Harley Austin | United States
Remember remember the fifth of November. For over four centuries after his death, the story of Guy Fawkes lives on. However, it’s the modern day Guy Fawkes Mask, now a trademark of Anonymous and other forms of covert resistance, that is familiar to most. While many know the name, the history behind the mask and the man who inspired it remains unfamiliar. To commemorate November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day, let us take a look into the man behind the mask.
Guy Fawkes & the Gunpowder Plot
The life of Guy Fawkes was relatively uneventful before the gunpowder plot of 1605. He was a Catholic convert born in York, England, and would fight for Spain during the Eighty Years War against the Protestant Dutch.
During this time, England was in an internal conflict over the Post-Reformation Protestant and Catholic Churches. The reign of King James I, a Protestant monarch, brought further hostility in England. Fawkes, along with many other English Catholics, were angered by this. Fawkes specifically labeled James as a heretic who wanted “to have all of the Papist sect driven out of England.” Fawkes also denounced James I for his Scottish heritage, a country which he blamed for the rise in Protestantism.
The Gunpowder Plot
Unlike popular belief, Guy Fawkes was not the mastermind or leader behind the Gunpowder Plot, nor was his role that spectacular. The plan was created by an Englishman named Robert Catesby, who recruited Fawkes and other conspirators. The plan was simple: purchase an undercroft beneath Parliament, fill it with barrels of gunpowder, and blow up Parliament during one of the King’s addresses. This was meant to kill King James, his close relatives, and numerous members of the House of Commons. The conspirators would then lead a Catholic revolt to install James’ daughter as heir, reinstating Catholicism in England.
The planning part of the plot went off without a hitch, the undercroft was purchased and the gunpowder was placed. However, two weeks prior to the planned date of the plot, the conspirators sent letters to Catholic Parliament members as a warning. Eventually, one of the Lords who was made aware of this showed his letter to King James, who demanded a search of the undercroft. This brings us to Fawkes’ role in the plot: guarding the gunpowder. Fawkes was the one on watch for that night, and in the early morning of November 5th, he was arrested and the plot never came into fruition. When later questioned, Fawkes said his intention was “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.”
Quickly receiving news of their foiled plans, the conspirators tried to flee the country. During which, many were killed while trying to escape, including Robert Catesby. Fawkes and seven others were captured alive and convicted of high treason. Fawkes, being the one caught with the gunpowder, became the most noteworthy of the group, which would lead to the later misconception of him being the leader. His seven counterparts were all hanged and quartered. However, Fawkes avoided this when the noose broke his neck, killing him. Fawkes died at the age of 36, his body cut into pieces and spread across the kingdom as a warning to any potential traitors (a common practice at that time).
Aftermath and Legacy
Fawkes became the symbol of the Gunpowder Plot and would be immortalized in infamy for generations in England. November 5th was declared as an official day of thanksgiving by Parliament until 1859, earning the name “Guy Fawkes Day” that has persisted to this day. For years, effigies of Fawkes (with stylized masks similar to the modern one) would be burned and November 5th would be an annual celebration in Britain.
In fact, Guy Fawkes is actually where the English word “guy” came from. In Old English, the word meant an oddly dressed gentlemen, based on Fawkes’ manor of dress and the suspicious nature of his conspiring. The word eventually shifted definition to the modern use as an informal word for a male.
V for Vendetta
While Guy Fawkes’ tale is famous on its own, it is not where the notorious Guy Fawkes Mask originated, at least not the modern one we’re all aware of. The first use of the modern Guy Fawkes Mask was in Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel V for Vendetta. The unique mask was an idea of both Moore and his illustrator meant to encompass the themes of the story.
In this story, the main character V, an anarchist revolutionary, wears the famous mask and an outfit similar to Fawkes. His plan is to destroy the neofascist government of the story’s dystopian UK and win the support of the British people. His final action in the story is a symbolic one: blowing up Parliament with a train full of explosives. This is topped off with the finale of the British people donning the mask and outfits as they march to watch the destruction of Parliament and the defeat of the tyrannical government. The story portrays both the historical aspect of Guy Fawkes, usually through overt symbolism and references, and paved the way for the modern meaning of rebellion, resistance, and sometimes anarchy.
While the graphic novel was successful on its own, it was the 2005 movie adaptation of V for Vendetta that brought both the story and the mask into major popularity.
Activism & Anonymous
Following the movie’s release in the early 2000s, the mask gained small amounts of popularity among protestors as an easy method of concealing identity and representing a singular group/cause.
The mask was first used by the hacktivist group Anonymous in 2009 during their protests against the Church of Scientology. During which, protestors were encouraged to conceal their identities, so the Guy Fawkes Mask became a widely used method. Anonymous would make the mask an official symbol following the protests
The mask would soon become a stable for future protests. In 2011 it was used during the Occupy Wall Street protests and would also be used in numerous similar protests across the world. It was also used during the Arab Spring protests, which caused numerous Arab nations to place a ban on the import of the masks. The use of the masks by Anonymous also led to a Canadian law banning the use of masks during protests.
While the story of Guy Fawkes has been forgotten by some, the feelings of resistance lives in through the symbolic mask. The rulers and ideologies in power may change, but resistance is something that carries on throughout the centuries.
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