Last week, we witnessed a demonstration in London in which “Guido Fawkes” masks were worn as a symbol of anarchism. Guy Fawkes has rather bizarrely become a kind of anarchist icon, sometimes described as “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intention.”
Most of us aren’t actually anarchists, of course; but equally most of us occasionally are, deep down in our fantasies. When we get fed up with authority interfering or with the corruption of politicians, we think for a moment how great it would feel to get rid of it all. Then, of course, common sense reasserts itself.
Guy Fawkes, and his attempt to get rid of Parliament, can seem like a focus for these feelings, but both he and his intended victims would have been astounded at the idea. His agenda was very different.
Guy Fawkes (and yes, he was born Guy, not Guido) was born in York in 1570. His mother’s family was catholic, and Fawkes converted to catholicism and left England to fight for Spain against the protestant Dutch rebels. It was during this time that he started using the Italian form of his name.
Fawkes returned to England in 1604 and joined Robert Catesby’s plot, already well advanced, as a gunpowder expert. The result is well known – the plot was discovered and Fawkes found preparing to detonate enough gunpowder to blow the Palace of Westminster sky-high.
Guy Fawkes may have had honest intention, but it had nothing to do with striking a blow for freedom. While it’s easier to sympathise with a failed plot than a successful one, if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded it would have been a seventeenth-century 9/11, massacring large numbers of innocent bystanders, as well as wiping out England’s ruling class.
Nor would the aftermath have been better. The plotters would almost certainly have replaced a regime just beginning to feel its way towards the distant goal of democracy with absolute monarchy, and a relatively mild enforcement of protestantism with the Inquisition. We can only imagine what kind of country we’d be living in today.
Of course, very few folk heroes actually stand up to scrutiny, but it’s chilling to wonder, if someone we’d now consider a far-right terrorist can be a hero, who from our time might be regarded in the same way in five hundred years’ time.