Today is Guy Fawkes Day. It celebrates the day a traitor to the King of England was thwarted in his attempt to blow up the entire government while it met upstairs.
The plot developed as a way to end state-sanctioned religious persecution by killing James I and replacing him with a Roman Catholic monarch. Guy Fawkes, going by the name John Johnson, leased a cellar under the House of Lords in which to stockpile gunpowder.
Most agree that an anonymous letter informed Parliament of the plan, while some theorize that the government knew of it already and allowed it go on, foiling it at the last moment to ensure massive outrage against the Catholic conspirators.
In any case, Fawkes was found in the cellar with a pack of matches and 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured. Twelve others were arrested for their involvement; four died in a shootout with English troops. The eight remaining men joined Fawkes in the Tower. In January 1606, they were all found guilty of high treason and condemned to death.
By law, the men were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Hanging wasn’t the be-all and end-all back then. When properly administered, the execution was just getting started. According to this particularly gruesome Wikipedia entry, a condemned man was:
1. Dragged, usually by a horse, on a wooden frame to the place where he was to be publicly put to death.
2. Hanged by the neck until nearly dead. A short rope was used to prevent his neck from breaking and keep him alive.
3. Brought back to consciousness, if necessary, and placed on a table. His genitalia were removed and his intestines pulled through an incision made in his abdomen. During that time, pieces of his organs were burned nearby so he’d witness as much as possible in case he died before disembowelment was complete.
4. Decapitated and his body hacked into four parts. The head was usually par-boiled in brine to preserve its appearance, then exhibited in the Tower of London, while the quarters were covered in pitch to create a longer-lasting display. The king chose where to send them for optimal crime-deterring value.
Typically, the pieces were then put on display in different locations chosen by the king to discourage would-be traitors who hadn’t witnessed the execution. Out of public decency, women were only burned at the stake to save subjects from the sight of naked lady parts. (I know: they were so lucky.)
Fawkes jumped from the gallows platform and broke his neck. Though the executioners still carried out the rest of the sentence, they were robbed of the opportunity to do it to him while he was alive.
While the capture of Guy Fawkes and failure of the Gunpowder Plot is still celebrated with bonfires and fireworks, it has less to do with 17th-century terrorism and more to do with throwing a party and having a good time.
Lately, Fawkes’s image has been appropriated as a symbol of protest. In the 1982 graphic novel and its 2006 film adaptation, “V for Vendetta,” the hero is an anarchist who wears a Guy Fawkes mask while battling an authoritarian fascist state. The authors wanted to celebrate Fawkes by turning him into an anti-hero for the modern age. Plastic masks to commemorate the film’s release were given to fans.
On February 10, 2008, Anonymous, a “hacktivist” group, held its first public demonstration against Scientology and its aggressive censorship. Protesters were urged to cover their faces to avoid identification “by hostiles.” Some took inspiration from the film’s final scene in which a crowd wore Fawkes masks while watching the Houses of Parliament explode and burn. Since then the mask has been used by the Occupy movement and by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Many see the mask as an icon in the fight against tyranny. The Yeomen of the Guard would disagree. The English monarch’s bodyguards since 1485 still search the cellars below the Palace of Westminster before each state opening of Parliament. The spirit of Fawkes, for good or ill, lives on.