IF he had such a thing as a grave, Guy Fawkes would probably be spinning in it now.

Four centuries ago he tried to blow up the Government - becoming, in the eyes of some, the last person to enter Parliament with honest intentions.

The York-born proto-terrorist gave his life for his cause. Caught red-handed in a gunpowder-filled cellar he was tortured before being hanged, drawn and quartered.

But yesterday an historic handshake in Westminster Hall, where Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were tried, made the entire episode look redundant.

In a ceremonial act of reconciliation the descendants of two of the leading antagonists in the plot reached out to each other in friendship.

The Duke of Northumberland, who descends from the family of conspirator Thomas Percy, clasped hands with the Marquess of Salisbury, whose ancestor was Robert Cecil, James I's chief minister.

The Duke said Percy had always been considered the black sheep of the family and the 9th Earl, Percy's cousin, had to spend 16 years in the Tower of London for being "vaguely implicated."

He said: "The future of my family at that stage hung in the balance because of this, so it is good to look back and bring historical relevance to something we do every year. The Marquess of Salisbury's family were responsible for my family's incarceration, but I don't think you can hold a grudge for 400 years."

The Marquess of Salisbury, who has sat in both the House of Commons and the Lords, said: "To me, the Gunpowder Plot marked the beginning of the dominance of parliament as the ultimate authority in this country; 400 years later parliament is dying."

Also there was Peter Knyvett, a 59-year-old from Stamford in Lincolnshire whose ancestor Sir Thomas Knyvett discovered Fawkes with the gunpowder.

"It would have wiped out half of Whitehall, not just the Houses of Parliament or Lords," he said

"Some people of a certain political persuasion - not necessarily me - have said 'oh well, it is your ancestor's fault the place wasn't blown up.'

"But I think Sir Thomas was instrumental in saving the institution of democracy."

The handshake marked the launch of a series of events around the country to recognise the 400-year anniversary of the plot and took place against a backdrop of powder barrels.

Dr Chris Pond, project director of Gunpowder Plot 400, said February 1605 was the last month the plotters were trying to dig a tunnel under the Houses of Parliament as part of their scheme.

In March the gang discovered that the cellar underneath parliament where Guy Fawkes was eventually arrested was available to rent.

An exhibition at Westminster Hall is also planned, and events will culminate in the premiere of a play about the plot at Tower Hill, London on November 5.

Fawkes, who was born in Stonegate, York, in 1570 and was christened at the nearby church of St Michael-le-Belfry, probably wouldn't have been impressed by any talk of reconciliation.

He went to St Peter's School in the city and after his father's death moved to Scotton, near Knaresborough, with his mother and her new husband.

The committed Catholic fought for the Spaniards in Flanders and France, where he ditched the name Guy in favour of Guido.

After visiting Spain, where he tried and failed to win support for an invasion of England, he returned to his own country where he was quickly drawn into the infamous plot.

Captured in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605, he had the strength to withstand hour after hour of desperate torture, probably including the manacles and the rack, before his spirit finally broke and he confessed all.

And while the rest of the nation now happily burns his effigy on bonfires every year they still refrain from such practice at St Peter's School - as the burning of old boys is frowned upon.