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Remember, remember Fawkes day in November

Marty Schroeder | Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The tagline for “V for Vendetta” implores moviegoers everywhere to, “Remember, remember the 5th of November.” The 5th of November? As many American audiences have probably asked, “what happened on the 5th of November?” One only needs to look across the Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain to find the answer. The date celebrates a United Kingdom holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day.

The aforementioned holiday commemorates the day that Guy Fawkes and his band of conspirators attempted to blow up the Palace of Westminster, more commonly known as the Parliament building. The day chosen for this incendiary action was to take place on the official State Opening of Parliament in 1605. Not only would both the House of Commons and Lords be full, but the then King James I of England (VI of Scotland) would also be present.

This was Fawkes’ way of protesting the Protestant religion of England and promoting his own Catholicism. But who was Guy Fawkes?

Fawkes was born in England in 1570 in York and, according to his interrogation after his capture in 1605, converted to Catholicism at the age of 16. He enlisted in the army of the Archduke of Albert of Austria and fought in the Netherlands against the Protestant United Provinces. During his career in the military, he gained experience in explosives. This knowledge – coupled with his general military experience – would allow him to become the main organizer behind what would come to be known as the infamous “Gunpowder Plot.”

This “Plot” was intended to blow up Parliament during its official opening. Fawkes, along with other English Catholics, was angry about the English government’s persecution of Catholics in England and violence was their answer. The plan was to rent an undercroft below the House of Lords, place barrels of gunpowder in this room, wait for the State Opening and set off the gunpowder. Before their cover was blown, the group had placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in this room, which came in at an estimated 2.5 tons.

Obviously the plan did not work as expected – the Parliament building is still standing almost 400 years later. For fear that prominent Catholic politicians would be killed in the explosion, a conspirator notified Lord Monteagle – himself a Catholic – of the plot. Monteagle then told the then-Secretary of State Robert Cecil, setting off a search of the area. Fawkes was found nearby with a watch, matches and touchpaper. He was arrested, interrogated and finally hanged for treason and attempted regicide on Jan. 31, 1606.

The day of his arrest, Nov. 5, 1605 has since become a holiday celebrated in the UK, parts of Canada and other parts of the world. The day’s festivities include some of the largest professional and amateur fireworks shows, accompanied by bonfires and the eating of bonfire toffee. Until recently, children used to go door to door before the 5th and ask for “a penny for the guy.”

The holiday no longer has any political or sectarian motivations and everyone in the UK joins in the celebrations as a chance to shoot fireworks and revel with the rest of the country – in essence, much of the original meaning of the holiday has been lost.

V, Hugo Weaving’s anti-hero in “V for Vendetta,” operates within a similar mentality, as the now infamous Guy Fawkes. Violent action, in the mindsets of both V and Fawkes, is the only way to succeed in promoting their agendas – this obviously takes on a different context due to the current geo-political climate. Though it should be noted that “V for Vendetta” is a fictitious story meant to be taken as entertainment, it still deals with complex issues and places them in a relevant socio-historical context.

As V implores people to “remember, remember, the fifth of November,” so too should audiences remember the infamous day in 1605 – its importance resonates as strongly as ever four centuries later.