Many schoolchildren and townspeople alike in the British Commonweal are observing “Guy Fawkes Day” today. Americans might recognize Fawkes, both from the film “V for Vendetta” as well as the use of his visage by those lefties engaged in “Occupy” movements around the time of the stock market crash of 2008.
The story of Fawkes is the story of success and failure. Whereas the US founding fathers were successful in their endeavor to end oppressive rule over them, poor Guy Fawkes was not so lucky. History remembers him as a terrorist. Ben Franklin knew as much when he quipped “We’ll all hang together, or all hang separately.”
Guy Fawkes was a disgruntled Catholic, who lived during the times of the English Reformation. His Catholic church persecuted by the newly-formed Church of England, Fawkes and a few conspirators decided to take matters into their own hands by plotting to blow up the House of Lords. On November 5, 1605, Fawkes put his plan into action, sneaking around the basement of the Houses of Parliament, but was foiled by the king’s yeoman before he struck the match.
Fawkes was summarily hanged, drawn and quartered. Parliament passed the “Observance of the 5th of November Act” in 1605 as a feast day giving thanks for King James’s survival. Over the years, the tradition took on anti-Catholic sentiment, and was celebrated as “Pope Day” in the US until the American Revolution (source: Wikipedia). My wife, educated in British and Australian schools, learned this rhyme well, and often joined her schoolmates in hanging an effigy of the poor freedom fighter or terrorist (depending on your stripes):
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
Variations of this poem have existed since the time of Fawkes and King James, with many a poet adding or deleting a verse. In parts of the UK and abroad this evening, the tradition of burning an effigy of Fawkes persists. However, many festival goers simply know of tonight’s events as “Bonfire Night”–the modern “holiday” devoid of the violence and lynching, akin to the rather sanitized “Trick or Treat” in the US.
Fortunately, the burning an effigy of the Pope has fallen off a bit. Intriguingly, other public demons have served as stand-in’s for Guy–including Lance Armstrong. The “holiday” seems to have morphed into less of a holiday celebrating the spoiling of a terrorist (or freedom fighter’s) plot, and more of an excuse to burn an effigy at night, in the fall, with beer in hand.