Guy Fawkes: The Man Behind the Meme

THE REAL GUY FAWKES (January 2018)
By Nick Holland
Pen and Sword History, 230 pages

If you've seen the movie V for Vendetta or an Occupy Wall Street protestor behind a black-and-white mask marked by distinctive eyebrows, goatee, mustache, and impish smile, you might recognize the name Guy Fawkes (1570-1606). You know the meme, but do you know the man? His pop culture props notwithstanding, Guy Fawkes is like Che Guevara, a problematic rebel figure. I finished reading an advance copy of Nick Holland's new biography of Fawkes on November 5, a day in which much of Britain celebrates Fawkes' memory by burning his effigy. On that day in 1605, Fawkes was arrested on the eve of what would have been a monstrous act of terror: he and co-conspirators had placed enough gunpowder under the House of Lords to blow it sky high and kill most of the English government. Some observers claim—with perhaps a touch of hyperbole—that such a blast might have leveled all of Parliament. Other plotters planned to kill King James I, if he survived the blast, and to kidnap his daughter, who grew up to become Queen Elizabeth I.

What drove Fawkes to such fury? That is the question Holland seeks to answer. His is a very thorough biography on Fawkes analogous to the sleuthing done by Robert Cecil, the royal administrator whose spy network stopped Fawkes. As a biographer, Holland—also known for a book on Anne Brontë—is firmly in the camp of those who see the times as shaping individuals, not vice versa. Although he spends time discussing Fawkes' childhood and formative experiences, he makes it quite clear that in an earlier age Fawkes would have lived a comfortable life unmarked by controversy. 

Indulge me in some history, as it's pretty easy to get lost in these sections of Holland's book if you don't know the terrain. Fawkes lived at a time in which religious faith was a command, not an option. The event known as the Protestant Reformation broke Roman Catholicism's monopoly on Christian orthodoxy. It's often (inaccurately) dated as starting in 1517, but it took centuries before Christians fully embraced ideals of religious freedom. Until then, sanguinary wars of religion took place over a single question: Catholic or Protestant? Fawkes was born into an Anglican (Church of England) South Yorkshire family in 1570, just 36 years after King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) declared England a Protestant nation. After a few short reigns, Henry's daughter, Queen Mary I (1553-58) restored Catholicism, but her sister, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and nephew James I (1603-25) pushed Catholics to the margins and made the Anglican Church supreme again. Political intrigue seldom settles what people believe, however, and Catholicism thrived in low profile, especially in Yorkshire. Queen Elizabeth, however, enacted increasingly harsh laws that targeted Catholic  "recusants" that refused to take in Anglican services.

As Holland explains, this was very bad timing for Fawkes, who likely converted to Catholicism after his father died in 1577, possibly the result of his mother's remarriage to a recusant. Fawkes was just 21 when he sold most of his estate to avoid losing it to crippling penalty taxes on recusants. He trudged off to the Continent to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch, an act that bordered on defiance given that England was still technically at war with Spain*. By the time young Guy, now using the affected Italian name Guido, was back in England, his Catholicism had so deepened. that he was inexorably drawn into a circle of plotters and schemers seeking to overthrow Protestant rule.

Although his work focuses on Fawkes, one of Holland's contributions is to deemphasize Fawkes, whose military background made him good with munitions, but whose diminished social status would made him an unlikely master planner. He views Robert Catesby (1572-1605) as the real leader of the Gunpowder Plot, with the powerful Percy family the shadow puppet masters. Catesby, like Thomas Percy, met his demise at the end of a musket rather than the prolonged tortures that befell other conspirators. Holland describes these in gruesome detail—the rack, partial hanging, emasculation, disembowelment, beheading, and more. Ironically, Fawkes fell from the scaffold and broke his neck, hence avoiding a prolonged death.

Holland has certainly done his homework; so much so that a small drawback is that his book sometimes bogs down in a genealogist's welter of detail. In these sections the narrative tone slides into a chronicler's dry voice. In my view, there's too much of this and not enough on the plot itself. I'd rank Holland's as the best biography of Fawkes, but Antonia Fraser's 1996 book remains my favorite on the unfolding drama. Kudos to Holland though for taking some of the sheen off the Gay Fawkes masks. Was Guy Fawkes a martyr for his faith? You could conclude he was no more or less bloody-minded than his contemporaries, but it is just as easy to imagine a successful Fawkes as one of history's greatest mass murderers. Perhaps he's much better as a meme than a memory.

Rob Weir  

* England's war with Spain lasted from 1585-1604, though it was pretty much over in 1588, when the mighty Spanish Armada was destroyed in the English Channel by storms and battle.

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