Robert Catesby Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot
Robert Catesby (1573-1605) circa 1600, one of the chief instigators of the Gunpowder Plot against James I of England, which also included Guy Fawkes. He was shot and killed while resisting arrestHulton Archive/Getty

Guy Fawkes Night. Penny for the Guy. Guy Fawkes masks as a symbol of anti-establishment protest. The name of Guy Fawkes, his goateed face and his felt cavalier hat dominate the English cultural tradition of Bonfire Night, which marks the foiling of the notorious Gunpowder Plot.

They even named 5 November after him, the day in 1605 that a band of audacious Catholic conspirators of which Fawkes was part nearly blew up parliament and killed King James I. You would think that Fawkes was the rebel leader. But he wasn't. That man, the forgotten Fawkes, was Robert Catesby.

Born in Warwickshire in 1572, Catesby came from a well-off gentry family and had a decent education. He was raised a devout Roman Catholic at a time when England was in religious turmoil. Protestants and Catholics were still warring over Henry VIII's creation of the Church of England, which displaced Catholicism and the pope.

He involved himself as a minor player in the unsuccessful 1601 Essex Rebellion against Elizabeth I and her top adviser Sir Robert Cecil, for which he was fined and imprisoned. After that, he was on the establishment's blacklist as an agitator. And they were right to suspect him, because he was masterminding an explosive and devastating terror attack on the seat of English power – blowing up parliament and the king by planting barrels of gunpowder in the tunnels underneath Westminster.

Sign of times
Guy Fawkes masks have become a symbol of anti-establishment protest in recent yearsReuters

"The really big thing for me is how the hell he came up with the idea of the Gunpowder Plot," Professor James Sharpe, a historian at the University of York and author of Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, told IBTimes UK.

"Because if you think about it, it really is quite an idea. It's breathtaking. The other point is of course that he does manage to organise this plot, which suggests two things. One is that he's a very capable guy, the other is that he must be able to inspire loyalty. In the late Elizabethan period and early years of the reign of James I, there are quite a lot of plots, most of which either fell apart or got penetrated by government spies.

"The Gunpowder Plot is remarkable in that almost to the end, the thing does stay very, very security tight. And I think that says something about Catesby. Because he is the guy at the centre, he's the main organiser, certainly in the early stages, and the fact that he can get together a body of people who are able to work with him on that sort of level I think does say something about him."

Guy Fawkes King James I
Guy Fawkes (1570-1606) is interrogated by King James I after his arrest for planning to blow up the House of LordsHulton Archive/Getty

The plot, of course, failed after a Catholic member of the House of Lords, Lord Monteagle, was tipped off by an anonymous letter to stay away from parliament on 5 November because "they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them". Monteagle alerted the authorities and Fawkes was discovered in the bowels of parliament, arrested and put on the rack where his confession was extracted.

The wobbly, tortured signature of Fawkes on his confession document is now a well-known image. After being held at the Tower of London and tried along with others involved in the plot, Fawkes was taken to be hung, drawn and quartered on 31 January, 1606. But as he climbed the ladder to the platform, Fawkes leapt in defiance and broke his neck, dying instantly and avoiding the gruesome traitor's execution that awaited him.

But what of Catesby? He had not been in London. Instead, he had been with other conspirators in the Midlands trying to rouse a rebellion of Catholic troops to descend on London in the chaotic aftermath of 5 November. But as Fawkes failed, so did he. Holed up at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, as a royalist militia led by the Sheriff of Worcester approached to arrest him and the others with him, Catesby decided to fight back rather than hand himself in. He was killed in the gunfight on 8 November, 1605. His body was later exhumed, the head cut off and taken to London, where it was displayed at parliament as a warning to others.

Guy Fawkes signature confession torture
Guido (Guy) Fawkes' signature before and after torture on the rack at the Tower of LondonHulton Archive/Getty

So why do we remember Fawkes – merely a Catholic soldier and a lieutenant of Catesby – instead of the man who conceived the Gunpowder Plot, recruited conspirators to it, and very nearly pulled the whole thing off? Sharpe thinks part of the answer lies in the fact that Fawkes was caught in the act underneath parliament, confessed and had a trial, whereas Catesby was killed very early on and never interrogated. Catesby may have been the central figure in the lead up to the plot, but after 5 November it was Fawkes who took centre stage in the drama.

"In the 17th century, insofar as we have descriptions of what goes on at Bonfire Night celebrations, Fawkes doesn't really appear very often," Sharpe said. "What you've got is from the late 17th century, what they're doing is burning effigies of the pope. This carries on. Now, the whole thing goes off the radar for most of the 18th century... and then somehow it seems to re-emerge in the 19th. So you've got the best part of a century where there's not a lot hitting the historical record. Or certainly not the easily available historical record.

"And what is interesting is at that stage, it is Fawkes who is the central figure. You have got Guy Fawkes being burned on the bonfires in the early 19th century. Now I think burning the pope is just a little bit less acceptable by then because attitudes towards Catholics have softened, and I think that at some stage in the 18th century, if they're going to burn anything in effigy it's going to be Fawkes rather than the pope.

"I think the reason we remember Fawkes rather than Catesby is Catesby did not live to make a confession and also of course it is Fawkes who was captured on the sight of the gunpowder. So that makes him instantly memorable on that level."