November 5th, 2011
08:40 PM ET
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."
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.