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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

soundoff (93 Responses)
  1. Cuervo Jones

    i wonder if it had to do with protestants hunting down and killing priests, catholics etc.?

    December 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  2. yoshiknows

    I'm surprised you didn't mention the famous saying about Fawkes – that he "was the only person to enter Parliament with honest intentions" which were, to blow it up. This has little to do with Catholocism and much to do about rebellion. The common people throughout history are being oppressed one way or another and here was a guy who was going to do something about it, just like the Occupy group is doing something about it. Not one person has gone to jail for the housing mess that was created and literally wiped out trillions of dollars of middle class equity in their homes. So, who cares if the Fawkes image used by protestors is flawed, their reasoning for protest is not.

    November 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  3. Irony Lives On

    Actually, Guy Fawkes was not trying to simply ensure Catholics wouldn't be oppressed. He was seeking to destroy the Protestant Revolution and install a Catholic Theocracy (Religious Dictatorship). The ironic thing is that these anarchists and hippies wear his likeness as a statement of their rebellion when, in fact, he was against freedom of religion or speech.

    Don't worry, hippies... it's not your fault that the American education system failed you. No get in line to get some free stuff.

    November 18, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • Telrock

      It may be true that the original intent of Guy Fawkes was the reinsablishment of Catholic Theocracy, but ideals and icons change. Today his likeness represents something altogether diffrent, like the article was saying. It has nothing to do with the intelligence of these people.
      And no, the irony does not escape me. XD

      November 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • ADiff

      He was against freedom of religion or speech? Well so are the OWS protesters, however much they pretend otherwise... The only difference is Fawkes favored a Catholic dictatorship, while the Communists of OWS favor a secular 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat'.

      November 21, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
    • OOPs I said that already?

      Sure there is irony in the Guy Fawkes mask use as of late HOWEVER it seems fairly clear to me as well that the historical relevance of this symbolism is nowhere near as important as the shear numbers using it to represent their collective frustration against what they believe is a system not working for but instead against them. I say them because I am not a full sympathizer but am certainly interested in seeing how this plays out. My personal opinion at this time is that nothing much will come from THIS movement except a fair amount of new awareness (who besides a small minority thought or more importantly discussed their thoughts about the 99% before all this?..) Unless a clear paradigm shift is seen by those who are angry, this kind of thing will likely fester and grow into something much larger, better organized, and likely more effective. The founding fathers of the US gave a road map for this revolution, and it's up the the powers that be to prevent it sensibly or react to it without allowing the country to turn on itself. Revolution IS necessary, but only WHEN it's necessary. It's time to stop being angry and start taking action, preferably constructive action. A nation divided is not a nation at all and while I know this may rile some and I will not apologize about this, it is in my honest opinion that God has NOTHING to do with this movement. I understand the relevance to the argument on the representation of Guy Fawkes in this movement, but best I can see these folks aren't really using religion as a weapon or complaining about it. This is clearly a non-religious movement. In fact I'd go so far as to call this a case of middle class (and then some) bi-partisanship (loose use of the word). It seems the only people against it in a fierce way is the extreme right and Tea Party. Should be interesting to see how it all plays out. And as a final note for all you over foul-mouthed, narrow opinionated/close minded folks with internet bravado (likely spewing your extraordinarily under-educated opinions from Mommy's basement "lair of awesomeness") please exercise your right to express your opinions but for everyone's sake please refrain from doing so through your tail-end. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my opinions. May your lives be blessed, whether that be by a God or otherwise.

      November 23, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • Sickanddamntired

      Too bad he didn't succeed. We wouldn't have had to be looking at these British Protestant Pusses all these centuries.

      November 26, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • wow...its just

      why don't people get that its just a funny-looking mask?

      December 4, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  4. Sane Person

    Wow CNN, your online stories need a few more fact checkers and editors. This story needs to be "throne" out and redone.

    November 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  5. Cedar Rapids

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

    Rubbish. The story of Guy Fawkes is usually revisited in schools when it comes close to Nov 5th. They might not know the full tiny details but they know the story of the plot and why it took place. Heck when I was a kid we were even taught who all the conspirators were, Catesby et al, and not just Guy 'Guido' Fawkes.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. StupidAmerican

    This article is written so ignorantly, how does this pass as journalism?

    First off, get the historical facts right. Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism- he was not born into it.

    Secondly, this is just poorly written. There are words missing out of sentences, and what sense does this one make: " the country was thrown into turmoil over religious ideology until Elizabeth I acceded the thrown in 1558."

    "Acceded" does not make any sense in that sentence. I think the author meant "ascended" to the THRONE – as in seat of royalty, not "thrown" as in past tense of "to throw". This is just ridiculously poor editing. My 7th grader could write and edit better than this.

    Get professional, CNN!

    November 16, 2011 at 10:05 am |
    • wow...its just

      couldn't have said it better...

      December 4, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  7. Iqbal Khan

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=640&h=390]

    November 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • TheWiz71

      And this has what to do with the article, exactly?

      November 16, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • religionofviolence

      Islam is not misunderstood, we all know it breeds violence and teaches nothing less. Yes, we understand it well.

      November 29, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  8. dharmabum

    Guy Fawkes was born a Catholic, really? Where did you find this expert? Oh yes, at a barn in Eastern Illinois, that's right. Fawkes was born to Edward and Edith Fawkes, members of the Church of England. He was baptised in the church of St Michael le Belfrey. Only after the death of his father did he come into contact with recusant Catholicism through his mother's marraige to Dionis Baynbrigge.

    November 14, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  9. What the British Say

    I happened to be visiting England years ago on Guy Fawkes Day. When I asked who he was, I got this hilarious reply" "The wisest man in England; he tried to blow up Parliament."

    November 10, 2011 at 2:00 am |
  10. Grammarian

    Aside from whether this story is accurate or not, it's *riddled* with grammatical errors and mispellings ("thrown" instead of "throne"). Get your act together, CNN.

    November 9, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  11. jams

    v for vendetta was lame.

    November 9, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  12. Chris

    Not entirely. He was quite a man. He stood up to the 'new forces'. I hate to tell you but even though I hate so much of what 'The Church before the reformation was about, no doubt, still, it was connected to an 'old order' that had freedoms for the peasantry that one would NEVER see now – and a quite pagan sensibility. A lot of people who fought to not have that 'rationalized and compartmentalized' were royalists and Papists. There were some good sides to their arguements though we cant really see it from our modern-day perspective. Guy Fawkes was a part of that.
    But yeah – he was NO freedom fighter.

    November 9, 2011 at 2:23 am |
  13. Caleb

    Dr. Newton's my professor! I'm also currently in his class History of England 3100, right now! hahaha, this is awesome!

    November 8, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  14. Vizzion, in the UK.

    Kings and Politicians have always mixed their rhetoric with religion in order to justify giving themselves the power to rule over the common man, it is why religion has become so distorted over the centuries and now reflects the ideas of mankind rather than God the First Source, the Cause of Causes. Religions now turn more intelligent thinking people away from God than they attract. But God still exists, what organised Christianity frequently forgets to remind us is, Jesus said "the kingdom of God is within you" your body is a Temple and that is all you really need to know, that is why even Atheists have morals and know right from wrong, even if sometimes they choose wrong ! You Atheists have taken the first step in rejecting manmade religion now you have to be brave and take the next step to finding the truth. Now meditate on that while.

    November 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Motives

      There are lots of reasons for rejecting religion, for hating the Catholic Church, for sneering at Christians as hypocrites. There are at least as many reasons for accepting religion, loving the Catholic Church for its enormous contributions to the world, and admiring the millions of fine Christians around us. It all comes down to your motives.

      November 10, 2011 at 2:11 am |
  15. karl c

    many people, symbols and phrases take on different meanings over time. its a way of recycling history....then adding its own twist!
    you gotta like it...its a movement by the people, for the people. so the mask has its new meaning "we are the 99%" its cool. i like it!

    November 7, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  16. G. Fawkes

    Who proof-read this article? "Elizabeth I acceded the thrown in 1558". "Thrown"? As in, "Elizabeth I has thrown the throne in a fit of rage"? And "a Guy Fawkes mast". You mean "mask"?

    Come on, CNN. You can do better than this.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • hippypoet

      you must be new to cnn.com, here no article gets the luxury of proof reading execpt by us, the readers... sad, i know!

      November 7, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • G. Fawkes

      The author must have had auto-correct turned on as he furiously tapped this article into his iPad on the subway this morning.

      November 7, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  17. Keith

    There is very good reason to believe that the so-called Gunpowder Plot was actually a false flag operation by the English government to win support for their oppression of the Catholics. The meaning of Guy Fawkes Day was originally a story of the government foiling a dastardly plot by lunatic terrorists against the legal, righteous government, which is EXACTLY the opposite of how most people see it today. The plot was ruined when, the night before the powder was supposed to be set off, an anonymous letter was delivered to a Catholic member of Parliament (MP), warning him to get all the Catholic MPs out of the building. The MP who received the letter was publicly known to take the position that Catholics should knuckle under to the government and accept their oppression. He alerted the king, and that was why the army was sent to search the basements of the Parliament building, and found Fawkes there. Fawkes was the only "conspirator" ever named. Like the FBI does today, the English government may have had agents provocateurs find some patsy and pump him up to take action, using material they supplied. Guy Fawkes was probably just his century's equivalent to the guy the FBI said was trying to use RC airplanes to "bomb" the Pentagon – a dupe who probably would have done nothing but bellyache if they hadn't set him up as the fall guy.

    November 7, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • karl c

      interesting........

      November 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • NOo..oON

      And I have evidence to show a direct relationship from the "conspirators" (aka British intelligence org. of its time) to the FBI of today through the Freemasons, some of the founders of the US, all the way to J. Edgar Hoover. (ever notice the pyramids, all-seeing eye, etc. on US currency?)

      November 7, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • NOo..oON

      &lt: / paranoid delusion <

      November 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  18. Marc

    The article is misleading. The real Guy Fawkes may have been a catholic in a prodestant land, but his rebelion was based on oppression by the crown. I doubt his rebellion would have been come into existance, had the english crown offered freedom of religion.

    Therefor, I find the parallel between the ancient and the contemporary quite relevant.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Vizzion, in the UK.

      If you think wearing Guy Fawkes masks is relevant you are obviously ignorant of the history of the English and European Reformation, the fact is the English Crown, and its people had won its freedom from the tyranny and oppression of Rome and the people were scared of losing it again, as had happened in the mercifully short reign of Queen Mary the 1st, Henry the 8th daughter by Catherine of Aragon (also known as Bloody Mary) the opression of Protestants in that time was terrible approx 300 were burnt at the stake. Elizabeth the 1st brought stability to England and the freedom to dissent from Rome without being burnt as a heretic ! In those days all freedom was relative, there was no such thing as true freedom of religion anywhere ! (One of the reasons the founding fathers were adamant all Americans would have freedom of whorship) It's too simplistic to say the English reformation happened because Henry 8th wanted a divorce, it happened because of the influence of Martin Luther and the rise of Protestants in Europe and because the Catholic Church had become too powerfull, wealthy and corrupt and did not hesitate to burn people it considered Heritics, In England Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated as the foiling of a terrible plot to kill the king, James the 1st and most of the parliament. he is symbolic of Anarchy and the LOSS of freedom, as would have happened if he had suceeded, of course, it's also an excuse to light a Bonfire and let of Fireworks !

      November 8, 2011 at 7:14 am |
  19. nut on a55

    Seriously, Guy was the enactor. He was the guy who executed the plan. His relevence today shows a shift from looking for leaders to just doing it yourself.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Finally

      Glad to hear someone finally stop taking this whole mess about a mask so seriously and point out something tangible. Sure there is irony in the Guy Fawkes mask use as of late HOWEVER it seems fairly clear to me as well that the historical relevance of this symbolism is nowhere near as important as the shear numbers using it to represent their collective frustration against what they believe is a system not working for but instead against them. I say them because I am not a full sympathizer but am certainly interested in seeing how this plays out. My personal opinion at this time is that nothing much will come from THIS movement except a fair amount of new awareness (who besides a small minority thought or more importantly discussed their thoughts about the 99% before all this?..) Unless a clear paradigm shift is seen by those who are angry, this kind of thing will likely fester and grow into something much larger, better organized, and likely more effective. The founding fathers of the US gave a road map for this revolution, and it's up the the powers that be to prevent it sensibly or react to it without allowing the country to turn on itself. Revolution IS necessary, but only WHEN it's necessary. It's time to stop being angry and start taking action, preferably constructive action. A nation divided is not a nation at all and while I know this may rile some and I will not apologize about this, it is in my honest opinion that God has NOTHING to do with this movement. I understand the relevance to the argument on the representation of Guy Fawkes in this movement, but best I can see these folks aren't really using religion as a weapon or complaining about it. This is clearly a non-religious movement. In fact I'd go so far as to call this a case of middle class (and then some) bi-partisanship (loose use of the word). It seems the only people against it in a fierce way is the extreme right and Tea Party. Should be interesting to see how it all plays out. And as a final note for all you over foul-mouthed, narrow opinionated/close minded folks with internet bravado (likely spewing your extraordinarily under-educated opinions from Mommy's basement "lair of awesomeness") please exercise your right to express your opinions but for everyone's sake please refrain from doing so through your tail-end. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read my opinions. May your lives be blessed, whether that be by a God or otherwise.

      November 23, 2011 at 1:40 am |
  20. nut on a55

    LOL it doesnt matter where guy fawkes came from. The fact he is regarded as irrelevant is the irony.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:25 am |
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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.