On this day in 1605, an angry English Catholic named Guy Fawkes along with a group of other angry English Catholics with other names attempted to blow the House of Lords and King James I to high heaven. The so-called Gunpowder Plot gave birth to centuries of stringent anti-Catholic legislation, an infamous graphic novel with a persecution complex, hactivism, and the abbreviated inquiry “WTF?”
Fawkes was born in 1570 in York, for which he cannot be held responsible. That he began fighting on the side of imperial Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch Republic in the Eighty Years War is a matter of moral culpability. It was not long before Fawkes was in Spain asking King Philip II to aid embattled Catholics in England.
A variety of factors created that embattlement. First there was Henry VIII, who asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry a bunch of other women, but was denied in a tastefully crafted letter that opened, “To whom it may concern.” The pope stood his moral ground, thus denying Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and Catherine’s nephew, another excuse to bust up Rome. So Henry named himself head of the church in England, which enabled him to sleep with whomever he wanted, making things very difficult for those who remained loyal to the Bishop of Rome and traditional views of marriage.
Catholics had placed high hopes in the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603. (They had enjoyed a brief respite from persecution under Henry and Catherine’s Catholic daughter Mary Tudor, who did her best to kill as many Protestants as possible, earning her the nickname “Bloody,” after “Chloé” proved a tad precious.) James was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who was herself daughter of the French Mary of Guise (who was also Queen of Scots—whether the same Scots is unclear, there having been quite a lot of Scots at one time).
Believing that James would at least soften the anti-Catholic laws that had left many adherents of the Old Faith impoverished, imprisoned, or dead, and that had only become more onerous after the Spanish Armada launched, Catholics were soon disappointed. James had no such intention, especially given a clinical paranoia that made King Herod look like a bodhisattva. (To be fair, James had been the object of earlier, failed Catholic conspiracies, called the Bye and Main plots. One of the plans had been to kidnap the king and hold him in the Tower of London until Catholics were granted full toleration, which becomes increasingly difficult to argue for when you’re holding the monarch captive, as there’s only so much antisocial behavior any king can tolerate before someone loses an eye.)
So a frustrated-up-to-here group of extremists under the leadership of the rebellious Catholic crusader Robert Catesby attempted to give the royal succession a good shove down History Lane by blowing up James and everyone who mattered.
One Catholic lord, Monteagle, was tipped off ahead of time. “The Monteagle Letter” made its way to the king, who, owing to an intuitive instinct that rivaled that of the future Mr. Sherlock Holmes, deduced that something sinister was afoot. In fact, an inspection of the parliamentary cellars on the fateful night of November 5 found Guy (now named Guido*) Fawkes guarding tubs of dynamite beneath the House of Lords. The story of Catholics in England goes downhill from there, what with the conspirators being tortured and executed and having their heads placed on pikes and such.**
Guys: Fawkes Wasn’t an Anarchist
In light of this history, Fawkes is a strange choice to be the face of hacker activists like Anonymous and other anarchist movements. We’ve all seen that stupid mask, the one that looks like Gomez Adams just did it with Morticia.
Fawkes, after all, was first and foremost loyal to the Holy See, which at the time of the foiled plot was being wholly overseen by Pope Paul V, best known as the guy who created the Bank of the Holy Spirit, the first national bank in Europe, and the first bank of any stripe to waive monthly maintenance fees if you paid for two indulgences directly from the account in any 30-day period. (It was Paul V, after all, who finished St. Peter’s Basilica, and those things don’t come cheap. He also placed the entire Venetian Republic under interdict, and if you knew the paperwork involved, you’d be mightily impressed.)
It should be noted that papal agents were also implicated in the Gunpowder Plot. Which is to say, seventeenth-century Roman Catholicism was not exactly in the liberté vanguard, but the same could be said for Jacobean England and 99 percent of the rest of human associations at that time, civil or spiritual, owing to the introduction of fluoride to the drinking water (although I may be mistaken about that).
The events of November 5 loomed large in the imagination of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants in Britain and America for quite some time. (Swarthy Anglo-Saxon Protestants tended to be more laid back about such matters.) The prospect of a duplicitous cadre of fifth-columnists loyal to a foreign prince made Catholicism a suspect religion in Protestant-majority countries for centuries.
It would take until the nineteenth century for 200 years to pass, along with laws loosening restrictions on Catholic participation in British public life. In the United States it would take the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and that tedious “Going My Way” playing every freaking December for true anti-Catholicism (as opposed to anti-Pelagianism, for which it is often mistaken) to stop being a thing, except among certain fundamentalist Protestants, most progressives, and Catholic theologians with degrees from Villanova or Boston College.
What About the Guy Fawkes Mask?
But what about the mask, you ask? Well, that has its origins in the tradition of Bonfire Night, when Brits burned effigies of Fawkes in, wait for it, bonfires, a celebration of thanksgiving for the averted catastrophe. Paul V was burned in effigy as well, but masks of the pope drew only blank stares or the occasional “How’s the veal piccata tonight?”
The Fawkes mask famously entered modern popular culture in 1982, when episodes of what would become the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” began surfacing. In it, a dystopian 1990s Britain, devastated by fallout from nuclear war and controlled by the fascist Norsefire party, is threatened further by a revolutionary wearing a Fawkes mask.
A combination Zorro, Batman, and Christopher Hitchens, the hero known only as “V” teams up with a young woman who had been wasting away in a government prison. Together they manage actually to blow up Parliament (and by “actually” I mean like in a giant cartoon), which at the very least saved poor Muslims from further persecution by the Church of England, demonstrating how lacking in prescience some comic book writers really are.
The Fawkes legend remained pungent. In 2003, inchoate groups of social-justice-warrior anarchist computer hackers, going by the name Anonymous, presented themselves to the public behind the facial firewall of the Guy Fawkes mask, which had by this time, owing primarily to V’s legacy, become the symbol of resistance to all forms of property rights. The groups’ motto, “We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us,” has also been claimed by several public-sector trade unions (but not, interestingly enough, by the U.S. Postal Service).
When in 2011 the Occupy movement began urinating in public to protest people who had more than them, Fawkes masks could be seen in abundance, if for no other reason than they were less expensive than a Caramel Brulée Frappuccino at Starbucks and peeing there. (Also, such proximity to propaganda in the form of employment applications was deemed hazardous to the cause.)
Religious Folks Believe They Are Masks
So there we have it: the drive for a Catholic confessional state that would have made things very difficult for non-Catholics of every stripe became the symbol for resistance to oppression everywhere. Don’t tell me History doesn’t have a sense of humor, because, well, season two of “True Detective.”
Fawkes would no doubt be amused by the uses to which his visage have been put, were he not as dead as the iPod Touch. (Then again, he might be outraged or encouraged. Frankly, I never met the man and so can only speculate. In 1891, the bivalve brass speculum was patented, brass being an alloy of zinc and copper, copper also being the constituent property of the eight-pointed badges worn by New York City police in the 1800s. The nineteenth century was big on copper. It should be obvious by now that I have no idea where I’m going with this.)
Masks themselves have an interesting history that I have no intention of exploring here because it no longer seems as interesting as when I first started this sentence. They also bear a theological signification, dating back to the Reformation era, which gave rise to the confessional polemics that drove evangelicals to Smithfield, Calvin to Geneva, Jesuits into priest holes, and Anabaptists to the river.
Über-Reformer Martin Luther believed that the deus absconditus, the hidden God, revealed himself via the masks he wore in the world as Christians applied themselves in their daily vocations. So God still heals, but wearing the “mask” of the human physician. God still rules the civil realm, but hidden behind duly appointed human authorities.
God still sues orthodox Anglicans out of house and home, but for $600 an hour. So when your corporate e-mail account is hacked by a Fawkes-masked intruder, assume either it is God telling you to get into another racket or that all metaphors break down at some point.
Guy “Guido” Fawkes remains the patron saint of demolition derbies and unemployable neo-hippies.
*Fun fact: By the time of the Gunpowder Plot, Guy had taken the name Guido, an Italianization of his name, reflecting his Romeward affinities and taste in suits. That he was also known in underground circles as Sal from Astoria has been a matter of some controversy, mostly among sports-radio types. A Guido in today’s parlance, however, is more than likely still living with his mother and wearing one of those athletic, sleeveless T-shirts for which there are several rude names. By the way, I can make those kinds of jokes, so save it.
**The rumor that this was the inspiration for the Pez dispenser is unfounded.