Born in England in 1570, conspirator Guy Fawkes was executed in 1606 for attempting to blow up the English Parliament building in what came to be known as the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes and a group of other Catholic conspirators, looking to overthrow the current Protestant regime, had planted at least 20 barrels of gunpowder under the building prior to the attempted attack. Over the centuries he has become something of a cultural symbol, as seen with Guy Fawkes Day celebrations and Fawkes masks inspired by the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta.
Background and Related History
Guy Fawkes was born in York, England in 1570. His father, Edward Fawkes, who died while Guy was still a child, was part of the judiciary and thus had official Protestant allegiances, while Guy's mother, Edith, had a Catholic background.
At the time, the country suffered from deep religious divisions. The Church of England was established under Henry VIII, and then Catholicism became ascendant for a short time during the rule of his daughter Mary I, whose reign was known for horrible violence against Protestants. But Protestantism again became the dominant belief system under the reigns of Elizabeth I, who was excommunicated from the Catholic church by Pope Pius V, and her successor, James I, with the staunch persecution of Catholics a violent reality.
It is believed Fawkes left England in the first half of the 1590s and served in the Spanish army, fighting in the Netherlands against Protestant forces and eventually adopting the moniker Guido. He also did diplomatic work, petitioning the king of Spain to attempt to invade England again when James I ascended to the throne in 1603.
Fawkes was eventually recruited to join a group of conspirators organized by nobleman Robert Catesby, whose aim was to blow up Parliament during its opening session on November 5, 1605. The Gunpowder Plot, as it became known, would result in an explosion intended to kill the king, his oldest son and members of the House of Lords and House of Commons. The group also planned to kidnap James’s daughter Elizabeth and have her wed a Catholic ruler from abroad, thus reestablishing Catholicism in England.
The conspirators were able to obtain a plot of space directly under the parliamentary building, and Fawkes, using the name John Johnson in his guise as caretaker, was charged with watching and manning the gathered barrels of gunpowder. After an anonymous letter was sent to a Catholic parliamentarian warning him to not be present on the day of the planned attack, the plot was discovered, and on the night of November 4, Fawkes was arrested. (There has been some speculation as to whether the conspiracy was in fact organized by a Protestant parliamentarian to provide incentive to come down harder on Catholics.)
Death and Legacy
After two days of torture, Fawkes revealed his co-conspirators, most of whom were found. On January 31, 1606, Fawkes avoided being hanged, and drawn and quartered alive - the tradition at the time for those convicted of treason. As Fawkes climbed the ladder to the hanging platform to meet his fate, he jumped and broke his neck, dying instantly. He was later drawn and quartered nonetheless.
The day of November 5 came to be declared a national holiday as a day of “thanksgiving,” offering anti-Catholic sentiments that would later vanish. The celebration has morphed over the centuries, eventually coming to be named Guy Fawkes Day, with more recent incarnations less politically and religiously oriented.
Fawkes, despite being associated with a terrorist-based plot, has been used as a symbol of resistance via pop-cultural expression and real-world protests. V for Vendetta, the comic serial/graphic novel written by Alan Moore, features a mysterious figure invoking Fawkes Day to overthrow a fascist government in a dystopian future. The book and related movie inspired the creation of Fawkes masks that have been worn by activists involved in protests such as the Occupy movement. With a nod to history, the 2006 film adaptation of V, starring Hugo Weaving, starts off with co-star Natalie Portman reciting the popular 19th-century rhyme associated with Fawkes Day: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November…”
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