In Britain, Nov. 5 is celebrated as "Guy Fawkes Day" or "Bonfire Night." All around the country, people gather to light fireworks and set up bonfires. In some places, they burn elaborate effigies. The history of this event dates to Nov. 5, 1605, when a young Englishman named Guy Fawkes tried to use gunpowder to blow up the House of Lords in Westminster. Fawkes hoped that the plot would kill the king of England and Scotland, James I, but the plot failed.
The events of over 400 years ago are long over. To most who participate in Guy Fawkes Day, it's just an excuse to celebrate. And over the years, the symbolism of the event has warped. While the effigies were once of Fawkes himself, now they are often used to send anti-authoritarian messages. Guy Fawkes masks have become a popular feature in the Occupy-inspired protests all around the world, a symbol of anti-capitalism.
However, it's important to note that Guy Fawkes Day celebrates not the success or ambition of Fawkes's plot, but its failure. Fawkes was not its ringleader; he was actually a minor figure in the plot and was simply the first to get caught. And while popular culture often depicts it as an anarchist plot, in reality he and his fellow group of plotters were religious extremists.
In fact, the plot has some surprising parallels to Britain's modern-day terror fears — and some scary ones, too. “Guy Fawkes fought like a jihadist of today," counterterrorism expert Haras Rafiq told the BBC's "History Extra" earlier this year. "He fought for what he perceived as a Utopian fate."
Fawkes's life does seem to mirror that of the young foreign fighters who leave Britain to wage war in Syria today. He was born into a middle-class protestant family in the northern city of York but later converted to Catholicism after his father died and his mother remarried. Before he was born, his country had made a transition from Catholic authority to the Church of England, and the remaining Catholics were viewed with suspicion for their perceived loyalties to the pope.
Fawkes's faith led him to go fight abroad. He went to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against the new Protestant Dutch Republic during the Eighty Years War. He even changed his name, going by the Italian "Guido" rather than "Guy." After years of fighting for the Spanish, gaining considerable combat skills, he even tried to get the Catholic power to support a rebellion in England (they declined).
At some point, he was contacted by the English Catholic Robert Catesby, the eventual ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby was a charismatic and devout Christian aristocrat who had been imprisoned by the government at least once before. According to Antonia Fraser, a historian who wrote a key account of the Gunpowder Plot, Catesby's attitude was "that of the crusader who does not hesitate to employ the sword in the cause of values which he considers are spiritual." Fawkes became his disciple.
Catesby had hoped that James I, whose mother had been Catholic, would be more accepting of the faith than his predecessor Elizabeth I, under whose reign Catholic masses had been banned and priests had been executed. However, when James I did not stop the persecution of Catholics, Catesby came up with a plot to kill not just him but most of England's political elite. The plan was to pack a basement near the House of Lords with gunpowder and blow it up as the king attended the state opening of parliament on Nov. 5, leaving the country with no political leadership. Afterward, Catesby would lead a revolt that would install James's young daughter as a Catholic head of state.
The plot was an absolute failure. After a Catholic lord was sent an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the opening of parliament, guards searched the basement late in the evening of Nov. 4 and discovered Fawkes along with 36 barrels of gunpowder — enough to destroy much of Westminster (though by some accounts the gunpowder was later found to have decayed as it had been left too long, rendering it harmless). Fawkes was interrogated and gave up his co-conspirators. Catesby was shot dead during a battle with authorities a few days later.
The idea of a religious extremist who goes to fight a war abroad and comes back with a plan to cause a large explosion in London is something that still causes concern in Britain today. The British government has measures in place to stop citizens who have traveled to Syria to fight from returning to the country, where they might engage in terrorism. Those who do return could face charges of "high treason," the same charge Fawkes faced. There have even been reports that the Islamic State has plotted to blow up parliament, too.
Over the years, a historical consensus has emerged to say that, yes, Fawkes and his fellow plotters were terrorists. Even if their fears of religious persecution were real (as one contemporary priest quoted by Fraser put it, Catholics faced a "a ruthless and unloving land"), they also sought to reestablish a Catholic hierarchy in England that had itself tortured and killed many Protestants. “Guy Fawkes had a political goal, which was to spread Catholicism," Haras Rafiq, the managing director of anti-extremism think tank Quilliam, explained to "History Extra" earlier this year. "Likewise, Islamism is the goal of jihadists today — that is, a political ideology that aims to establish Islamist states and govern by their version of Sharia law and to spread that conversion around the world."
Guy Fawkes Day isn't about celebrating Guy Fawkes, a religious extremist who plotted a terror attack. Instead, Britain is celebrating a successful counterterrorism operation. And honestly, that's a little scary, too.
After he was captured, Fawkes was tortured so badly that he could barely sign his own confession. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but he jumped from the gallows before he could be put in the noose, saving himself the fate of being disemboweled while still alive. The English government cut up his remains and sent them to the four corners of the country to warn other potential Catholic plotters. The state's subsequent backlash against Catholics was bad enough that for centuries people wondered if the plot had been a false flag. Over the years, Guy Fawkes night evolved into a spectacle of anti-Catholic sentiment, with effigies of the pope being burnt up until the modern day.
As bad as that was, some historians say that a successful gunpowder plot would have been far worse. "Almost certainly, the result would have been a catastrophe for the English Roman Catholic community," Ronald Hutton, a historian from the University of Exeter, wrote for the BBC last year, with the British state likely turning into a Protestant absolute monarchy.
So really, Guy Fawkes Day isn't about anarchism or anti-authoritarianism. It's about terrorism, sectarianism and religious persecution. And that's still very relevant today.
More on WorldViews