You know his face. More accurately, you know the mask based on his face. He’s Guy Fawkes, a villainous figure in British history who, in other regions and in more recent times, has become something else entirely — and whose real story remains explosively compelling.
In present-day popular culture, Guy Fawkes is most immediately known worldwide for inspiring the mask worn by the anti-hero of the film V for Vendetta (2006), a disguise which has since been adapted as the logo for the “hacktivist” group Anonymous. Variations on the visage have also turned up among the anarchists in The Purge movie series and the anti-capitalist upstarts of the TV show Mr. Robot.
However, in the United Kingdom, Guy Fawkes is still more than just a mask. Specifically, Fawkes is the religious fanatic terrorist who attempted to blow up Parliament and assassinate King James I in order to restore Catholic rule to England — and he almost set it all off.
Fawkes’s dynamic plot collapsed on November 5, 1605 — a date forever memorialized with the famous verses:
“Remember, remember! The fifth of November, the Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why the Gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!”
The full text of the 1870 poem can be read here.
United Kingdom residents have since honored that date with “Guy Fawkes Day” and “Bonfire Night” — a 24-hour celebration that includes donning the famous Fawkes mask to set off fireworks, followed by burning Fawkes’s body in effigy.Fawkes — who preferred be called Guido Fawkes — was born on April 13, 1570, in the Stonegate section of York, where he lived as a child with his father Edward and his mother Edith. After his father’s death in 1579, Edith remarried a Catholic man and the young Guy converted to Catholicism. Since Roman Catholicism went against the official Church of England, Guy was driven underground.
Looking for adventure, Fawkes left Protestant England to fight for Catholic Spain against the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. In battle, Fawkes mastered the art of explosives.
Little is known about Fawkes’s personal life during this time. Some experts claim that he married Maria Pulleyn in 1590; others dispute this account since no official records exist.
In 1604, Fawkes befriended Thomas Winter in Spain. In turn, Winter introduced Fawkes to Robert Catesby and another man, each of whom were planning to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne of England. Fawkes wanted in on their action.
The resulting conspiracy has come to be known as the Gunpowder Plot.After an anonymous letter tipped off authorities to the impending big bang, searchers set upon Westminster Palace and discovered Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. The scheme stopped short on the spot.
Government agents beat and tortured Fawkes during his interrogation. Experts contend that Fawkes’s suffering is obvious by comparing the robust signature he wrote right after being captured to the weak scrawl on his confession letter made after eight days of torture — which is still held at the National Archives.
When Fawkes was asked why he wanted to blow up Parliament, he answered that he regarded the King as a “disease” since he had been excommunicated by the Pope, and wanted to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your own native mountains!”
A court sentenced Fawkes to a gruesome execution that was to include his being drawn and quartered, as well as having his genitals removed. But on January 31, the failed assassin avoided being mutilated when he fell from the scaffold where he was to be hanged. Fawkes broke his neck in the process.
Still, his memory lives on every year — and in 2002, Guy Fawkes was named the 30th Greatest Briton in a poll conducted by the BBC.
Main photo: Guy Fawkes mask [Wikimedia Commons]