Across the United Kingdom today, people are getting ready to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day and burn his effigy – remembering the 5th of November with a old children’s poem. Guy Fawkes was a 17th century Catholic who protested against the Protestant rule of King James I. Working with a group of anti-Protestants, Fawkes helped hatch a plan to assassinate King James I while he sat in Parliament; this would be achieved by smuggling in explosives beneath the room and setting them off when Parliament was assembled. Before the plot could be successfully executed, however, Fawkes was found guarding the barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, and arrested. Whether he was the head of the plot or not, Guy Fawkes’ name lives in infamy:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,The Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason, why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot. Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent, to blow up the King and Parli’ment. Three-score barrels of powder below, to prove old England’s overthrow; By God’s providence he was catch’d, with a dark lantern and burning match. Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring. Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King! And what should we do with him? Burn him!
The Protestant versus Catholic dispute had begun in England during the reign of that other infamous English character, King Henry VIII. In 1533, Henry, determined to produce an heir, decided that he must divorce his aging wife Catherine and remarry with a younger woman. To carry this out, however, Henry had to denounce the Catholic Church and the Pope, since Catholics were not allowed to divorce. In doing so, King Henry embraced Protestantism and proclaimed himself the head of the Church of England, never again to be alligned with the Vatican.
England, once a Catholic nation, was in religious turmoil following this act, which was the beginning of the Reformation in English history. The dispute continued with the reign of Henry’s daughter, Queen Mary, who deigned to reform England into a Catholic nation once her father had died. Again, when Mary passed the kingdom to her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, the latter took her father’s side and proclaimed the kingdom once again a Protestant nation under her rule as the head of the Church of England.
When Guy Fawkes was arrested on the 5th of November 1605, the long reign of Queen Elizabeth had just ended and passed to her younger cousin, James of Scotland. Although Elizabeth I had done a legendary job of keeping the peace among her subjects, the issue of religious devotion was nevertheless still forefront in the minds of English Catholics who feared that their distance from the Vatican would harm their souls.
The answer? To kill the Protestant king and place his young daughter Elizabeth onto the throne as a Catholic. Of course, the plot was discovered, Guy Fawkes was killed for treason and as a result, Catholicism was persecuted more harshly in England than before. In celebration of the survival of King James I from his planned murder on the 5th of November 1605, Britons hold Bonfire Night, in which an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned and the old rhymes are sung. In 2013, however, the anti-Catholic nature of the celebration has all but been forgotten.
Thanks to the 2005 movie V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes masks have become popular for activists in many different social causes, which has caused something of a paradox in modern culture. While people “remember remember the 5th of November” by desecrating an image of Guy Fawkes, others celebrate his activist spirit during the rest of the year.
By Mandy Gardner