Guy Fawkes, Then and Now

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November.  Today is an important British holiday:  Guy Fawkes Day, commemorating the foiling of the 1605 plot hatched by a group of Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Lords upon the occasion of the opening of Parliament, when King James I and his family were in attendance.  Even though the plot was led by a zealous English Catholic named Robert Catesby, his accomplice Guy Fawkes somehow became more identified with the conspiracy.  The unsuccessful plot (and its holiday), along with the earlier attack of the Spanish Armada and the machinations of the later Stuarts, fueled English anti-Catholicism for quite some time.

Two early seventeenth-century broadsides from the British Museum:  the Conspirators and their fate; God points out Guy Fawkes as he approaches the House of Lords.

The Gunpowder Plot (along with its Day and Bonfire Night) have strict historical associations but have also been used in more metaphorical (and secular) ways in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to raise a collective patriotic awareness of any attack on Britain.  No one could have been more threatening to Great Britain than Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, and so here he is strung up alongside “Guy Faux” in a Thomas Rowlandson print from 1813.

Two centuries later, Guy Fawkes seems to have evolved from a seditious conspirator against Britain to a rebellious liberator for Britain, or at least the British people (and even the global 99% around the world).  This remarkable development is largely due to the V for Vendetta comic books in general and 2006 film in particular, which broadcast the “Guy Fawkes mask” around the world and made it a symbol of popular movements.  Guy Fawkes masks are clearly playing a prominent role in Occupy London, and not only on Guy Fawkes Day.  It certainly is an interesting time to be a historian!

Occupy London protesters with their masks in October, from the Time Out blog and Ed London Photography.

6 responses to “Guy Fawkes, Then and Now

  • ceciliag

    Those guys (intentional) had quite the facial decoration in those days! Do you think that they only slept on their backs so as not to bend or kink their moustaches! c

  • Bernadette

    Very interesting.

  • daseger

    Hi ladies! Yes, Cecilia, hairiness was manliness in the seventeenth century, just like the later 1960s.

  • MarkD60

    I’ve asked before, where do you find the pictures and articles you post?

    I imagine you working in a library or city archives office.

  • daseger

    Hi Mark, I’m a history professor—so I’m familiar with archives, digital and otherwise. The Resources links on the right-hand side include some of my favorite sources.

  • hestiabhn

    I am wondering if any British object to or refrain from celebrating Guy Fawkes death on Nov 5. I know the occupy movement has made him a hero. But he planned death and destruction and he died facing a horrible death as the law then required he be hung drawn snd and quartered. Both Fawkes and British justice were criminals to my mind. Both planned heinous crimes. And the occupy movement is very far off as well…martyring a violent member of their 99%.

    Tearing down others in order to raise oneself or ones cause through verbal or physical violence is way, WAY off…..

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