I admit I had not planned to do a piece on Guy Fawkes day, especially seeing as it was on Friday last, but a few things I’ve heard in the last few days changed my mind; it seems that even among the more well-informed liberal set, there are shocking lapses in history that need to be addressed.
I suppose that ignorance of Guy Fawkes is a little more excusable, since most people cannot be bothered to learn the history of their own country, much less a foreign one. As a sidebar, this is not just confined to American history; in my years of teaching, I’ve encountered many a student (and many a parent) who would proudly state that they were Dominican, Nepalese, whatever, but knew almost nothing about their own history. Americans have a double hindrance when it comes to history, though, in that they don’t learn what really happened in school, and then they learn about all kinds of things that didn’t happen from movies. I imagine it’s no surprise then that when I mentioned Guy Fawkes and his iconic mask to a few folk, they response was, “You mean that mask from V For Vendetta? That really happened?” The Hells save me from dimwits…
Yes, children Guy Fawkes was a real man, and the Gunpowder Plot was a real event; Fawkes was a strident catholic, one who had fought in Spain (a perennial enemy of England) on the side of Catholics there against the Dutch, and was a seasoned soldier when he and twelve other men decided to assassinate the Protestant King James and place a Catholic on the throne, possibly his daughter the Princess Elizabeth, in 1605. The stories of digging a tunnel under Parliament seem to be an item mistakenly picked up by the public, as Fawkes did not admit it, and no tunnel was ever found, but the conspirators did buy an undercroft, or basement room, right under the House of Lords, and stock it with barrels of gunpowder. They had to delay their original date, as plague fears caused Parliament to postpone opening, and in the interim new supplies were provided; it seems that someone in the know, worried that some Catholics would be killed in the explosion, sent a warning letter to Lord Monteagle, who was sympathetic to the Catholics, to stay away from the “terrible blow” about to descend on the Parliament. Fawkes also travelled abroad, hoping to gain Spanish support for the rebellion, and that also may have reached the ears of British spies. Either way, the news reached James, who ordered all the buildings around Parliament searched, and Fawkes was found guarding the powder with matches and fuse ready.
Fawkes gave a false name and history, though he never denied his goal was to assassinate the king; he was tortured until he named his co-conspirators. Fawkes and seven of the others were tried on January 27, and found guilty of high treason, condemned to be dragged to the execution spot, their genitals cut off, disemboweled, then beheaded and quartered. On January 31, Fawkes and three others were taken, but after the first two were brutally dispatched and Fawkes climbed up the scaffold for his turn he leaped off, breaking his neck and sparing him the gruesome death of the others.
November 5th was declared a day for the people to celebrate the saving of the King from the dastardly plot, and burning Guy in effigy became commonplace, but as the centuries passed, Guy’s image, helped along by a historical romance published in 1841, as well as children’s books in the early 20th century, became that of the brave crusader who fought and died for what he believed was right. It is still not uncommon in Britain to hear him called “the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”
Of course, Alan Moore’s superb graphic novel V For vendetta (and the excellent film that followed) intro’d the Guy Fawkes mask to Americans, and it can now be seen among the many symbols of the Occupy Wall Street crowd, a fitting reminder of a man who paid the ultimate price to battle injustice. And who says there are no Catholics to admire?
Lest we think that historical lapses only apply to events of several centuries past, I was admittedly shocked when, discussing the nonsense of “In God We Trust”, I found many people are under the delusion that it came with the Founding Fathers. Not even close, kiddies! It was added to our currency, and adopted as our official motto in 1956! True, it appeared on coins as early as 1865, but was officially adopted during the Communist scare, another distracting move by right wing terrorists who wanted people to forget that, in a most un-American fashion, these scaremongers were running roughshod over the rights of innocent Americans in order to further consolidate their own power, just as the Republicans are doing right now. “In God We Trust” is a bullshit sentiment, since there isn’t a politician around who truly believes it (Go ahead Rick, tell us how your Christian anti-abortion stance isn’t in contradiction with you presiding over more executions than any other governor) and one that has no place in the 21st century; it simply serves as another divisive tool to placate the simple minded and keep the rich in power.