So Who Was Guy Fawkes, Anyway?

The likeness of Guy Fawkes became famous in American culture around the mid-2000s. This was due to two cultural events. First, the release of the movie V For Vendetta, a film adaptation of Alan Moore’s book of the same name. In the film, a repressive government in a futuristic UK is overthrown by hordes of people wearing Guy Fawkes masks. That movie provided the initial popularity. There was a second wave when the internet collective known as Anonymous adopted Guy Fawkes masks as facial coverings and as a symbol for their group. The Project Chanology protests against the Church of Scientology also featured masses of protestors wearing the masks. Every since then, his likeness, or the likeness of his mask, is everywhere. You can even see it on Guy Fawkes t shirts.

So where did that mask come from? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why would anyone wear his face for a mask?

It all goes back to England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the sixteenth century, Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church because the Pope refused to approve his divorce: European monarchs at that time were required to seek approval from the Pope if they wanted to get a divorce (technically an “annulment”). After the separation of the Church of England from Rome, Catholics came under persecution in England. The official state religion was no longer Catholicism and, for a number of reasons, Catholics were seen as having dual loyalties. They had a lot of trouble practicing their religion. They often had to pay fines. Many Catholic families had a “priest hole” in their house. The priest hole was a hiding place for a priest, since the English government sent out “priest hunters” to find Catholic priests who may be hiding in the country.

A group of wealthy and well-connected English Catholics hatched a plot to bring a stop to all this. By this time, Henry VIII was dead and had been replaced by King James I. Their idea was to assassinate King James in a plan later called “The Gunpowder Plot”. The idea was to kill King James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch. They wanted to accomplish this by bringing many barrels of gunpowder underneath the Parliament building, into the part of the building called the undercroft.

The plan ultimately failed. Guy Fawkes, who had been charged with setting off the explosives in the undercroft, was caught by guards who had heard of the plot. Fawkes was captured and tortured until he confessed and told them all of the details. All of his co-conspirators were either killed or captured and then executed. Since then, there has been a yearly celebration in England, where effigies of Fawkes are burned on November 5th.

Guy Fawkes’ face became iconic because of Alan Moore and the ensuing Chanology protests of the 2000s. His role in the Gunpowder Plot made his likeness ripe for use in iconoclastic movements the world over. His likeness appears everywhere: on coffee mugs, online memes, and Guy Fawkes t shirts.

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