The Convoluted Legacy of Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes, depicted c. 1900

Guy Fawkes, depicted c. 1900

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
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Hallo boys, hallo boys, God save the King!

Guy Fawkes Day. I’ve always been intrigued by the holiday and a little disturbed by it at the same time. Admittedly, I’m out of my element on this one. I’ve never even been to England, let alone witnessed a Guy Fawkes celebration. So, I have little insight on how the day is now observed or what, if anything, it signifies to the English people. But I do know the history. And it’s a hell of a story. Well worthy of a movie (V for Vendetta doesn’t count, although it’s a great flick). The point being…here’s a fellow who has been burned in effigy for more than 400 years, all as part of a joyful celebration. You can’t help but feel a little bad for him. Indeed, of late (as evidenced by V for Vendetta) he has even gained something of a cult following, becoming a hero figure for those motivated to question or even reject authority and establishment.

A curious cultural figure, this fellow. Burned in effigy, jeered, hated, admired, mythologized, and, recently, the inspiration behind an action hero voiced by Hugo Weaving.  Odd how history works.

The real Guy Fawkes was an English soldier born in 1570. In the 1590s he went to the Netherlands to take part in the 80 Years War waged by England and the Dutch Republic against Spain. Only, he fought on the wrong side…at least from England’s point of view. Fawkes was a Catholic and England’s Protestantism was obnoxious to him. Further, the increasing persecution of Catholics in England was downright infuriating to men like Fawkes. So, he defected and fought on the Spanish side with a force of Englishmen who had also switched allegiances.

By 1604, a conspiracy was brewing in England led by Robert Catesby. He and other Catholics were bitterly disappointed with the policies of the new king, James I. There had been some hope, on the part of Catholics in England, that James I would be more tolerant of religious differences than his predecessor, Elizabeth I. But James soon showed his colors, and things began to look grim for recusant Catholics like Catesby.

Catesby’s solution…assassinate King James and replace him with James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Catesby gathered conspirators about him and they decided on the best means of accomplishing their goal. Traditionally, the monarch presided over the annual state opening of Parliament. If the conspirators could pack enough gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and detonate it at the right time, they could kill the King and the entire upper House of Parliament. This would be followed by an armed revolt and a new monarch would be placed on the throne. To accomplish this, they needed an explosives expert.

Therefore one of the conspirators came to the Netherlands to recruit Fawkes, a soldier who knew how to handle gunpowder. Gathering in London, the conspirators discovered that the ignored cellar beneath the House of Lords was, conveniently enough, available for lease. And so, in the summer of 1605, they began packing barrels of gunpowder into the space. The opening of the House of Lords was set to take place on November 5, 1605. Fawkes, being the expert, was the lucky fellow who would hide in the cellar on the night of November 4, then, at the right moment, set the fuse, flee across the Thames and, if all went properly, watch the House of Lords erupt into flames.

Unfortunately for Fawkes and the conspirators, word leaked out. Some of the conspirators who had friends in the House of Lords warned them by letter, telling them not to attend the opening of Parliament. One suspicious member of the House of Lords showed his letter of warning to King James. On the night of November 4, the King’s soldiers searched the cellar underneath the House of Lords and caught Guy Fawkes as he tried to flee the scene. They also found the gunpowder. The other conspirators were eventually caught and executed…gruesomely.

On the night of November 5, 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the foiling of the conspiracy by lighting bonfires. This was eventually followed by an Act of Parliament declaring an annual day of Thanksgiving which was celebrated by fireworks, bonfires and the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy.

V in his Guy Fawkes mask

For centuries thereafter, the memory of Guy Fawkes was all wrapped up in anti-Catholic loathing. Demonized and despised. But, eventually, he became just a comical dummy on a stick, that “guy” who was annually thrown on the local bonfire. Then, in the 1980s, graphic novelists Alan Moore and David Lloyd created V for Vendetta, a story set in a dystopian future about an anarchist vigilante, dressed as Guy Fawkes, who overthrows a dictactorship in England and succeeds where the real Guy Fawkes failed…by blowing up Parliament. You may have seen the 2006 movie based on that story. If you haven’t, sorry about the spoiler.

Things have changed, though, since the 1980s. We now live in world of counter-terrorism. And someone like Guy Fawkes is rather less likely to be admired for trying to blow up a government he perceived to be evil. To say the least.

Where, then, does this leave us with regard to Guy Fawkes? What should we make of him today? I think he was someone undeserving of the prejudicial hatred of the 17th and 18th centuries. But he is certainly no hero. Not by a long shot.

So, Happy Guy Fawkes Day! Although I really don’t know what that means…

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About Patrick Browne

I am the director of a museum, an author, Civil War reenactor, among other things. I specialize in early American History from colonization through the Civil War. View all posts by Patrick Browne

4 responses to “The Convoluted Legacy of Guy Fawkes

  • Jessie Richter

    i was in england once for it… i found it weird and couldn’t really understand the self-congratulatory-“yay we didn’t get blowed up”-glee on a cold november night. i just thought i was being an ignorant american… glad im not alone. :)

  • theBlink

    Thank you for this post. I was wondering why people admired him; I didn’t realize it was his death and failure that were celebrated each year. I think V from the movie is appealing to Americanism and independence because it almost reflects the original American revolt against the British. The government in the movie was so corrupt you are cheering him on; even his drastic measures. At least that’s how I felt about the movie. And although not at all an anarchist there is something in me that celebrates taking one’s personal freedom into one’s own hands when the situation really calls for it, as our founding father’s did.

  • James Thaddeus

    In his General Orders of November 5, 1775, George Washington condemned burning the Pope in efffigy and other “childish” observances associated with Guy Fawkes’ Day. Washington in these General Orders specifically thanks the people of Canada for their “friendship & alliance.” It’s pretty clear by implication that the Cambridge-based Washington in 1775 didn’t want Guy Fawkes’ observances, by Protestant officers and soldiers in his army, to alienate Canadian Catholics, Irish Catholics, and Indian Catholics from Maine. He knew he would need all the help he could get.

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