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Guy Fawkes' Lantern

Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying this lantern on his arrest in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament when the Gunpowder Plot was discovered in 1605.

The Gunpowder Plot was a plan to kill James I, King of England. At that time several plots were hatched in order to depose the protestant King for his intolerance towards Catholics. There were five main conspirators involved in the gunpowder plot: Robert Catesby (the leader), Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright and, of course, Guy Fawkes. Together these plotters undertook to blow up the houses of parliament on 5th November 1605. The explosion was planned to coincide with the state opening of Parliament when the King, Commons and Lords would all have been present in the Lords’ Chamber. The conspirators were able to gain access to the cellars where they accumulated gunpowder below the Houses of Parliament. The gunpowder was brought by river to Westminster under cover of darkness.

The plot was discovered after Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the state opening. A search was conducted and Guy Fawkes and his gunpowder were discovered. ‘Bonfire Night’ has been celebrated on 5th November since the time of James I when an Act of Parliament was passed to name it as a day of thanksgiving. The Act remained in force until 1859.

Guy Fawkes is often wrongly believed to have been one of the principal conspirators of the gunpowder plot. In reality he played a relatively small part in the proceedings. Assigned the task of lighting the fuses, Fawkes was discovered in the cellars below Parliament on the night of 4th November and thus his name, rather than the names of any of the other conspirators, has become synonymous with ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’. Indeed, Fawkes was not even a Catholic by birth and had only converted from Protestantism in 1593 shortly before joining the Spanish army. Fawkes was tried for high treason along with the other conspirators on 27th January 1606. He was executed by hanging, drawing and quartering on 31st January 1606.

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Guy Fawkes' Lantern (Click to enlarge)

Guy Fawkes' Lantern (AN1887.2)

An intriguing object, the lamp is made of sheet iron with a holder for a candle inside. It has a hinged door which was once fitted with a window made of horn through which the light would glow. The vent at the top would have let out the heat. This vent is attached to an inner cylinder which could be rotated in order to conceal the light, and therefore the user!

A brass plaque fixed to the lantern records that it was given to the University of Oxford by Robert Heywood, ‘formerly Proctor of the University’, on 4 April 1641. Robert Heywood had been one of the two Proctors for the University in 1639, and was a respected Lancashire landowner. His younger brother, Peter Heywood, had been a magistrate in Westminster during the reigns of James I and Charles I, and had accompanied Sir Thomas Knyvett, Keeper of Whitehall Palace, in his fateful search of the Parliament House cellars on the night of 4–5 November 1605. Peter is credited with taking the lantern from Guy Fawkes during the initial scuffle and preventing him from detonating the gunpowder, so it is very likely that he kept the lantern as a reminder of that night.

The lantern seems to have been passed to Robert Heywood sometime after an assassination attempt in 1640 left Peter mortally wounded. Robert presented the lantern to the University in 1641 and it was deposited at the Bodleian Library, which was at that time the main repository for the University’s collections (before the Ashmolean was established in 1683). The lantern was transferred from the Bodleian Library to the Ashmolean in 1887, as part of a reorganisation of the University’s collections.

The lantern is currently on display in the 'Ark to Ashmolean' gallery.

Drawing of Guy Fawkes carrying lantern

Drawing of Guy Fawkes carrying the lantern

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Arthur MacGregor, January 2012 (updated by Alison Roberts, May 2017)