A British Revolutionary Executed in 1605 comes back to Haunt Us
When we moved to London in the summer of 2003, we were coming from an America still in shock from the September 11 bombings which had taken place 18 months earlier. So when November rolled around and I started hearing booming noises in the night, I was a bit jittery. Come to find out it was just the fireworks used in the celebration of Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night, a British tradition that goes back more than 400 years.
“Guy Fawkes, ‘twas his intent
To blow up king and parliament.“
In 1603, James I became king of England and, being Protestant, he passed laws that made life very difficult for the Catholics. At that time, subjects were “strongly encouraged” to convert to the religion of their monarch.
A small group of Catholics, tired of the persecution, decided to take matters into their own hands. They planned to blow up Parliament on the fifth of November 1605, during the opening session when the King would be present. They recruited a soldier called Guy Fawkes who was born in England but had been fighting in the Spanish army for several years. He was to play an important role because of his knowledge of explosives.
“Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.”
The group of conspirators rented a house close to Parliament and started digging a tunnel as a way to get the explosives into the Parliament building. But they had a bit of luck when a cellar located directly under the King’s throne came up for rent. They rented it and filled it with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Then they disguised it by stacking firewood on top of and around it. Apparently it was common practice to rent out these cellars, and firewood was often stored there.
“By God’s mercy he was catched
With a dark lantern and lighted match.”
Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter advising him not to attend the opening of parliament because something terrible was going to happen. Not knowing what to make of this warning, he showed it to the others. They decided that it must be a hoax. But just as a precaution, the cellars were searched on the fourth, the day before the opening ceremony. Guy was there, dressed as a servant, with his innocent bundles of firewood and the guards didn’t seem suspicious. But later that night they came back and found Guy there again, this time dressed in his traveling clothes (and apparently with a dark lantern and lighted match). They questioned him, searched the cellar and found the gunpowder.
Guy was arrested and tortured until he gave the names of the other plotters. The seven ringleaders were tried and executed. They were hung, drawn and quartered and their remains sent to the 4 corners of the kingdom as a warning to any others who might be hatching a similar plot. (I imagine that was quite an effective deterrent.)
“I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
To celebrate the King’s deliverance, the people lit bonfires, and they have done the same every fifth of November for over 400 years. Of course the festivity has evolved in that time. At some point it was decided that Guy’s fate wasn’t good enough and that he should be burned on the bonfire every year. So the tradition of burning “Guys” became part of the festivities. These “Guy” effigies are made by stuffing old clothes with paper and then adding a mask to the head as a final touch. Today, the “Guys” are less popular than they once were. In bygone days, the children were in charge of preparations for bonfire night and it was up to them to make the “Guy.” When they finished they would parade him through the neighborhood in a wagon or pram, or carry him in a chair and ask for “a penny for the Guy.”
Just a regular guy
In fact this is how the word “guy”, that we now use for a man whose name we don’t know, came into common use. At first “guy” meant a man who was funny looking and usually very badly dressed – like the “guys” that the children made. To call someone a guy was not a compliment. But over the years the word lost its negative meaning and now it can be used for anyone, whether they are funny looking or not.
The reputation of Guy Fawkes has improved over the years as well. After a book that presented him in a sympathetic manner came out in 1841, he became a character in children’s stories and comic books. In 1985 a comic book called “V for Vendetta” was created which inspired a film by the same name in 2005. The main character “V” has many parallels with Guy Fawkes and he wears a Guy Fawkes mask as he tries to overthrow a future UK government that has lost touch with, and taken away the freedom of, the people.
The Guy Fawkes mask worn in the film was adopted by several groups, such as Anonymous and the Occupy Movement, to allow them to protest in anonymity. It can now be seen at protests around the world. Some countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have even banned its importation, calling it “a symbol of rebels and revenge.” But that hasn’t decreased its popularity, as is seen by the fact that it is one of the top sellers on Amazon.
The nursery rhyme that has endured all of these years was meant to remind us of the dangers of threatening the government. But it has taken on a new meaning and has now become a symbol of protest against causes perceived as unjust. I can’t help but think the original Guy would be pleased that his image is being used in this way.
*A little disclaimer from me: I am all for peaceful protests, I think they are healthy for society, but I am completely against all forms of violence.
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