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Guy Fawkes: The Man, The Myth, The Mask

People | January 31, 2020

A man with a Guy Fawkes mask during a protest. (Photo by Giorgos Georgiou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In recent years, we've come to know Guy Fawkes more for his dashing, mustached mask—a symbol for anti-government protesters, like those in the Occupy Movement—but did you know that Guy Fawkes was a real political protester? Fawkes took his protests a giant step too far when he attempted to explode kegs of gunpowder underneath the British Parliament building in 1605. While his actions were criminal in nature, many people supported his cause. Let's look at Guy Fawkes: the man, the myth, and the mask. 

Guy Fawkes's main goal was to oust the Protestants from power. (historyextra.com)

His Real Name Was Guido

Guido "Guy" Fawkes was born in York in 1570. At the time, his family was Protestant, but when Guy's father died, his mother got remarried to a devout Catholic. The whole family converted to Catholicism, including Guy, who attended St. Peter's School. He ended up getting really into the whole Catholic thing, to the point that he sought to oust the Protestant government of England. 

King James I. (royal.uk)

Catholics Versus Protestants

During Fawkes's time, Roman Catholics in England were becoming more and more repressed, forced to practice their faith in secrecy. Protestant King James I, a Scotsman who became the ruler of England when it united with Ireland and Scotland, sat on the throne, and many people in England regarded him with a "not my king" attitude. They wanted to see the monarchy restored to an English-born Catholic, specifically Princess Elizabeth. (That's his daughter, not the princess who became Queen Elizabeth I directly before him, who was decidedly Protestant. The royals are maddeningly uncreative with their names.)

Fawkes gained military experience fighting against Protestants in the Netherlands as a member of the Spanish military. (skibbereeneagles.ie)

Guy Fawkes, The Dissident

At the age of 21, Guy Fawkes felt so compelled to help the Catholic cause that he sold his father's estate and traveled to Spain, where enlisted in the Spanish military just so he could fight the Protestants in the Netherlands. He gained valuable experience as a military leader during this time, returning to England with a reputation for bravery and daring. By 1603, Fawkes was back in Spain, this time to convince King Phillip III to storm England and remove the Protestants from power. Phillip declined the suggestion, and Fawkes once again returned to England, resolving to take matters into his own hands. 

Actor Kit Harrington portrayed Robert Catesby in an HBO film about the gunpowder plot. (HBO.com)

Fawkes Wasn't The Only Dissident

Although he's often portrayed as a lone wolf, Fawkes was basically the pawn of fellow Englishman and staunch Roman Catholic Robert Catesby, who was likewise determined to see King James booted from the throne and Elizabeth installed as the new monarch. Catesby's father, Sir William, was persecuted for his Catholic faith, and Robert Catesby was briefly jailed for his involvement in a failed uprising. Like Fawkes, Catesby tried to enlist Spain's help in the matter, and by 1604, he was quietly gathering a group of likeminded men for an audacious plan.

Fawkes and other members of the conspiracy. (BBC.com)

Catesby Recruited Fawkes

It was Robert Catesby who masterminded the plot to blow up the Parliament building with King James and the rest of the members of Parliament inside. In fact, there is some evidence that he came up with his plan as early as May 1603. It was Catesby, impressed by Fawkes's military experience and dedication to the Catholic cause, who first approached Fawkes to join his group of co-conspirators in January 1604.

Fawkes was left to guard the barrels of gunpowder, leaving some people to wonder if he was the group's scapegoat. (dailyrecord.co.uk)

The Plot

As per Catesby's carefully devised plan, the conspirators rented space in an adjoining building whose cellar extended underneath the Parliament. Catesby's plan was to stuff the cellar with barrels of gunpowder and then light the fuse, causing a massive explosion that would knock down Parliament and kill everyone inside, voiding the heck out of his lease in the process.

The trial of Guy Fawkes. (bbc.co.uk)

Foiled!

The date of the planned attack was set for November 5, 1605 during the State Opening of Parliament, an elaborate celebration to mark the opening of the new legislative session, but the plan was foiled. An anonymous letter was sent in late October to William Parker, the 4th Baron of Monteagle, disclosing the plot and when it was going to take place. Late on the evening of November 4, authorities searched the rooms and cellars beneath Parliament, where they discovered Guy Fawkes, matches in hand, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. It was enough to demolish the entire building. 

Fawkes was tortured in the Tower of London. (mirror.co.uk)

No Escape For Fawkes

Alone, outnumbered, and trapped in the cellar, Guy Fawkes was quickly arrested. As word spread about the foiled plot, Fawkes's co-conspirators tried to flee London, but several of them, including Robert Catesby, were cornered by the Sheriff of Worchester and his men. A gunfight broke out, and Catesby was killed, along with several others.

Fawkes was tortured on the rack. (torturemuseum.net)

Guy Fawkes Versus The Rack

In an attempt to get the names of all the conspirators, the police took Fawkes to the Tower of London, where he was tortured on the rack until he finally gave them up. According to accounts of the time, Fawkes left the Tower of London several inches taller, thanks to his time on the rack. Bizarrely, his pain and suffering were pointless, as authorities were already closing in on the rest of his team. In all, seven conspirators were rounded up and faced trial along with Fawkes on January 27, 1606. All were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. 

Fawkes died, but not by hanging. (piratefandom.com)

A Failed Death Penalty ... Sort Of

Guy Fawkes's execution date was set for January 31, 1606. Fittingly, the execution site was in plain sight of the still-standing Parliament building. In a strange twist, Fawkes died at the gallows, but not by hanging. As he climbed up to meet the hangman on the platform, he made a daring leap from the ladder. The fall broke his neck, and he died moments later from his injuries. Nevertheless, his body was drawn and quartered as per his sentence. The English are pretty stringent about following rules.

Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated on November 5. (nationalgeographic.com.au)

Guy Fawkes's Death Inspired A New Wave Of Anti-Catholicism

After the Gunpowder Plot and the subsequent deaths of Guy Fawkes and his accomplices, the British government tightened control over the Catholic population, leading to an increase in anti-Catholic sentiment. Still, several key Catholics held onto their high-ranking offices under King James.

Effigies are burned during Guy Fawkes Day. (matadornetwork.com)

Flipping The Meaning Of Guy Fawkes Day

Initially, the British government encouraged people to celebrate November 5 as the day that King James escaped an assassination attempt, thus preserving the Protestant monarchy. Children roamed the streets asking people to donate "a penny for the Guy," and eventually, bonfires became part of the festivities, a representation of the explosion that never happened. Effigies of Fawkes, the Pope, and others were burned in the bonfires. The early days of the celebration were marked by anti-Catholic overtones, and Guy Fawkes was viewed as an evil criminal and would-be murderer, but all that flipped in 1673, when King James's heir converted to Catholicism. After that, Guy Fawkes was viewed more as a hero and martyr, a romantic figure who tried to save England. 

When we use the word "guy," it's a nod to Guy Fawkes. (lithub.com)

Hey, You Guys!

Have you ever wondered why we refer to people, even women, as "guys"? The gender-neutral, all-encompassing use of "guy" comes directly from Guy Fawkes. People celebrating Guy Fawkes Day and supporters of Fawkes here called "those Guys," and over the years, it lost its connection to Fawkes until it became a colloquial term for any collective group of people. 

The Guy Fawkes mask is now a symbol of righteous anarchy. (nationalgeographic.com)

About That Mask

Today, the mask associated with Guy Fawkes is used by a wide variety of political groups. It was most famously adopted by Anonymous, a hacker organization that's taken on governments, corporations, and anyone else they don't like, which is most people. It's a distinctive-looking mask, with its sharp features and thin mustache, which works well to hide the identity of those who wear it. In real life, Fawkes's facial hair wasn't quite so severe, but back when people burned effigies of Guy Fawkes on November 5, they drew a thin, curled mustache and goatee on the life-size dummies they made from stuffed clothes in the likeness of Fawkes. This image remains linked to Fawkes and his conviction that it was up to the people to take action against their own government if the government becomes blind to its own failures. As Fawkes explained at his trial in 1606, "A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy," a sentiment shared by political dissidents ever since.  

Tags: assassination attempt | Catholicism | England | holidays | protest

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.