The Tudor King Henry VIII began to take control of the English church in 1533, barely 16 years after Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The Protestant Reformation was barely underway. With life and eternal damnation at stake both sides would come to regard the other, as heretical.
Henry fell out with Pope Clement VII over the latter’s refusal to grant him an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. By 1540, the break between the Church of England and the Church of Rome was complete.
English Catholics became increasingly marginalized for the remainder of Henry’s reign, and that of his daughter, Elizabeth I, who died in 1603 without issue. There were several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers in Europe and England, including a failed plot to poison Elizabeth I and the assassination of French King Henry III, who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic, in 1589.
King James VI of Scotland succeeded the “Virgin Queen” in 1603, to the great disappointment of English Catholics. The moderates among them favored James’ and Elizabeth’s cousin Arbella Stuart, a woman believed to harbor Catholic sympathies. More radical Catholics looked to the infant daughter of Phillip II of Spain, the Infanta Isabella.
There were already at least two plots to remove the King from office, when James discovered that his wife, Queen Anne, had secretly received a rosary from the Pope. James responded by denouncing the Catholic Church, ordering Jesuit and all other Catholic priests to leave the country. He re-imposed “recusancy fees”, which had earlier been implemented by Elizabeth. The sum of such fines soon rose to £5,000 a year, equivalent to well over £10 million today.
Among those who believed that ‘faith need not be kept with heretics’, regicide seemed the only way out.
The “Gunpowder Plot”, also known as the “Jesuit Treason”, was inspired by Robert Catesby, a man of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”.
In league with about a dozen others, Catesby planned to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, killing King James and his Privy Council along with untold MPs and government records. The plan was to spark a popular revolt in the Midlands ending in the installation of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Catholic head of state.
Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting for the King of Spain in the Netherlands by this time, was placed in charge of the explosives.
In those days, goods of all kinds were transported in kegs. The movement of even a large number, was perfectly ordinary. Anticipating the State Opening of Parliament on July 28, 36 kegs of powder were moved to an undercroft on the 20th, a small room beneath the House of Lords. There was a metric ton of the stuff, enough to destroy the parliament building and everything around it, for a radius of 100 meters.
And then the plague reared its head and with it the fear, of gathering in large numbers. Parliament was postponed, until November 5.
Others were brought into the plot. That was probably it’s undoing. As the day approached an anonymous letter came to light, warning of the plot. Two separate searches on the evening of the 4th revealed the gunpowder barrels, hidden under sticks and coal. Guy Fawkes was discovered nearby carrying a length of slow burning fuse, called a match.
Fawkes was defiant at first saying there was enough powder, to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains“. Days of torture lay in wait, beginning with shackles and increasing in severity until finally, his body was “broken” on the rack. In January, all but two of the 13 conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered for their treason. Those two had died in the attempt to flee and these, were dug up and decapitated. Fawkes himself, weakened by torture and weeks of confinement in the tower of London, even now managed to jump from the scaffold and break his neck, and thus to spare himself the ordeal of being emasculated and disemboweled before his own dying eyes.
So it is that today, November 5th, is “Guy Fawkes Day”. People all over England will “remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Effigies of Guy Fawkes will be burned throughout the land.
A stylized version of the “Guy Fawkes Mask” came to be in the 1980s, with a comic book series and its later film adaptation, “V for Victory”. The story depicts a vigilante effort to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future, Great Britain.
Since that time, groups ranging from the hacker/activist group Anonymous to Occupy, even radical Libertarians have used the Guy Fawkes mask. A symbol of protest against out of control, tyrannical government, political and banking institutions.