The English holiday that began with a bang (or lack thereof)

By: Abigail Jarvis

“Remember, remember, the 5th of November.” You may have heard this rhyme thrown around in old stories or nursery rhymes, but what does it mean? What are we supposed to be remembering? Over 400 years ago, a failed rebellion in England led the cause for a celebration and has since had lasting effects on popular western culture.

King James I, as well as his precursors, were strongly opposed to Catholicism in England. Catholics were condemned and persecuted, forced to attend Protestant services, and were refused basic rights such as owning land. There was no religious tolerance and the monarchy’s stance on Catholicism inspired several attempts at dismantling the crown. The most notable was the Gunpowder Rebellion led by Guy Fawkes, an extreme attempt at overpowering the government.

Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to blow up King James, his son, and the entirety of parliament from an underground prison located below where they were meeting on Nov. 4. Afterward, they hoped to crown a more religiously tolerant monarch from the family. The attempt was thwarted by guards who discovered Fawkes in the prison with 36 barrels of gunpowder, most likely due to a tip from a member within the plot. Fawkes and most of the other members of the small rebellion were charged with treason, and the rebels came to a gruesome end.

In England and the English colonies, bonfires, upwards gunshots, and fireworks have been seen every Nov. 5 ever since to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ capture and failed violent retaliation to the English monarchy. Although the holiday is rarely celebrated anymore in the Americas, there are several traces of Fawkes’s influence in the media and pop culture.

The most recognizable trace of Fawkes’ plot is the mask. The masks are commonly pale with simple, yet dramatized replications of Fawkes’ facial hair outlined with bold paint. V is for Vendetta, a popular 2005 dystopian film, has a prominent reference to Fawkes’ mask, and created the image that is used today. The anti-hero of the movie wears a Guy Fawkes mask to hide his identity as he tries to compromise a fascist government. 

Similarly, the internet conspirators known as “Anonymous” wear Guy Fawkes masks to hide their identity as they attempt to unveil secret information. Numerous protesters across the globe now wear the mask with the image that Time Warner owns the rights to, often to hide their identity and to express unrest with large companies or governments.

Although Fawkes’ actions were criticized at the time of his attempted rebellion, his image stands as a lasting rebellion in itself.