The mask, a stylized white face with a gigantic smile, rosy red cheeks and a mischievous mustache, has been worn by protestors in Thailand, Egypt, the United States and Great Britain. The mask is so controversial that it is illegal in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The mask is presently the fifth best-selling mask on Amazon.
The face on the mask belongs to Guy Fawkes, one of the lead planners in a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England in 1605. The plan was to blow him up with massive amounts of gunpowder stored in a cellar beneath Parliament and the event became known as the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes and his cronies were tortured and executed, but the legacy of his brash anarchist spirit has survived the centuries.
Other Great Reads: How Napoleon’s “Death Mask” got to New Orleans
Guy Fawkes, also known by the adapted Italian version of his name, Guido Fawkes, was born on April 13 1570 in York, England. At age eight his father died and his mother remarried a Catholic man. Fawkes converted to Catholicism and traveled to continental Europe, where he fought with Catholic Spain in the Eighty Year’s War, against the Protestant Dutch. Fawkes tried to gain Spanish support for a rebellion against England but was unsuccessful. Back in England he met a man from a prominent Catholic family named Robert Catesby who planned to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne, namely the King’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth.
The conspirators met on Sunday May 20, 1604 at an inn called the Duck and Drake. They planned to secure a house near Parliament, fill it with gunpowder, dig a tunnel from the house to a spot beneath Parliament and then deliver the fatal charge to the king. The following month the conspirators gained access to a house that belonged to the keeper of the king’s wardrobe but that December the conspirators learned that a cellar directly beneath the House of Lords was being cleared out. They abandoned their tunnel idea—it’s unclear whether or not work on the tunnel was ever begun—and purchased the lease to the cellar. By the end of July 1605, three dozen barrels of gunpowder had been stored away.
Other Great Reads: British funerals in early America
But at the end of October an anonymous letter warning of a plot to blow up Parliament was sent to a certain Lord and the King ordered the cellars searched. Early on November 5th the King’s men found Fawkes, armed with a match and a watch, and arrested him. He was open about the plot—when asked by one lord why he was in possession of so much gunpowder, Fawkes stated: “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”—but he refused to give up the names of his co-conspirators. The King admired his resilience but nevertheless ordered him tortured. After several days Fawkes broke and signed a full confession with an incredibly shaky scrawl, an indication to the extreme nature of the torture.
First, their genitals were to be cut off and burnt before their eyes, then their bowels and hearts removed, then finally they were to be decapitated and dismembered and the parts of their bodies displayed so that the birds could eat them.
All eight conspirators were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death, but not just any death. First, their genitals were to be cut off and burnt before their eyes, then their bowels and hearts removed, then finally they were to be decapitated and dismembered and the parts of their bodies displayed so that the birds could eat them. Before his torturous execution could commence Fawkes jumped from the gallows, breaking his neck. His lifeless body was still quartered and, as was the custom, pieces were sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to future traitors.
The Guy Fawkes “mask” was first adopted by the comic book series, V for Vendetta, published in 1982. In 2006 that series was adopted into a movie and in 2008 it was worn by the hacker activist group, Anonymous, when they protested the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. The mask has been used by the group ever since, as they have staged protests to authority and injustice around the world. The mask was also taken up by some protestors during the Arab Spring. The result was swift legal action, and the mask was made illegal in several Arab countries. In Bahrain the mask was condemned as a “revolution mask” that threatened public safety. In Saudi Arabia it was seen as “a symbol of rebels and revenge…used to incite the youth to destabilize security and spread chaos.”
Alan Moore, author of the original V for Vendetta comic and an anarchist himself has supported the use of the mask. “When you start to see that idle fantasy intrude on the regular world…it’s peculiar,” he stated in a 2008 interview. “It feels like a character I created 30 years ago has somehow escaped the realm of fiction.”
What was Fawkes the man actually like, and did he even have that smug smile the mask suggests? According to the Anglo-Irish author Antonia Fraser, Fawkes was a “tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing mustache in the tradition of the time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard.”
A former schoolmate described Fawkes as “a man highly skilled in matters of war”. He was also, according to the man, “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife…[and] loyal to his friends.”