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Who was Guy Fawkes and why the 5th of November?

“Remember remember the 5th of November” is how the old English saying goes, as people celebrate Gunpowder Day/Guy Fawkes night.  Many Americans have no idea who Guy Fawkes was and why England even celebrates Guy Fawkes Night as a holiday.

Guy Fawkes was born in April 1570 in the town of Stonegate, York.  He was Edward and Edith Fawkes’ second child out of a total of four.  Although his parents were protestant, there were Catholics on his mother’s side of the family including his cousin who was a Jesuit Priest.  England at the time was officially protestant and tolerance for Catholics was not exactly plentiful.  That did not stop his mother from marrying a Catholic when Guy’s father died. It is possible that Guy converted to Catholicism as a child but there really isn’t a good record of it.

Guy went on to serve as a mercenary fighting for Catholic Spain against the Dutch Republic. In 1604 Guy Fawkes became involved in what is known as the Gunpowder Plot.  Basically he and his fellow conspirators planned to blow up parliament and the king in an effort to replace the monarch with a Catholic successor.  The plot was foiled and Guy Fawkes was arrested.  Following interrogation/torture he gave up a list of his coconspirators.  He was tried, convicted and schedule for execution.  Defiant to the last as the noose was placed around his neck he jumped down giving himself a quick death from a broken neck rather than a slow torturous death by being hanged and quartered.  He was quartered anyway but at least he didn’t have to suffer during it.

Beginning in 1605 the people of England were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape by lighting bonfires.  Beginning in the 1650’s towns began adding fireworks to the celebrations each year and often effigies were burned, usually either The Pope or Guy Fawkes or some other hated character. After 1841 Fawkes’ image was rebranded thanks to several books and children’s book painting Fawkes in a more positive light.  Today Fawkes is best known as the face on the mask often worn by anarchists at various political demonstrations.  Many choose to remember Fawkes as “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”

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