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November 5th, 2011
08:40 PM ET

The distorted story of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic supremacist

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN)– One man’s face, even 406 years after his death, has become an icon for people looking to stand up to power.

Guy Fawkes, and the mask of his likeness, has been romanticized in movies, in news and at protests around the world. Most recently, the mask has been used during the populist Occupy protest and the hacker group Anonymous has released numerous videos using the Fawkes likeness.

And because of this, Fawke’s devilishly smiling face, porcelain white skin and menacing eyes have become an almost international symbol of standing up to power.

But this romanticized view of Fawkes, according to historians, distorts the truth about Fawke’s life and in many ways, misrepresents what Fawkes, a Catholic supremacist, actually stood for.

“The image of Guy Fawkes has been fashioned for modern protest purposes,” said Alastair Bellany, a history professor at Rutgers University. “And that use has distorted the historical understanding of Fawkes."

Bellany said that when he teaches Guy Fawkes, all of his students come to class with an idea of the man and his ideology.

That idea of Fawkes largely stems from his use in V for Vendetta, a 2006 movie based on the comic books by Alan Moore about a mysterious masked revolutionary who brings down a totalitarian regime, succeeding where Fawkes failed by blowing up parliament.

The Guy Fawkes mast is worn by V, the films protagonist, a man who fought against injustice and in the end (spoiler alert), sacrificed himself for the movement.

The problem is, says Newton Key, a professor at Eastern Illinois University, that story is not only wrong, but makes Fawkes out to be the mastermind that he wasn’t.

“The Gun Powder plot was about one issue, restoring Catholic supremacy,” Key said. “That has fused to uproar against that man, but that wasn't really what Fawkes and his coconspirators were intending.”

“I can see why they like it, but it is mainly referencing the movie and not the actual plot,” Key said.

James Sharpe, the preeminent scholar on Fawkes and author of the book Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day, said the actual story is more intertwined with religious history in England than the movie or the comic series let on.

Fawkes was born to Catholic parents in 1570, a time where Catholics very much an oppressed minority in England. When Henry VIII broke the English church away from Rome in the 1530s, the country was thrown into turmoil over religious ideology until Elizabeth I acceded the thrown in 1558.

“Under Elizabeth I, the English church becomes a Protestant church and Catholicism is forced underground,” said Bellany. “If you didn't go to the regular state church, you were fined. And many of the people who didn't go to these churches paid because they couldn’t stomach going to the Protestant services.”

To men like Fawkes, the English crown was the reason for their treatment and that severe pressure pushed them underground.

It was out of these circumstances that another man, Robert Catesby, planned the Gunpowder Plot. The plan was to assassinate King James I of England by blowing up the Parliament building while the king was there.

“What they were looking for was either Catholic supremacy or at least a government set up where Catholics have full toleration,” Sharpe said.

Was Fawkes involved, “yes,” said Sharpe, but making him out to be the master conspirator is incorrect. Fawkes was the guy tasked to plant the charges in Westminster Palace, but because the plot was unsuccessful and Fawkes was caught, he has become the face of the rebellion.

After Fawkes was captured, “the plot was used by the government to rally around the flag,” said Key. The night of November 5 is now Guy Fawkes Night in England, a holiday celebrated in England by people lighting bonfires and fireworks, along with burning an effigy of Fawkes, to commemorate the failure of the plot.

“The fifth of November had anti-catholic tinge well into the 19 century,” Sharpe said. “Once the anti-catholic sentiment went away, Guy Fawkes became the central figure.”

Centuries removed, said Sharpe, very few people in England could pin down the history of the Gunpowder Plot.

Fast-forward to today and Guy Fawkes is possibly more popular than he has even been. Wikileaks leader Julian Assange recently attended an Occupy protest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London wearing the iconic Guy Fawkes mask.

Malcolm, a 44-year-old Anonymous member in London told CNN the mask has become "an international symbol for rebellion and anonymity."

CNN’s Nick Thompson contributed to this report

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Faith Now

soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. limo guy

    Religious Views: Mine alone. I don't proselytize nor do I tolerate those who do.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  2. catholic engineer

    One group's hero necessarily is another group's villain. Fuandamentalists and atheists delight in the Enquisition, but few of them understand it's reasons. In the 15th century, the Moors had been run out of Spain, and country was a mess. Ferdinand and Isabella rebuilt Spain. Any country is bult on principles. Spain was rebuilt on Catholic principles. Whenever the principles of a country, be it US, Russia, Norway, Greece, are threatened, so is the life of the nation. Many people, particularly Jews, were converting to Catholicism. The Inquisition was interested in the converts who recanted. Why? Because many of these "converts" were rising to political power. It was like a hard-core socialist secretly rising to power in the US. This threatened the Catholic principles on which Spain was built. When a nation's principles are violated, it's called "treason". The Church was not allowed to spill blood, so of the approxomately 22000 people processed through the Inquisition, about 2000 were turned over to the state for execution. Many nations execute treasonous people.

    November 7, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Nonimus

      Wow, first defense of the Spanish Inquisition I've ever seen. (And, no one expects that...)

      Are you saying that confessions wrung out of people on the rack are justified by the need to protect the state against treason?

      November 7, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • catholic engineer

      @ Numinous: THere is nothing in my post that defends the Inquisition. I don't believe in capital punishment, either. The Inquisition was intended to root out religious dissent, but primarily because religious dissent meant treason. My personal view is that torturing people, burning them at the stake, in the name of Christ or politics is reprehensible. So was starving Ukrainians by the atheist Stalin . I suspect that your understanding of the Inquisition may have been incomplete.

      November 7, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Perhaps I misunderstood. "Many nations execute treasonous people," seemed to be some sort of endorsement since many people, I suspect, would agree that treason is heinous and punishable crime.
      Similarly for, "One group's hero necessarily is another group's villain. Fuandamentalists and atheists delight in the Enquisition, but few of them understand it's reasons." Generally, people think of the Inquisition as a bad thing, but since you brought out the hero vs. villain comparison, the conclusion I drew was that you were attempting to show the Inquisition in a good, or heroic, light, i.e. defending it.
      Additionally, if that is not the case then I'm not certain why you brought up the Inquisition at all. What does it have to do with Guy Fawkes?

      November 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • J.W

      Yeah I think even the pope has admitted that the Inquisition was wrong.

      November 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Woody

    “If you didn't go to the regular state church, you were fined....."

    Sounds like the ultimate goal of the Christian fundies in present day USA.

    November 7, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Don't wake the fundies

      Shhh!! Careful now. You wouldn't want to burst believers' bubble that their religion was spread through peace and love and sunshine and rainbows and unicorns!

      November 7, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  4. Mike Buck

    God told me to wear a Guy Fawkes mask!

    November 6, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  5. Edgar

    I think people relate more to the ideals of V rather than the failure of Guy Fawkes. That's why the mask is more prevalent.

    November 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • TheRationale

      I think that's exactly it.

      November 6, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  6. cmessersmith

    Mixing politics and religion is always a lethal compination

    November 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  7. Hypatia

    Anyone in this country who think Guy Fawkes was a hero either cannot speak enough English to weather a general history of the United Kingdom, or is indulging in romance novels.

    November 6, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  8. AGuest9

    CNN’s Dan Merica needs to return to grammar school, because spelling and punctuation don't seem to be his forte.

    November 6, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • Hypatia

      Amen. He's also delusional. I've NEVER ever heard of Fawkes being held up as some kind of 'hero'. I think he's pulled his 'research' from a bunch of 18th century Catholic anti-English texts.

      November 6, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Fnordz

      Hypatia: You clearly don't know anyone involved in the 'Occupy' protests or the group Anonymous, because they practically idolize the guy.

      November 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  9. cony000

    It is better to die standing than live on your knees. - Emiliano Zapata 1915 Mexican Revolution. EZ he was truely for the people. We need a person like him today and not what the Gop is putting out. The GOP is a joke. An Uncle Tom 7 dawarfs and snow white. I will give you name of real American Hero that can't be bought by either party. Grad West Point, Heisman winner, Grad Oxford, wrote his thesis about why he was against the Vietnam War and still went, youngest brig, General in the history of America, youngest 3 star General in the history of America. This Guy is a born leader but instead people are supporting people who have no integrity, liars, racist, and the most unamerican group of Benedict Arnolds that we have ever seen before. Check this guy out to see that this person has the Right Stuff. Pete Dawkins.

    November 6, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Joe Sixpack

      I looked up his bio. He was a partner at Lehman Brothers, vice chairman of Citigroup, and launched his own hedge fund. We've got enough crooks in DC already.

      November 6, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  10. Just A Person

    Crappy writing: "The Guy Fawkes mast is worn by V"

    November 6, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  11. Steve

    Same thing went down 2,000 years ago with a failed jewish rebellion. A distorted history to fit the present and you have a religion.

    November 6, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  12. bennycat

    Guy Fawkes is a metaphor, for pete's sake. As for distorting the historical understanding, ask the next 50 people you meet in the subway who Guy Fawkes is, then enjoy the blank stares.

    November 6, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  13. Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

    Wow! The church and/or their 1% masters are dang nervous about these masks. :(

    It has ZERO to do with Guy Fawkes. He's not even mentioned in the the movie "V", which is what the masks represent.

    How splendid that the power establishment finds them so unsettling that they need to resurrect and re-vilify poor Guy Fawkes. It will be another epic fail by the 1% overlords and their army of tools. ;)

    November 6, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • wacokid

      uhm, did you even see the movie? He is not only referenced, but actually shown dragging the tnt! Admittedly, the masks were a Hollywood affectation.

      November 6, 2011 at 7:00 am |
    • hippypoet

      yeah, i gotta break it to ya buddy..... thed cops in V say he is wearing a Guy Fawke mask and therefore can't ID the man! Then V tells the story of Guy to the girl Portman...called EV for ease of the typing is all. They also sing about guy, its not a historic song but its a catchie one. rememeber remember the 5th of november, the gun-powder treason and plot. I see no reason why the 5th of november should ever be forgot. or something like that... So your are wayyy wrong. But that happens, no worries.

      November 6, 2011 at 7:19 am |
    • Reality

      "The latest data show that a big portion of the federal income tax burden is shoul¬dered by a small group of the very richest Americans. The wealthiest 1 percent of the population earn 19 per¬cent of the income but pay 37 percent of the income tax. The top 10 percent pay 68 percent of the tab. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent—those below the median income level—now earn 13 percent of the income but pay just 3 percent of the taxes. These are proportions of the income tax alone and don’t include payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare."

      http://www.american.com/archive/2007/november-december-magazine-contents/guess-who-really-pays-the-taxes

      Obviously, we need more rich people to reduce my tax burden !!!

      November 6, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  14. Richard Thomas

    It was actually a celebration of Divine Intervention as articulated here by @Activist in twitter who spawned the movement http://iamblogging.net/awareness/

    November 6, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  15. Reality

    And all of this over a religion founded by a king who murdered two of his six wives !!! Significantly stupid then and is significantly stupid today!!

    November 6, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • Hypatia

      The English people who resisted being overrun by Spain would disagree with such a cheap and idiotic view of history. Go back to class. You need it as much as the author of this article needs a remedial grammar course.

      November 6, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Reality

      "Henry VIII ruled England from 1509-1547 and remains one of that country's most famous and controversial kings. Henry's hearty appet-ites and fickle passions are legendary, and his demand for a male heir led him to marry six different women. (Two of those wives, Anne Boleyn and Katharine Howard, were executed on his order.) Henry's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, led the king to split with the Catholic Church and found his own church, the Church of England, which in turn set the stage for the English Reformation and for religious battles which lasted for centuries. (It also led to his famous clash with Sir Thomas More, who was tried for treason and executed.) "

      Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/henry-viii#ixzz1d1R0OXBO

      November 7, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  16. hippypoet

    every christian is a supremacist and having to a certain degree the "Napoleon complex" Most monotheistist beliefs are in general ones that preach supremacy over other gods that are "actually fake" anyway! its just silly!

    November 6, 2011 at 12:21 am |
    • Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

      My god is bigger than your god...nya, nya, nya...

      November 6, 2011 at 3:00 am |
    • Alfred E Neuman

      Every hippy poet is an ass hole and that is not funny.

      November 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Answer

      @Hippy

      You're basically right in that a-s-s-essment.

      November 7, 2011 at 2:23 am |
  17. WOT

    All that has changed now we have CELL PHONE-SUPREMACIST!

    November 6, 2011 at 12:05 am |
  18. Anonymous Lamrim

    The author fails to understand that the Idea is what represents the fondness for Guy Fawkes. Not Catholicism vs Protestantism, who came up with the plot ect. It is about the fact that many can organize together to take back power from Oppressor when they become oppressed. This is very similar to what Guy Fawkes and the Conspirators (12 i believe) wanted. It failed but, the idea what is strong. Fawkes is the one who was responsible for guarding and detonating the explosives, therefore, he is the Face of the ideal. His face is the one that is burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes day. He is the one who became synonymous with the Gun Powder Treason. If this was successful it could of very well changed the history of England. I recommend the Graphic Novel anyways over the Movie. Dont get me wrong. The movie is tastefully done with a modern day twist but, i prefer the graphic novel because of its value of the idea V possessed. V became what Guy Fawkes failed to do but, remember Evey is the one who detonates the bomb and the people rise together in union with the idea! I recommend the author read more about the history and the ideology, including the similarities it has with the graphic novel. Remember Guy Fawkes is just a face for the idea!

    November 5, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
    • dbomb12

      You do really expect anyone from CNN would actually practice journalism by investigating the facts do you????

      November 5, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
    • Hypatia

      Try some real history. Fawkes was a Catholic malcontent who was determined to blow up Parliament. Any 'fondness' for him is certainly not coming from the English, who celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by tossing dummies of him into bonfires.

      November 6, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  19. tigerwhite13

    please tell this idiot to do some more homework on this subject,a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    November 5, 2011 at 11:07 pm |
  20. Mr Chihuahua

    They set us up the bomb for fawke sake lol!

    November 5, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.