“Remember, remember, the fifth of November
The gunpowder treason and plot
I see of no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot…”
Do you remember this line, fellas? Along with this mask?
Most of us heard the lines or saw the mask first on the movie ‘V for Vendetta’ (James McTeigue, 2006). The main character of the movie, V, was a victim of a biological weapon experiment. The weapon then brought England to a despotic era led by Chancellor Sutler.
V was portrayed to have taken his inspiration from Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes was a member of the Gunpowder Plot who was arrested on 5 November 1605. V wore a mask that was said to resemble Fawkes’ face and set a revolution on the day Fawkes was arrested, 5 November.
Due to the popularity of the movie, many people then associated the Guy Fawkes mask with a symbol of resistance against tyranny. We even have hackers that go by the name Anonymous and use the mask as their persona. However, the history of 5 November 1605 was not exactly that black and white.
If we trace the history of 5 November 1605, we could go back to the reign of Henry VIII from House of Tudor, who was the king of England from 1509 to 1547. During his reign, he declared himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He adopted the Protestant faith which severed the tie between England and the Catholic Church led by the Pope and eventually resulted in excommunication of England by the Pope and other notable European kingdoms who supported the Pope.
Catholic churches and monasteries across England were forced to close their doors and had their assets confiscated. Anyone who spoke against Henry VIII found their heads rolling off of the chopping block (executed by beheading). This definitely caused a deep resentment between people of different faiths.
Upon his death, Henry passed the throne to his only legitimate son, Edward VI, who was also a devout Protestant. Unfortunately, Edward VI died young at the age of 15-16 and did not leave any heir. He chose his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, to be the new queen, despite having two half-sisters, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
The older sister, Mary I, was set on returning England to a Catholic state. With the nobility as her supporters, she overthrew Jane Grey and became the Queen of England for the next 5 years. During her reign, those of Protestant faith were deemed heretics and executed, which led to the coinage of the term ‘Bloody Mary.’ Her sister, Elizabeth I, almost met the same fate; she was accused of plotting against the Queen.
Eventually, Mary I fell ill and died of what was suspected to be ovarian cysts or uterine cancer, and as she had no heir, she reluctantly named her sister, Elizabeth I, who was a Protestant, as her successor. Elizabeth I then reigned for 45 years. She promoted religious tolerance and introduced a Religious Settlement which then became the foundation of the Church of England and Anglicanism.
But again, the succession was an issue, as Elizabeth was a woman and therefore could not pass on her family name. She was torn between marriage proposals from Spain and France, which in her view, would make England merely a vassal state of either kingdom. She was concerned that her marriage would again bring England to disharmony.
So she did something drastic: she chose not to marry. Upon her death in 1603, the throne then passed on to her closest Protestant relative, James VI of Scotland from House of Stuart, who then became James I and reigned upon England and Scotland.
The deep resentment caused by Henry VIII’s decision to declare himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England was still very much obvious more than half a century later. Even during the reign of Elizabeth I, there had been numerous attempts to overthrow the monarch and enthrone someone of Catholic faith, and this also happened during the reign of James I. One of the most notable ones was the Gunpowder Plot.
Set as an attempt to blow up the House of Lords (the parliament) and kill James I, the plot was discovered on 5 November 1605 when Guy Fawkes was arrested. To celebrate the fact that the King had survived the assassination attempt, people lit bonfires around London. An act called ‘The Observance of 5th November’ was then passed to enforce an annual thanksgiving to celebrate the plot’s failure. From then on, the 5th of November is celebrated annually in the UK. It is also known as Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes Night.
So, I personally have mixed feelings about the fifth of November. I love the movie V for Vendetta, and many people apparently do, too. But it’s safe to say that the history behind Guy Fawkes is… a lot. Do feel free to add anything if there’s something I missed and correct me for any historical inaccuracy.
Compiled by @alicesaraswati for @EnglishTips4U on Thursday, 5 November 2020.
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