Questions: which attorney-general told a court that a defendant would be drawn backwards to the gallows, their heads near the ground?
They were to be ‘put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both’. Their genitals were to be cut off and burned before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become ‘prey for the fowls of the air’. And which defendant escaped most of the worst of the execution?
Answers respectively: Sir Edward Coke, celebrated this year as the champion of Magna Carta, and Guido Fawkes, sometimes called the last man to enter parliament with honest intentions.
The case invoking the AG’s rhetoric was of course the 1605 plot to assassinate the Protestant James I. It seems to have been in existence for about six months before Fawkes was found with barrels of gunpowder in cellars under the Palace of Westminster, so it is not surprising he and his co-conspirators were betrayed.
Fawkes was tortured to make him disclose the names of his fellow conspirators. Although James, who seems to have admired him, rather sportingly indicated that at first it should be light torture, when he held firm it was increased. On Fawkes’ fifth interrogation he broke, possibly on the rack. His ‘before’ and ‘after’ signatures tell a grim tale.
The trial of the eight conspirators at Westminster Hall was a foregone conclusion. Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, three days later Fawkes and three others were dragged on wattles to Old Palace Yard for their execution.
Whether he jumped or, weakened by torture, fell from the scaffold, Fawkes pre-empted castration by breaking his neck in the fall. Given today’s fashion for seeking apologies and reparations for the sins of long ago, surely the descendants of poor Fawkes deserve some recompense. There again, it could be argued he was guilty of contributory negligence.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor