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By Douglas Moran

Guy Fawkes: Historical vs Misappropriated

Uploaded: Sep 28, 2015

A Guy Fawkes mask figured prominently as a symbol in the recent hack of the website hosting this blog. The current usage of the mask is derived from a 2005 movie based on a 1980s comic book series ("graphic novel") "V for Vendetta". That movie created an icon of rebellion out of a terrorist who planned to use mass murder to restore the old order—authoritarian and repressive—thereby crushing the first tiny steps toward a liberal democracy. This misappropriation of the historical Guy Fawkes built upon over a century of earlier misrepresentations.

I hear you say "What's the big deal? It's only fiction." True, literary misappropriation of real people probably goes back to the earliest days of storytelling around the campfire, as would the objections and controversies surrounding it. But usually the core of those people, and their circumstances, remain. But what you lose are some of the valuable lessons of history. And sometimes it is history being abused as political propaganda. For example, consider that the literature for almost a century after the Civil War was dominated by the "Lost Cause" theme: justifying the Klan and the segregationist regime by glorifying slavery and slaveholders, by denigrating Blacks, by casting the Abolitionists and other reformers as evil, rapacious Yankees; … Its pinnacle was "Gone with the Wind", the book (1936) and the subsequent movie (8 Academy Awards). Ironically, that celebration of the "Lost Cause" is often credited as a key turning point against it: The popularity of that movie triggered a broad discussion of that era which in turn provided a broad platform for criticism of the theme.

Back to the real Guy Fawkes. It is interesting to think about him and the "Gunpowder Plot" (1605) because there many parallels to the present (left as an exercise for the reader). Some would have you believe that this was an act of resistance to religious repression, in this case, by Protestants against Catholics. One of the basic lessons that modern education should teach is the admonition "Correlation does not (necessarily) imply Causation", in this case, that the easy labels (correlation) don't reflect what was actually happening (causation). First, recognize that religion then was tightly intertwined with most other aspects of life, including the role of the individual, the "proper" structure of society, economics,… Guy Fawkes' era was one of rapid societal evolution, and the rise of Protestantism was associated with the evolution of various groups. Those details are irrelevant here, plus a multitude of books have been written on this topic. Religion was also intertwined with politics: The schism in England was a mix of local political necessity and rising nationalism.(foot#1)

Aside: The meaning of the word "imply" in the above admonition is that from mathematical logic—if the former is true, then the latter must also be true. However, this admonition doesn't apply to the weaker meaning, that of "suggest". Consequently, I like to add "necessarily" to disambiguate. Correlation does suggest a causal link might exist. This leads to a second admonition that doesn't have a good phrasing: That causation may flow in the opposite direction from what was initially suspected. The Protestant Reformation is one of history's great opportunities to consider how much broad philosophical, psychological, societal and political views shape the evolution of religion—the established one(s) and the offshoots ("new species")—and which elements of society choose which branches. Unfortunately, this rarely comes up in the standard teaching of that history: It is too uncomfortable, contentious and complex.

Although England did have laws establishing an official religion, the accounts of the time were that the government was grudgingly tolerant of the other religions, both Catholic and the emerging (non-official) Protestant denominations. There seemed to have been a shift in the attitude of the English monarchy regarding religion, away from using and needing the religious hierarchy to establish and maintain its legitimacy—with the power that conferred onto the religious elite—to one of its legitimacy coming from how it governed (both politics and the sword). During such a shift, an official religion was needed to preempt opponents from using religion against the regime.

Whatever the case, the English government actively tried to "look the other way", not only ignoring illegal religious activities conducted discreetly but a fair number of indiscreet ones. The laws seemed to be largely used when things were getting too political, or there was an official being too officious. Recognize that the official religion had not yet significantly diverged from Catholicism except in its rejection of the authority of the Roman Pope. Consequently, the public embrace of Catholicism was easily and widely seen as a political statement rejecting the legitimacy of the current English monarchy, and thus treasonous.

Let's finish disposing of the misrepresentation that the Gunpowder Plot was related to religious freedom. The plotters were seeking to reimpose on England a Catholic-affiliated aristocracy and everything that went with it—they opposed religious freedom. (foot#2) Recognize that in this era that many Catholic regimes were intolerant of non-Catholics. Their politics killed millions, both in internal repression and in wars of religion.(foot#3) Ironically, the Inquisition—the era's most famous example of religious intolerance by the Catholic Church itself—probably killed only a few thousand—an astonishingly small number for that era and its duration.(foot#4) Its reputation for torture and executions was its primary weapon (Another example of marketing trumping reality).

One of the basic lessons of history is that, once you start looking at the details, things tend to become more complex and ambiguous, and sometimes the reverse of what you were led to believe. The corollary to this is that if you want to use history to validate your position on current events, you best have a studied obliviousness to such details.(foot#5)

So if Guy Fawkes was a reprehensible villain, who would I nominate for heroes? 30 Englishmen who were residents of what is now Flushing NY in what was then the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. They stood up for religious freedoms not for themselves, but for others. The immediate trigger was a series of persecutions of Quakers and Baptists, but their official protest—the Flushing Remonstrance (1657)—went further and included Jews and Muslims (referred to in the text as "Turks and Egyptians", but close-enough to know the intent). Only the leaders were punished, and some quickly recanted. While their acts of resistance and defiance were small by historical standards, it set off a chain reaction of other declarations, eventually leading to that becoming part of the Bill of Rights.(foot#6)

Summary: Knowing history is good for sparking questions about things that might have passed unnoticed. When you see the Guy Fawkes mask being used as a symbol, silently ask yourself which version of Guy Fawkes are they referencing: the anarchist of the comic book or the murderous sociopath seeking to impose a repressive authoritarian regime. And if the former is using a commercially produced mask, amuse yourself by knowing that a merchandise licensing fee was paid to a huge multinational conglomerate (Time Warner).


1. The schism followed shortly after a period of devastating civil warfare over the succession to the throne (the Wars of the Roses), with multiple earlier such wars. King Henry VIII and the English nobility desperately wanted an undisputed heir to avoid a repeat. However, the King's first marriage was unlikely to produce that heir, but the Pope refused to allow him to remarry, citing the sanctity of marriage. The frustration was compounded because many English nobles suspected that the Pope's decision was heavily influenced by politics: The first wife was a member of the Spanish royal family, and there were tight political ties between the Spanish monarchy and the Pope.

2. I know that there are some that will argue that religious freedom should be extended to religions that aren't tolerant of other religions. Similarly for individuals who cite their religious beliefs to persecute, publicly shun … those of different beliefs. If you aren't familiar with the long history of these arguments and counter-arguments in the US, it goes back to at least the American Civil War, with an entry point for your research being the phrase "The Constitution is not a suicide pact."

3. For example, in France, powerful Catholic factions backed by the Pope and King Philip II of Spain opposed a power-sharing agreement that ended a civil war between Catholics and Protestants. The result? The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) which very visibly killed thousands of Protestants, perhaps tens of thousands.
For example, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) would devastate central Europe. Some areas were largely depopulated—killed directly, dead from famine and disease, or permanently fled—and many areas are estimated to have lost 25-40% of their populations. Recovery often took over a century, with a few areas (in Germany) not recovering until the 1900s (over 250 years). Although these wars had religion-related beginnings, it is contentious as to how much of their continuation was more national opportunism (for example, by Sweden).

4. A belief associated with the Tower of London is that the monarchy will fall if the ravens desert the premises, and consequently a small flock of ravens is kept there. The original meaning was that the monarch could not hesitate to crush his enemies and potential enemies. The Tower was only for major crimes against the monarchy and it was typically only the heads of executed prisoners that were being set out in public. Even allowing for much hyperbole, it is boggling to think about how many executions would be needed for a flock of scavengers to keep that site as "worth checking out".

5. If you like the contrarian (skeptical? analytical?) perspective on historical figures, the Web has many such lists. Use search phrases such as "historical villains who were heroes", and variants with "right", "misunderstood", "OK" … and the reverse it for heroes who weren't. If you omit "historical" from your search term, you will get pages of results related to movies and gaming, not that those aren't amusing and often thought-provoking.

6. Most lists of "The Great Documents of American Freedoms" prominently include the Flushing Remonstrance. It was a world-changing event that is largely forgotten because it doesn't have a great hero to personify it, but that is one of its remarkable features: it was ordinary people taking a stand.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

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