TeamPurple Political Explainer (10/25)- Guy Fawkes and Blowing up Government

If you’re British, you aren’t thinking of elections in early November, you’re thinking Guy Fawkes Day.  Fawkes was an interesting, charismatic character whose impact is still seen today.  The group “Anonymous” used the Guy Fawkes symbol as its avatar and Fawkes is still seen as an image of defiance against government.  So who was this guy and what did he do?  In short, he tried to blow up a government he didn’t like.

You have to go back to the early 1600s, when Protestantism was growing in Europe and Catholicism was going through somewhat of a recession.  Countries were showing less allegiance to Rome, and exerting more of their own authority, sometimes against the wishes of the Church.  England was at the forefront of this, with the Protestant King James I sitting on the throne.  James had offended the Church (and would really piss them off by actually offering his own interpretation of the Bible, the King James Bible in 1611) by openly criticizing the Pope’s authority.  This did not sit well with a collection of Catholic groups within England, including one Guy Fawkes.

Fawkes had spent his youth selling off his father’s estate and dedicating his life fighting for the Catholics.  He fought for Spain against the Dutch in the 80 Years War, and for the French until 1598. In 1603, he traveled to Spain to seek support for a Catholic rebellion in England. He used the occasion to adopt the Italian version of his name, Guido, and in his memorandum described James I (who became king of England that year) as “a heretic”, who intended “to have all of the Papist sect driven out of England.” Spain’s King Phillip turned him down for direct involvement but encouraged Fawkes’ efforts.

Soon after he met another kindred spirit in the form of Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate the King.  Fawkes was all on board from the start. Another conspirator, Thomas Percy, had obtained a position to the Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, to which he helped install Fawkes as caretaker.  The location, was more adjacent to the House of Lords, so the plan was changed to blow up Parliament.  They would tunnel under the House of Lords, put as much gunpowder as they could muster in it, and then blow the place up.  At one point, they learned that the lease below the House of Lords had come up, which made it even easier for them; instead of tunneling, they bought the lease and started loading up the place with gunpowder. Over 1605, they loaded 36 kegs of gunpowder into the place, but the plague had delayed the opening of Parliament until November 5th. When they found that much of it had decayed over that time, they brought in EVEN MORE gunpowder, and covered it up with firewood just in case someone saw the barrels.

On the eve of Parliament’s onset, the King ordered a search of the cellars of the building.  They found Fawkes, alone, leaving a room in the cellar.  When they opened the room, they found it stacked to the ceiling with gunpowder, and Fawkes had on him a match.  They arrested him and immediately began torturing him to find the names of other conspirators, who were eventually captured as well.

On January 31, 1606, Fawkes and several other conspirators were to be hanged.  Fawkes never made it though, as while climbing the scaffold he managed to somehow break his neck.  As was custom for those committing treason against the crown, they were all quartered with each extremity sent to the four corners of the kingdom.

So how did this man become celebrated?  Well it actually starts on November 6th 1605, when the Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s divine deliverance from assassination. Bonfires were lit and fireworks were set off.  Parliament made the date a “Joyful Day of Deliverance and Thanksgiving” and the following year, effigies of Fawkes (who was the most identifiable figure from the plot) were burned as well. Over time, the story became more romanticized and Fawkes was transformed into a hero, particularly as more democratic governments frustrated voters (one historian called him “the last person to enter Parliament with true intentions”). William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1841 historical romance “Guy Fawkes; or, The Gunpowder Treason” portrays Fawkes in a generally sympathetic light, and transformed him in the public perception into a protagonist. Fawkes subsequently appeared as “essentially an action hero” in children’s books and penny dreadfuls such as The Boyhood Days of Guy Fawkes; or, The Conspirators of Old London, published in about 1905. Today, Fawkes is now a major icon in modern political culture, whose face has become “a potentially powerful instrument for the articulation of postmodern anarchism.”

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