The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!”
Amidst the European Wars of religion in 1600s when the tensions between Catholics and Protestants were at its peak, there was another conspiracy being plotted to overthrow the monarch in England during the Elizabethan era -“The Gunpowder treason and plot.” Five centuries later the very essence of the Gunpowder plot which lies in the infamous “Anonymous mask” can still be witnessed in the political movements of modern times.
The timeline of the Conspiracy
During the Elizabethan era, the English Catholics had to face persecution when the Pope (the supreme authority of the entire Catholic Church) had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1570. Following the invasion of the Spanish navy in 1588 to dethrone Elizabeth and the subsequent defeat of the Spanish Armada only worsened the situation for the English Catholics as now they were seen as potential threats to the state. However, with the death of Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1603, the English Catholics positively anticipated towards the reign of King James VI of Scotland and I of England as they hoped for tolerance towards Catholicism by the Protestant successor. The initial days of his reign was beaming with hope as he withdrew recusancy fines from Catholics who refused to attend Anglican services and he also assigned important posts in the government to other Catholic sympathizers. Nonetheless it didn’t last long when in the February of 1604; the King publicly announced his “utter detestation” for Catholicism after failing to satisfy the demands of both Catholics and Puritans (English Protestants who sought to purify the church from Catholic practices). Within days of the public announcement the recusancy fines were re-introduced, all priests and Jesuits were expelled and a set of Penal Laws were imposed on Catholics which discouraged them from practicing their religion. Other laws barred Catholics from voting, holding public office, owning land, bringing religious items from Rome into Britain, publishing or selling Catholic primers, or teaching. Majority of the Catholic population had accepted their fate except for a gent named Robert Catesby who was a devout Catholic and he was familiar with the price of his faith.
Robert Catesby along with a group of co-conspirators including Thomas Percy, Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright and more importantly Guy Fawkes had conspired to blow up the King and his parliament on the opening day. Several others joined the movement who bought in support financially as well as politically from Spain. Over the following months around 34 barrels of gunpowder were assembled in a cellar rented by the group that directly lay under the House of Lords. The plan further was to abdicate King James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth and instate her as the Puppet Queen. The details were thoroughly planned and Guy Fawkes had volunteered to light the fuse on November 5, 1605 after which he would flee to Europe to gather support for the movement. The conspirators believed that a traumatized and unstable government would give in and readily agree to all their demands.
As opposed to what was planned, an “anonymous letter” was delivered to Lord Monteagle on the night of October 26 urging him to skip the Parliament on the opening day. Lord Monteagle discussed the letter with King James and as a result of which the Lord Chamberlain was ordered to inspect every corner of the Parliament. On finding Guy Fawkes disguised as John Johnson with three scores of barrel filled with Gunpowder, the state officials had captured him. As far as Catesby and his fellow mates were concerned, they made an attempt to flee from England but couldn’t escape for too long. After King James VI had taken the culprits into custody, they were publicly executed and even mutilated in a few cases to instill fear amongst the Catholics population.
This failed attempt of Robert Catesby and his accomplices to improve the conditions of the English Catholics had been termed as “the Gunpowder Plot”.
This had irretrievably worsened the living conditions of the Catholics and led to an even more rigorous enforcement of the Penal Laws. Catholic lords with any connection to any of the plotters were arrested and fined. All the Catholics were forced to an Oath of Allegiance affirming their loyalty to the monarch and denying the power of the Pope. The Gunpowder Plot had marked an end to active Catholic conspiracy making it the last Catholic plot in England.
In 1606, the Parliament had passed The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 also known as the Thanksgiving Act to commemorate the event. In the course of time this day came to be known as the Guy Fawkes Day wherein the public celebrates the plot with bonfires, fireworks and the symbolic “Guy Fawkes’ Mask”.
The Guy Fawkes’ Mask in the 21st Century
Over the years the conventionalized mask has been used a symbol to protest against tyranny. It first took place in 2008 when the oppressed class stood against the Church of Scientology after the Church censored an interview with Tom Cruise on the internet. The protesters chose to conceal their identities and the Guy Fawkes’ Mask was their weapon of choice. Since then all major political demonstrations have witnessed protesters using this “Anonymous mask” as a symbol of resistance. From the Occupy Wall Street protest in the United States against economic inequality and capitalism to the Turkish Airlines employees protesting against the employer company for the rights of workers and further the manifold use of the Guy Fawkes’ mask in Arab Spring uprisings all over the Middle-East is evidence of how relevant the mask is in the contemporary era. The Guy Fawkes mask is symbolic of the long drawn history between two sects and their journey from retribution to toleration. It illustrates the bygone days of Old England and also carries the legacy of the nation’s turbulent reformation. On the contrary side it can also be seen as a revenge plot conspired with the motive of voicing against xenophobia. And for that reason the Guy Fawkes’ Mask carries a greater meaning for the suppressed class than it did in the 17th Century as it stands for a more noble cause rather than the person it was intended to be named after.