McGoohan, 20th Century Fox, 1995.
  7. In a strange passage from Guy Fawkes, Viviana is similarly beautified by her suffering and devotions during the pilgrimage to Saint Winifred’s well:

An hour before daybreak, the party again assembled in the chapel, where matins were performed; after which, the female devotees, who were clothed in snow-white woollen robes, with wide sleeves and hoods, and having large black crosses woven in front, retired for a short time, and re-appeared, with their feet bared, and hair unbound. Each had a large rosary attached to the cord that bound her waist.

Catesby thought Viviana had never appeared so lovely as in this costume; and as he gazed at her white and delicately formed feet, her small rounded ankles, her dark and abundant tresses falling in showers almost to the ground, he became more deeply enamoured than before. His passionate gaze was, however, unnoticed, as the object of it kept her eyes steadily fixed on the ground. Lady Digby, who was a most beautiful woman, scarcely appeared to less advantage; and, as she walked side by side with Viviana in the procession, the pair attracted universal admiration from all who beheld them. (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 79.)


Ainsworth, W.H. (1881). Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason. An Historical Romance. London: George Routledge and Sons. (Original work published 1841).

Belinsky, Vissarion Grigoryevich. (1956). Selected Philosophical Works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House. (Original work written between 1841 and 1848; article cited: 1844).

Carver, Stephen James. (2003). The Life & Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805 – 1882. New York: EMP.

Ellis, S.M. (1911). William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. 2 vols. London: John Lane.

Fraser, Antonia. (1995). The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605. London: Mandarin.

Friswell, J. Hain. (1870). Modern Men of Letters, Honestly Criticised. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Horne, R. H. (1844). A New Spirit of the Age. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder and Co.

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