The Explosive History Behind Guy Falkes

November 5, 2018

A popular symbol of protest today, Guy Fawkes was first the face of treason because of his role in the murderous plot to blow up the British parliament in 1605.

Tensions were high in England in late October 1605, when an English nobleman, Lord Monteagle, received a mysterious letter. Along with the rest of England’s peers and the king, Monteagle intended to attend the opening of Parliament a few days later, on November 5.

The unsigned letter got straight to the point: “My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament . . . for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow.”

The mysterious sender then urged Monteagle to burn the letter after having read its contents. Monteagle—a Catholic—did no such thing. Saving himself from the gruesome punishment that would soon engulf certain of his co-religionists, he forwarded the missive to Robert Cecil, chief minister of King James I. Many English Protestants suspected that members of the Catholic minority were plotting to topple the monarchy and impose a Catholic regime with foreign funding and aid, and this message seemed to confirm their suspicions.

The letter made its way to King James, who doubted, at first, that the threat was genuine. Despite the royal skepticism, on November 4, the Earl of Suffolk conducted a search of the Palace of Westminster and its environs, where England’s Parliament was due to meet the next day. The earl reported that he found no substantial cause for concern, but he did notice a privately rented ground-floor storeroom that contained an unusually large amount of firewood.

A Legend Is Born

Later that day, Sir Thomas Knyvett, a minor but trustworthy royal official, oversaw a second search of the buildings around Parliament. The same storeroom likewise attracted his attention, as did the man Knyvett found guarding it. He was not dressed like a watchman; instead he was wearing a cloak, boots, and spurs—clothes more suited, it seemed, for making a quick getaway on horseback.

Knyvett’s men shifted the firewood and found 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden behind it. The man, who gave his name as John Johnson, was found to have “matches” (long fuses) on his person. Knyvett had uncovered an astonishing conspiracy to blow up the members of both Houses of Parliament, the king, most of the royal family, and leading officers of state. The aim was to set up a Roman Catholic regime in Protestant England, with James I’s daughter Elizabeth—who would not be in attendance—as its puppet ruler.

Arrested and tortured, John Johnson revealed that he was from Yorkshire in northern England and that his real name was Guy Fawkes. He was one of several Catholic conspirators in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. While not the ringleader himself, Fawkes became the best known member of the most famous conspiracy in English history. His capture has been illustrated in countless schoolbooks, novels, popular works of history, and movies: a tall, bearded figure in boots, dark cloak, and dark, wide-brimmed hat. It is his figure that is still burned in effigy on bonfires around England every year on November 5.

Guy Fawkes: Then and Now

Following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, Parliament decreed November 5 a day of thanksgiving, which came to be known as Guy Fawkes Night. In the 1600s, Fawkes became a stand-in for the Catholic Church, as he was in this pamphlet published in 1630. A Thankfull Remembrance of God’s Mercie was an account of “popish plots” and included an illustration of Fawkes with London Bridge with traitors’ heads on spikes in the background. The use of Fawkes’s image, however, has changed over time.

Guy Fawkes Night became an annual celebration with traditions that included bonfires, fireworks, parades, and the burning of Fawkes in effigy. This 1776 engraving of Guy Fawkes Night at Windsor Castle shows a crowd around the bonfire, while a rocket shoots into the night sky.

“Remember, Remember / the fifth of November / the gunpowder treason plot” begins the nursery rhyme taught to British schoolchildren to warn about the traitorous Guy Fawkes. In the late 19th century, the verse (which is still sung by British children today) appeared in children’s books and was sometimes given a Victorian twist.

Guy Fawkes Night’s popularity continued to grow. Children often made effigies (called “Guys”) and asked people for “a penny for the guy.” In the 1920s, some prepared giant Guys to burn during the festivities. This one built in Beckenham, Kent, was 23 feet high.

In the 1960s, a somewhat defanged Guy Fawkes helpfully advises children to “Burn Me—not yourselves!” in these pamphlets that helped British families prepare for a safe celebration of Guy Fawkes night.

Today’s most famous Guy Fawkes celebration is held in Lewes in East Sussex, England, where participants create elaborate effigies of Fawkes as well as modern politicians. The town’s seven “bonfire societies” spend much of the year preparing for the massive torchlit procession each November 5.

In the 1980s, new Fawkes symbolism developed after the graphic novel V for Vendetta whose antihero donned a Guy Fawkes mask to fight totalitarianism. After the book became a movie in 2005, global protest movements such as Anonymous and Occupy adopted the mask. Their members—such as this Million Mask March participant standing before the Houses of Parliament in 2015—wear Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities.

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