Understanding Guy Fawkes Day
We explain Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes Day, and the symbolism behind the the Guy Fawkes mask, the fifth of November, and the Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot.
Who Was Guy Fawkes? – Anglophenia Ep 18. This wasn’t a ploy to overthrow the monarchy, it was a ploy to put Catholics in power and stop anti-Catholic laws.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason, why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot.” (one of many versions of the Gay Fawkes Day rhyme). – A very ironic rhyme considering most have forgotten the point behind remembering Gunpowder Treason.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes, a pseudonym of Guido Fawkes, was a member of a group of radical English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Although he was only one of 13 conspirators, Fawkes is today the individual most associated with the failed plot.
FACT: Robert Catesby was the actual leader of the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes was romanticized by William Harrison Ainsworth‘s 1841 historical romance Guy Fawkes; or, The Gunpowder Treason which portrays Fawkes in a generally sympathetic light (prior to this Fawkes and the other plotters were seen as villains).
What was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605?
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a plan to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne (not to bring liberty to the people or anything like that).
James I / James IV in Scotland was a Scottish pro-Protestant philosopher king of sorts, he was arguably the first to argue for the Divine Right of Kings before Robert Filmer… and thus his name largely stands next to Locke and Hobbes on a list of important philosophers; hardly the perfect villain (see James and Buchanan).
Fawkes didn’t like the Scottish nobles at the time and was disappointed with their failure to extended greater religious tolerance to English Catholics.
The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state.5 Things Americans Don’t Know About the Gunpowder Plot.
TIP: This means that by any reasonable definition Guy Fawkes and company were planning “a violent act of terror” due to their religious views. This doesn’t excuse James’ policy toward Catholics (anti-Catholic legislation was introduced soon after the plot’s discovery, but loyal Catholics retained high office during King James I’s reign), but it doesn’t exactly paint Fawkes in the best of lights (especially for those who know the history of James, Buchanan, liberalism, and Protestantism in Scotland / England / Wales).
What is the Symbolism of Guy Fawkes and the Guy Fawkes Mask?
When we see the Guy Fawkes today it means two things:
- Today it means: We should celebrate “a little rebellion now and then“. In a free society, we have the right to non-violent protest and must remind “the powers that be” of our liberties and rights.
- Originally it meant, and still means: Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot is not tolerated in civil society, the Fifth of November is meant to remember that we are glad the King survived the assassination plot by the terrorist Guy Fawkes. In civil society we have courts, discourse, and laws. Before you try to blow up the House of Lords, make sure you have exhausted your legal options first. If you do think you have to take measures outside the law, you better have some consensus and a philosophically correct Declaration of Independence level document backing you… Or you just may find yourself paying a visit to the gallows.
Why the Guy Fawkes Day is an Odd Symbol for Activists
At first one may think, given V for Vendetta and Anonymous (who both helped popularized the Fawkes mask and modern social radical activism), that Guy Fawkes day is all about the joys and wonders of radical liberalism and standing up to “the establishment”, where the masked rebels are heroes of the highest order… but it is actually the opposite of that in many ways.
Essentially Fawkes was planning to blow up a bunch of officials sitting in parliament who represented both sides of the isle and a slow progression toward our modern age. The plotters were well intentioned in their own minds, but in practice they were about to blow up a rather good and fair King (historically speaking).
Not only this, but the plotters were doing it because of anti-Scottish, anti-Establishment, and Pro-Catholic ideology (thus they had their own divisive ideology, they weren’t exactly standing up for all).
It isn’t like they sent a letter or tried to pass a law or rally political support first. They didn’t lobby the king with legal means, they went straight to the gunpowder when early attempts to secure greater equality for Catholics seemed to fade.
None of our philosophical founders have ever said “gunpowder, treason, and plot are good, go for it”, sure Buchanan and Locke give justification for regicide (when no legal recourse is possible, as a last resort), but even our radical founder Thomas Jefferson was willing to put down those rebels who “unwisely” took up arms rather than using legal means (see Shays’ rebellion).The Gunpowder Plot – Guy Fawkes (BBC).
THE ORIGIN OF GUY FAWKES DAY: On 5 November 1605 Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination by lighting bonfires, “always provided that ‘this testemonye of joy be carefull done without any danger or disorder'”. An Act of Parliament designated each 5 November as a day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance”, and remained in force until 1859. The way the day is celebrated changes over time and location, but today it less about thanksgiving, Catholicism, or its original meaning, and more about celebrating via a night of bonfires and fireworks.
FACT: Settlers exported Guy Fawkes Night to overseas colonies, including some in North America, where it was known as Pope Day. Although the tradition of celebrated died out during the revolution. Learn more about Guy Fawkes Day/Night.