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Q&A: Remember, remember the fifth of November. Who is Guy Fawkes anyway?

USA TODAY USA TODAY 5/11/2015 Katharine Lackey, and Kim Hjelmgaard
Guy Fawkes © AP Photo Guy Fawkes

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

Sound familiar? Every year on Nov. 5, people in Britain remember that prose and a special event in the nation's history by gathering around large piles of burning wood and setting alight effigies of a guy named Guy.

Who was this Guy?

Guy Fawkes was a pro-Catholic activist in a majority Protestant England who was part of a plot — that was later foiled — to assassinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

Why did they want to get rid of the king?

English Catholics were persecuted at the time and had hoped the Protestant King James I would take a different hand toward them after 45 harsh years under Queen Elizabeth, the Telegraph reports. That didn't happen, so Fawkes and his fellow conspirators smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar under the House of Lords.

How was the plot foiled?

An anonymous letter tipped off authorities, who searched the building and found Fawkes — who had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse — and the explosives in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 1605, according to the Telegraph. Fawkes and his conspirators were later tried, convicted and executed.

How did this event gain such a place in history?

Shortly after the foiled plot, a very relieved Parliament declared Nov. 5 a national holiday, the Telegraph reports. The following year, as anti-Catholic sentiments continued in the country, it passed an act that required citizens to deny the pope's authority over the king. Another act required church attendance on that day.

Let's get back to this burning thing: What is Bonfire Night and how did it start?

The Independent reports that back in 1605 members of the public celebrated the foiled assassination attempt by lighting bonfires around London. Today, that tradition lives on, with Britons setting fire to wood, setting off fireworks and burning effigies across the country. In essence, Fawkes is being celebrated for not succeeding, and Britons don't particularly dislike the fellow.

The burning is undertaken with particular relish in Lewes, England, a town tucked away at the foot of the chalky South Downs hill range amid some of Britain's most scenic countryside. Bonfire Night visitors to Lewes encounter a chaotic scene that has been described as Halloween meets Mardi Gras, with burning banners, torches, tar barrels, crosses and outlandish, often politicized, displays vying with huge crowds, colorful fireworks and the occasional frightened-looking child. In 2011, an effigy of Osama bin Laden was carried through the town. The pope's likeness — smoldering — features regularly.

Why is this town of Lewes so heavily involved?

Lewes has been called the bonfire capital of the world and is a place that has no less than seven distinct bonfire societies operating separate parades and firework displays every Nov. 5 amid an atmosphere of raucous and semi-legal observance.

The tradition of remembering the Gun Powder Plot carries added significance for the town. Since 1858, bonfire societies in Lewes have been undertaking processions through the town's small, winding streets to commemorate 17 Protestants who were burned to death here at the behest of Mary Tudor, the Protestant-persecuting daughter of Henry VIII who would be known later as Bloody Mary.

Wait, haven't I seen his face somewhere else before?

Guy Fawkes may be local to Britain but his image has been beamed around the world in recent years. A stylized version of a Guy Fawkes mask — rosy cheeks, upward-arching mustache, pointy beard — has been adopted by a range of anti-establishment activists, including Anonymous.

The mask itself originated in the V for Vendetta graphic novel, which portrayed the main character as a anarchist battling a fascist authoritarian state, the Economist reports. The 2005 movie of the same name ends with a crowd of Britons in Guy Fawkes' masks watching the House of Parliament explode as a tyrannical government is overthrown.


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