‘Remember, remember the fifth of November …’ (Nursery Rhyme)
Late in the evening of 4 November, 1605, following a tipoff in an anonymous letter, a search was made of the undercroft (cellar) directly below the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster in London. At the time, the undercroft was rented out to merchants and nearby traders as a storage facility, so there was nothing unusual when a man was discovered sitting among a pile of firewood, which he said he was guarding for his master.
Further investigations, however, revealed a considerable arsenal of coal and 30 barrels of gunpowder, and the man was quickly arrested, questioned and eventually taken before King James I (VI in Scotland). Although he lied about his name, giving it as ‘John Johnson’, the man firmly stated that his intention was ‘to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains’ during the King’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament the following day. Without knowing the true identity of this renowned and battled-scarred mercenary soldier, an expert in explosives and veteran of the Eighty Years War between Catholic Spain and the new Dutch Republic, James was obviously impressed by the man’s steadfast character and described him as having ‘a Roman resolution’. So much so, in fact, that, during his subsequent ‘interrogation’ in the Tower of London, James ordered that ‘the gentler tortures are to be first used unto him et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur (and so by degrees proceeding to the worst)’.
During three days and nights of unimaginable suffering, ‘Johnson’ was eventually broken on the rack and finally confessed the names of not only his co-conspirators but also himself – with a scrawled signature that was barely legible: ‘Guido (in English, Guy) Fawkes’.
By January 1606 most of the other plotters had been arrested, and all were put on trial charged with high treason and pronounced guilty. The Lord Chief Justice decreed that they were to be dragged backwards through the streets and ‘put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both’. Their bodies would then be dismembered and left displayed in the open so that they would become ‘prey for the fowls of the air’. However, either by accident or design, as he climbed the scaffold Guy Fawkes fell from the ladder, breaking his neck, and was killed instantly, which denied the hangman his fee. Even so, his body was ‘quartered’ and the parts distributed to ‘the four corners of the kingdom’, as a deterrent to other potential traitors.
The following year Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires and commemorate the king’s escape from assassination, and an Act of Parliament was passed making 5 November a national day of thanksgiving and celebration, which remained in place until 1895. Effigies of Fawkes, the Pope and other notable characters were burnt on the fires, and later fireworks were added to further mark the occasion.
In recent years, however, Guy Fawkes’ Night is less recognised, due to its religious and political connotations, and has largely been overshadowed by the generally more acceptable autumnal festival of Halloween (31 October). Nevertheless, the persona of Guy Fawkes remains firmly in the public eye even today, thanks to the graphic novel V for Vendetta (1982) and the succeeding 2002 movie, in which a masked vigilante, disguised as Fawkes, wages war on the British establishment. The iconic image of this grinning white face with upturned moustache and goatee beard has become immensely popular and has been adopted by anti-government, anti-capitalist, modern-day anarchist groups and many others as the unknown face of mass protest. Subsequently, the masks have sold in their millions across the globe, but the irony is that copyright for the “Anonymous” mask is owned by Warner Media LLC, which receives a revenue for every mask bought and is one of the largest multinational media companies in the world.
Brian Lamont, features editor