Last week, while flipping through a magazine (sorry, I don’t recall which one, but you probably all read the same stuff I do), my attention was caught by a photo of two people wearing what I immediately recognized as Guy Fawkes masks. Now, how Guy Fawkes would be instantly recognizable in twenty-first-century popular culture is one of the things that gave me pause. Another was what the article was describing—a phenomenon of Guy Fawkes mask-wearing protesters in the Occupy Wall Street campaigns around the US and Europe. But what really caught my attention was the article’s description of Fawkes as “an English folk hero.”
I practically did a double take. I know I reread that sentence. For though I’m no expert on Guy Fawkes, I do know that he’s no English folk hero. Unless, that is, one takes into account another twist in the long afterlife of the Gunpowder Plot. This most recent twist, and the direct avenue by which the masks are coming into play in the Occupy Wall Street protests, is through the 2006 Warner Bros. movie, V for Vendetta. There are hints of this twist from earlier times as well: in an email conversation I had with David Cressy last week, he recalled a slogan from a Thatcher-era British election: “vote for Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions.”
V for Vendetta had not yet been released when the Folger Institute convened a workshop on 5 November 2005 to contemplate the four-hundredth anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Organized by Chris Kyle (Associate Professor of History, Syracuse University), the Folger workshop gathered some forty scholars—including historians, political scientists, sociologists, and professors of literature—to discuss the historical implications of an event that did not happen.
What might have been, had a group of Catholic conspirators succeeded in igniting thirty-six barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords at the Opening of Parliament with King James, England’s aristocracy, and much of the royal family present? What if Guy Fawkes, a skilled military engineer who had fought under Spanish forces against Protestants in the Low Countries, had not been discovered with the gunpowder? What course might history have taken if England were suddenly leaderless and ripe for foreign invasion and re-conversion to Catholicism in 1605? These were among the questions Chris Kyle urged us to consider.
Accounts of the Gunpowder Plot resonated in many texts from the period, some having only the most tenuous of connections to plots, Catholics, or gunpowder. Invited speakers helped shape the conversation, beginning with Ian Archer’s setting the scene in early seventeenth-century Westminster and concluding with David Cressy’s recounting of the Gunpowder Plot’s many afterlives and memorializations in English history. Extended discussion focused on the sectarian and political causes that drove the conspirators to such extremes, the historical effects of the foiled conspiracy, the evidence used to convict the plotters, the episode’s resonances with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the plot’s use as anti-Catholic propaganda and scare-mongering through the seventeenth century and beyond.
Coming as it did so soon after 2001, the anniversary provided an especially compelling opportunity to think about terrorism. How do we define it? Who gets to define it? What are the boundaries between terrorism and political opposition, collective violence and individual acts? I remember Charles Tilly galvanizing us all with his framing comments. There was also an alarming report in circulation at that time that physicists had recently worked out the full extent of the damage to Westminster had the blast gone off. It was illustrated in the press with an ominously large gray circle superimposed on an early map of London.
The anniversary had spurred lots of new publications, from general surveys to scholarly tomes, and a factsheet from the House of Commons Information Office. Chris Kyle suggested we all read Mark Nicholl’s Investigating Gunpowder Plot (Manchester UP, 1991) for an overview of how events unfolded in November 1605 and the government’s reaction to the discovery of the Plot. The workshop spurred participants to identify key source materials, including several engravings at the Folger. The features of the Guy Fawkes masks that circulate today were set early on. We also learned that Fawkes and his conspirators were depicted in the Folger’s Trevelyon manuscript, now fully digitized. Participants jointly compiled a bibliography of secondary sources, which is available for consultation on the Institute’s website.
An Institute workshop is designed to be conversational in nature. The continuing resonance, indeed resurgence, of Guy Fawkes in popular culture reminds me how important it is that scholarly conversations are also provisional and contingent, and that they are that in exciting and generative ways. One strange circumstance gave the event a special frisson. That is the completely accidental overlap of the Institute’s workshop with a visit to the Folger by Prince Charles and Camilla on the day on which our workshop began. Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, indeed.