The Real Guy Fawkes And The Significance Of The 5th Of November

His face is everywhere:

People protest the church of Scientology in the now famous mask.

The mask is modeled after Guy Fawkes whose face became famous the world over after the release of the Wachoski Bros. 2006 film V For Vendetta. The film is an adaptation of the graphic novel by the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd which centers on a mysterious figure named V who fights government oppression (as an anarchist in the book; as a freedom fighter in the film) while wearing the Fawkes mask.

Neither medium delves deeply into the story of real-life figure Guy Fawkes other than noting the rhyme associated with his exploits:

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

The following issue then arises: what are we supposed to remember and why should it never be forgot? The answer lies within the life and exploits of Guy Fawkes.

Guido "Guy" Fawkes

Guido “Guy” Fawkes was born to Edward Fawkes and Edith Blake on April 13th, 1570 in Stonegate, Yorkshire, England. The Elizabethan Age, also referred to as the golden age of England, was nearing its midpoint and the battles between Catholics and Protestants temporarily subsided though The Wars of Religion continued throughout Europe. The Fawkes’ were Protestants but Guy later converted to Catholicism.

Fawkes studied at the Free School of St. Peters, an extension of St. Peter’s School, where he befriended his future conspirators John and Christopher Wright. It’s possible he married in 1590. He inherited his father’s estate in 1591 (the elder Fawkes passed away in 1578) and left England for Flanders in either 1593 or 1594.

He enlisted in the Spanish Army while there under the leadership of Archduke Albert of Austria to fight against the Protestants during The Eighty Years War. It was here that Fawkes learned and became an expert in munitions and, more importantly, explosives.

He left the service on February 13th, 1603 and traveled to Spain to speak with King Philip II on behalf of Sir William Stanley, Hugh Owen and Father William Baldwin. He renewed his friendship with Christopher Wright and the two tried to garner support for a Spanish invasion of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth. Needless to say, that mission went nowhere.

Queen Elizabeth died the following month and James VI, King of Scots was proclaimed King of England, a move that incensed many Catholics across England as James was a Protestant like his predecessor.

In May 1604, Fawkes, who by this time was a fiercely devout and loyal Catholic, met with the men who would make up the core group of what is now known as the Gunpowder Conspiracy or Gunpowder Plot: Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Thomas Wintour. Other Catholics who joined the conspiracy in the months that lead up to the attack were Thomas Bates, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Robert Wintour, Humphrey and Stephen Littleton, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rockwood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, and Thomas Habington.

The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators by Crispen van de Passe (c.1606)

Catesby (not Fawkes) devised a plot to kill the Protestant king of England by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Digby would then kidnap James’ daughter, Princess Elizabeth, so that Catesby could arrange her marriage to a Catholic nobleman. James VI, now known as James I of England, was due to open Parliament on the 5th of November, 1605.

The original plan involved digging a tunnel from a nearby location to Parliament House. The plan changed in March 1605 when Percy rented a cellar beneath Parliament. Fawkes, under the guise of John Johnson, lived in the cellar as Percy’s servant and the conspirators loaded the cellar with 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath billets of wood and bundles of sticks.

On October 26th, Tresham sent a letter to his brother-in-law, William Parker, Lord Monteagle, that warned him not to attend Parliament on Nov. 5th. Monteagle passed the letter on to Chief Minister Robert Cecil. Word of the letter’s existence reached the conspirators (it’s assumed that Tresham acted alone) but they decided to continue with their plot as the letter itself was intentionally vague.

On Nov. 4th, the Lord Chamberlain, Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, John Whynniard and Lord Monteagle searched each building of Parliament until they eventually discovered the cellar where Fawkes was hiding. The trio didn’t arrest Fawkes but reported their findings to the king who then ordered Sir Thomas Knyvett to search the cellar. Later that night, in the wee hours of the morning of Nov. 5th, searched the cellar and found the barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was arrested with a watch, matches and other tools to ignite the gunpowder with a slow train on his person.

Was that the explosion Fawkes hoped for?

News of his arrest and the assassination attempt on King James I spread that morning. Fawkes spent the following weeks being interrogated and tortured. He eventually relinquished all information about the conspiracy and his fellow conspirators.

Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Rockwood and Keyes were hung, drawn and quartered in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster on January 31, 1606. Digby, Robert Wintour, Grant and Bates were executed in the same manner in St. Paul’s Churchyard the previous day.

David Jardine wrote a detailed account of the gunpowder plot which can be read online at the Internet Archive. More details on the plot and the conspirators can be found at The Gunpowder Plot Society’s webpage.

What many people outside of Britain don’t realize is that Nov. 5th is, in fact, remembered, even commemorated, every year. Nov. 5th is celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night across the UK as well as in parts of Canada and New Zealand.

Footage of a Guy Fawkes Day celebration at Lewes, Sussex.

The first Bonfire Night was celebrated (albeit impromptu) on the same day of Fawkes’ arrest as citizens lit bonfires across the city in honor of King James I and his survival of the assassination attempt against him and members of Parliament.

The event was originally known as Gunpowder Treason Day and was marked by heavy anti-Catholic sentiments which bordered on fanatical. Many effigies including one of the pope were burned (“No Popery,” etc.). Celebrations varied depending on whether the country was ruled by a Protestant or Catholic monarch.

Nowadays, the celebration is mostly secular in nature with fireworks and a few effigies still lit, mainly effigies of Guy Fawkes and effigies of contemporary political figures. Some communities still burn effigies of the former pope but without any religious fervor or malice intended.

The video below provides an excellent summary and explanation:

The story of V For Vendetta takes the story of Guy Fawkes (a munitions expert fiercely devoted to his beliefs) and replaces the religious ideologies of Catholicism and Protestantism with the political ideologies of Anarchy and Fascism. It also adds in elements of superhero and anti-utopian fiction.

A page from the original black-and-white run of V For Vendetta

The film adaptation, however, takes a markedly different turn and emphasizes Fawkes’ actions on Nov. 5th simply as an act of rebellion in the name of freedom.

From an interview with Moore by Jennifer Vineyard:

When I wrote “V,” politics were taking a serious turn for the worse over here. We’d had [Conservative Party Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher in for two or three years, we’d had anti-Thatcher riots, we’d got the National Front and the right wing making serious advances. “V for Vendetta” was specifically about things like fascism and anarchy.

Those words, “fascism” and “anarchy,” occur nowhere in the film. It’s been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country. In my original story there had been a limited nuclear war, which had isolated Britain, caused a lot of chaos and a collapse of government, and a fascist totalitarian dictatorship had sprung up. Now, in the film, you’ve got a sinister group of right-wing figures — not fascists, but you know that they’re bad guys — and what they have done is manufactured a bio-terror weapon in secret, so that they can fake a massive terrorist incident to get everybody on their side, so that they can pursue their right-wing agenda. It’s a thwarted and frustrated and perhaps largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values [standing up] against a state run by neo-conservatives — which is not what “V for Vendetta” was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about [England]. The intent of the film is nothing like the intent of the book as I wrote it. And if the Wachowski brothers had felt moved to protest the way things were going in America, then wouldn’t it have been more direct to do what I’d done and set a risky political narrative sometime in the near future that was obviously talking about the things going on today?

George Clooney’s being attacked for making [“Good Night, and Good Luck”], but he still had the nerve to make it. Presumably it’s not illegal — not yet anyway — to express dissenting opinions in the land of free? So perhaps it would have been better for everybody if the Wachowski brothers had done something set in America, and instead of a hero who dresses up as Guy Fawkes, they could have had him dressed as Paul Revere. It could have worked.

Guy Fawkes wasn’t a figure of anti-establishment as many of his new fans and followers today see him. He was a figure of anti-Protestant establishment. His goal, and that of his conspirators, was to replace the Protestant monarchy of England with a Catholic one. Anyone who entertains the thought of donning a Guy Fawkes mask should keep that in mind.

2 thoughts on “The Real Guy Fawkes And The Significance Of The 5th Of November

  1. As a child the story was that he was allowed to escape to France because so many influential people thought well of him.

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