The 5th of November.
Tis Guy Fawkes Day, once more. A day whose meaning has been muddled by popular culture through the years, notably Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta and the 2005 anti-fascist film it inspired.
The hack-anarchists over at Anonymous picked up the banner (and mask) and a modern anti-tyranny, liberal-leaning legend was born.
But how do these representations stack up against the historical Mr. Fawkes?
My first introduction to Guy Fawkes was when I was 8 years old and we were living in Devon for a year. I knew little of the history then, but certainly enjoyed the fireworks and bonfires – what kid would not? It was only later, as my fascination with history grew, that I looked beyond the sparkling festivities to the story beneath.
Guy Fawkes – aka Guido Fawkes, aka John Johnson – was a Catholic at a time when being Catholic in England was not easy. The Church of England was less than a century old and anti-Papist feeling was still running high. Catholics were still being imprisoned, having their lands confiscated, and worse. It was the 17th century, after all.
After fighting with Spain against his king, James I, and country, Fawkes fell in with a group of provincial Catholics who were convinced the only thing to do was to bring down the government and restore Catholic supremacy across the land. King, ministers, Parliament, the whole shebang, had to go. Thus was launched the ill-fated Gunpowder Plot. Because of his years in the military, the cabal put Guy in charge of the powder.
So it was that on the 5th of November, 16o5, Fawkes was caught guarding kegs of explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament. Following a seriously enhanced interrogation, he gave up his fellow conspirators, and, in the gruesome fashion of the day, all were executed for High Treason.
So, the question remains, was he a hero or a religious zealot? Were he and his fellow plotters striking a blow against a royal tyrant or looking to unleash anarchy on their homeland? While James I wasn’t a perfect monarch, there had certainly been greater despots before and since. And, aside from their religious convictions, one would be hard pressed to find a cohesive political motivation for the plotters’ actions. They simply wanted to replace the authority of a lawful monarch with that of the Pope, without regard for the loss of life or social upheaval. Religious wars are like that no matter what the age or faiths. Hmmm. In the end, it can be said that the attempted assasination of the King gave James a period of good will he might otherwise not have had. Certainly, in full, the poem we know of the day is pro-James/anit-Guy.
THE FIFTH of NOVEMBER
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
In terms of modern politics and those who have latched onto Guy Fawkes as a symbol, in the United States the fundamentalist “religious liberty” types seem to have more in common with him than any liberal faction. After all, they believe their religous faith trumps anyone else’s rights, regardless what the law and Constitution say. They would likely be shocked by this link. But then again, over here ignorance often leads people to get their history wrong. Just look at the Tea Party. Never let something like history or facts get in the way of a little good old fashion demagoguery. God knows the current flock of GOP presidential candidates don’t.
For myself, I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot in my heart for the traitor Fawkes. And, being anti-totalitarian to my core, I am especially fond of his Fawkes-as-V incarnation. Is it historical, no. But it is good storytelling. And that – along with fireworks and rousing overtures – will always appeal to the rebelious 8-year-old lingering inside me.