In about a month’s time, people all over social media will spring up and shoot out a similar nursery rhyme:
“Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…”
Now, most people ironically only remember the lines “remember remember the fifth of November”, but few know the actual meaning behind it let alone the next three lines of the archaic English children’s ditty.
The real meaning behind the fifth of November and what we now call “Guy Fawkes Day” began in the year 1604. Guy Fawkes was a British Catholic who had become jaded about the monarchy’s heavy-handed dealings with the Catholic community in England. King James and his predecessors had cracked down on Catholicism by killing priests and generally making life difficult for the worshipers (don’t get it wrong though, the Pope did excommunicate Elizabeth and there were a good half dozen or more Catholic plots and conspiracies to kill or kidnap the royal family, so the crackdowns were not without an origin point). Fawkes and a group of a dozen other Catholic men met in 1604 to formulate their own conspiracy. Their goal: to kill James and generally wipe out the House of Lords.
Guy Fawkes (his clever pseudo name while abroad was Guido Fawkes, seriously.) was a British man who had fought for the Catholic Spanish during a series of wars in the late part of the 1500s. When he returned to England, his goal in mind was to reinstate a Catholic monarch to the throne. Meeting with a group of like minded individuals, he and his group made the plan to stick dozens of barrels of gunpowder under the Parliament building to blow it up and assassinate the King. Now, what caused the conspiracy to fail was that a set of the conspirators didn’t want to kill any Catholics in the House of Lords, so they sent a private letter to a Catholic nobleman telling him to avoid the building. The nobleman tipped off King James, who ordered a search of the building and they found Guy Fawkes standing guard with a match and a watch.
With Fawkes’ capture came his torture, and after a few days of TLC, Fawkes gave up the names of several other conspirators. When the others were arrested, the whole group was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death: first to hang, then to be drawn and quartered. In his final move, Fawkes is thought to have tossed himself off the hanging platform and snapped his own neck on the rope rather than go through the pain of hanging and quartering. After his death, the government of England made it a national holiday to celebrate the failed attempt to destroy the Parliament building and the Monarchy. People went parading through the streets setting off fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, though over time that became political leaders who drew public ire (first it was popes, then it was monarchs, then it slowly turned to things like Margret Thatcher).
What’s truly odd about the Guy Fawkes phenomena is that he was a dreaded villain, LITERALLY a terrorist until around 1840 when an author decided to write the story of Guy Fawkes with sympathy for his band of merry sappers as they attempted to murder an entire government in cold blood to instill a Catholic one. Fawkes slowly gained acceptance as some sort of anti-hero who attempted to fight against the government over the years following. Then in the 1980s, an American comicbook author created V for Vendetta with Guy Fawkes as the main hero. The white mask with a sharp goatee and warped smile has rapidly become a symbol of anarchy, revolution, and rebellion over the last 30 years because of the comics and the film.
What I personally hope people take away from this story is this: Guy Fawkes has nothing inherently to do with the political activism we link him to. The plot was to kill all the Protestants in power and put some Catholics in in their place. Not to remove a monarchy, but to make sure it was one that followed a specific religious code. Fawkes was a racist (he was really strangely anti-Scottish), a terrorist, a traitor and for most of history he was considered one of the most repugnant smudges on England’s history (think Benedict Arnold in America). The fact we can now make him some sort of tormented hero of the masses truly says something about how we think political activism should be done. There are millions of better figures for activism that don’t require a warped version of history. If you want a figurehead to protest government action, idolize Gandhi, idolize the man in Tienanmen Square, don’t idolize terror in its most basic form.