Unfortunately, The Gunpowder Plot is yet another textbook case of a cultural phenomenon being misinterpreted as a social statement piece. I’d imagine a casual remark to November 5th would be something along the lines of “Bonfires! Those cool looking masks from V for Vendetta! Rise up against the machine man!” In reality, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th represent far more than a goatee and a few anarchical tendencies, so here’s the full story.
Guy Fawkes, or Guido Fawkes as he is also know, was born in 1570 to a family which regularly attended the Church of England, yet had strong Catholic history. In 1591, after selling his father’s estate, Fawkes fought for a very Catholic Spain, a country which had lost its armada to England only five years prior, in the Eighty Years War. Fawkes soon rose in ranks and became a junior officer, later travelling through Spain to recruit supporters for a Catholic rebellion in England, with little success.
In 1604, Fawkes joined a group of thirteen pro-Catholic conspirators in England seeking to rid the throne of King James, a prominent protestant. Meeting in an inn in London’s Strand, the group devised a plan to use gunpowder to blow up the House of Parliament. Urban legend dictates that the original plan was to dig a tunnel beneath the House of Lords, but this was never proven. Instead, Fawkes and his fellow conspirators leased a room in an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, filling it with 20 barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes’ task was simply to light the fuse, then escape to mainland Europe.
|Fawkes with some fellow Gunpowder Plot conspirators.|
However, in an attempt to protect Catholics in parliament, the group sent an anonymous letter to Catholic-friendly Lord Monteagle, warning him to keep away. Monteagle showed this letter to King James, who ordered a search of the cellars below the House of Lords, where Fawkes was discovered, holding nothing but a match and a watch.
Fawkes was detained and tortured (on the rack) extensively, eventually revealing details of the Gunpowder Plot and admitting he had wished to blow up the House of Lords. The trial of Guy Fawkes and eight other conspirators took place in early 1606. All were found guilty and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and otherwise mutilated. During the day of execution on 31st January, 1606, Fawkes was the last to be hanged. However, Fawkes jumped from the gallows, breaking his neck and avoiding the pain of the process of his execution.
In celebration of King James’ narrowly escaped assassination, Londoners began a tradition of lighting bonfires with effigies of prominent Catholic figures or Fawkes himself. The tradition quickly evolved into Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night, and continues today far outside of London.
Several notable rhymes concerning the Gunpowder Plot exist, most notably this one:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.Guy Fawkes,
Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!
Although only part of the Gunpowder plot, Guy Fawkes became its figurehead. Anywhere from T.S. Eliot to Harry Potter, Fawkes has left his mark. He most notably appears in David Lloyd’s 1982 graphic novel, V for Vendetta, in which the main character, V, seeks to represent the anti-establishment mentality of Fawkes, and imitates both his appearance and plot. Fawkes surged again in popularity following the 2006 release of the cinematic rendition of V for Vendetta. Both the graphic novel and subsequent film consisted of a rebellion against a dystopian society (rather than Fawkes actual mission, which was far more along the lines of religious extremism), turning Guy Fawkes into an image of fighting against tyranny and giving him what can only be described as a cult following.
|The mask as it appears in V for Vendetta.|
Thus, the Guy Fawkes image used in V for Vendetta became a staple of numerous protest movements and organizations, most recently OccupyWall Street and the hacking group Anonymous. In fact, it is so widely used that it is the top selling mask on the internet. Ironically, Time Warner profits from every one of these masks sold due to copyright claims stemming from V for Vendetta.
|Occupy Wall Street has been quite keen on the Fawkes mask.|
Let’s face it, the real, rather sadistic objectives of Guy Fawkes are largely masked (da dun tss) by the image propagated by V for Vendetta today. T.S. Eliot had it right in his Hollow Men; Fawkes may have not had overwhelmingly benevolent objectives, but he fought for a cause. This is the core, and seemingly sole message Fawkes transmits today. Through selective omission and the blurring of history and cinema, Fawkes somehow no longer represents religious extremism, but a fight against tyranny. And sitting around bonfires.
Condensed message here: Use the mask all you’d like, just make sure to remember [remember] Fawkes’ original intentions.