Historically Speaking: Guy Fawkes Day, Then and Now
On November 5th, 1605, a man entered an undercroft below the British House of Lords at Westminster. He was there to guard a cache of 35 barrels of gunpowder, placed there by a group of conspirators united against the current Protestant monarchy of England, lead by King James I. The conspirators intended to detonate the mass of gunpowder when King James arrived to open Parliament that day, in what would be the most devastating political assassination since Julius Caesar. The whole of the Protestant government would be gutted, allowing a Catholic ruler to once again control the thrones of England, Scotland and Wales.
The man was named Guy Fawkes. A lifelong belligerent against Protestantism, Fawkes was born in 1570 in Stonegate, York as the son of recusant Catholic mother. When the protestant English were at war against the staunchly Catholic Spanish Empire, Fawkes left England and fought alongside the Spanish in the Low Countries as part of the Eighty Years War under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes, after the Protestant Dutch Republic had rebelled against the Spanish Crown.
Fawkes achieved moderate success in his military career in the Netherlands, and eventually attempted to secure support from the Spanish King Phillip III to aid a Catholic rebellion in England. However, a newly-brokered peace between Spain and England caused the Spanish monarch to be unable to offer any support for such an endeavor. Instead, Fawkes turned to other, more clandestine avenues for reclaiming the English monarchy for the Catholic Church.
Upon returning to England in 1604, Fawkes became acquainted with Thomas Wintour, a fellow Catholic and member of the group of conspirators lead by Robert Catesby that would make the now infamous attempt at extinguishing Protestant control over the once Catholic kingdom by placing the king’s daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne. As a former soldier, Fawkes was to be put in charge of guarding the gunpowder used in the plot and eventually igniting it as the King and his heir opened the forthcoming session of parliament on November 5th.
Unbeknownst to Fawkes, however, an anonymous letter was delivered to King James stating that England’s protestant establishment was to “receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.”
Using the letter’s wording as a clue, James and his advisors deduced that the attempt against his life would come in the form of a bombing. However, the king opted to wait until the night before the planned opening of Parliament to search the tunnels below in order to catch the conspirators red-handed. In the early hours of November 5th, English guards discovered Fawkes hidden below the House of Lords in front of the massive gunpowder stockpile, with a fuse in his pocket. After capture, Fawkes was executed by hanging on January 31st, 1606.
“If the gunpowder had exploded as planned, it would’ve been the terrorist bombing to end all terrorist bombings, wiping out most of the English Royal Family and the entire political establishment,” said British historian David Starkey in his award-winning documentary series, Monarchy.
In the 400 years since, this pivotal event in English history has taken on a host of new meanings to correspond with contemporary events and issues. On one hand, November 5th has become a patriotic and royalist holiday in the UK and various members of the Commonwealth, in which people celebrate the triumph and perseverance of the English crown against those who sought to overthrow it.
In the United States, and to a growing extent in the UK as well, Guy Fawkes has taken on new meaning in recent years. Following the success of Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta and it’s 2005 movie adaptation, in which the protagonist, named V, wears a version of the classic Guy Fawkes mask, used for many years as part of the Guy Fawkes Night celebrations, designed by V for Vendetta illustrator David Lloyd. This version of the mask, and in turn the figure of Fawkes himself, has become something altogether unexpected despite the would-be bomber’s origins as a supporter of the authoritarian Catholic Church: an image of protestation. Adopted by numerous groups and organizations, the mask has become as a rallying cry against perceived totalitarianism, and most famously, the face of the loosely-assembled group of hackers and political prostestors known as Anonymous, originating from the website 4chan. With Anonymous, the iconography of LLoyd’s rendering of the Guy Fawkes mask has become a familiar sight as part of the campaign of protests against the Church of Scientology in 2008 as well as the hundreds of recent protests associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way,” said Lloyd. “The book is about one man bringing down the state but the film includes a scene of a huge crowd – making a statement against a faceless corporation. The masks were useful for the Scientology protests because it prevented individuals from being recognized … We knew that V was going to be an escapee from a concentration camp where he had been subjected to medical experiments but then I had the idea that in his craziness he would decide to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes – our great historical revolutionary.”
Today, November 5th, 2012, echoes the religious fighter’s new-found fame as a lightning rod of political activism, as hundreds of protestors, donning Lloyd’s stylized version of the classic Fawkes mask, have clamored together in the streets before Westminster in protest against the UK’s perceived classism, and have also claimed to have hacked upwards of 28,000 paypal passwords as part of the day’s protests. Numerous websites, including many owned by NBC, were defaced with the words from the Guy Fawkes nursery rhyme: “Remember, Remember The Fifth of November, The Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
While the motives and message has clearly changed, the rise of Anonymous shows that it is Fawkes’ spirit of revolution, rather than intention, that makes him an enduring and polarizing figure even today. The figure of Guy Fawkes has surpassed anything that he could ever have imagined. In the words of Alan Moore’s character V: “Behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea… and ideas are bulletproof.”
Tags: historically speaking