Happy Gunpowder Treason Day! Or Guy Fawkes Day, depending on your politics. Both are remembrances of the failed “Gunpowder Plot” of a group of Catholics to blow up the House of Lords in London in response to severe persecution against Catholics by the government. Tipped off by an anonymous letter, police discovered Guy Fawkes guarding the explosives just hours before the attack. Ever since, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators have been lionized and demonized, celebrated as martyrs and held up as an examples of why Catholics cannot be trusted. The 2005 movie V for Vendetta remade the Guy Fawkes legend for our own time, and groups like Anonymous have take up his image as a symbol of courageous, principled opposition to tyranny. But is he really a hero?
“The Gunpowder Plot needs to be seen and understood within the framework of its historical context,” says Joseph Pearce, Writer-in-Residence and Professor of Humanities at Thomas More College. “The persecuted and besieged Catholics of England had waited doggedly and hopefully for the death of the aging Queen in the hope and expectation that her successor, James I, would fulfill his promise to end the relentless attacks on Catholicism.”
“Although James was married to a Catholic he reneged on his promise and continued with the same policy of torturing priests and putting them to death. The brief euphoria that surrounded the death of Bloody Bess in 1603 was followed by a feeling of despair as England's Catholics realized that there was no foreseeable end to the terror under which they lived. For some, this despair led to the desperation of the now infamous plot to assassinate the King and his ministers.”
Pearce says the hardship of the time was reflected in some of the works of Shakespeare – who himself may have been Catholic. “Those wishing to gain a real sense of the darkness that descended on England's Catholics in this grim hour in England's history need look no further than the darkness of the plots of Macbeth, King Lear and Othello, each of which convey that anger and despondency of the Catholic Shakespeare at this time.”
Despite the grave persecution Catholics in England were suffering at the time, Catholic author John Zmirak says the plot was immoral. “[T]his was not an act of Just War. Why? It had no chance of success. There was no Catholic heir waiting in Scotland with an army to back him up. There was no realistic plan to reestablish order.”
Zmirak points out that the plot actually worsened the English persecution of Catholics. “It was just an act of vindictive, nihilistic violence–which led to a predictable, vicious persecution of Catholics. For the same reason, using violence against abortionists is wrong: it's an act of civil war. And we would lose.”
“Violent revolutions are subject to Just War principles, which include the likelihood of success, and the duty not to target non-combatants, and to only use violence proportional to the injustice being suffered.”
Zmirak doesn’t think much of the modern usage of Guy Fawkes’ persona. “Anonymous and the thugs of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ are inspired not by the real Guy Fawkes, but by one of the most despicable films about politics ever made, V for Vendetta. Fawkes was a fool, but he deserves better than that.”
Professor of Church History at Holy Apostles College and Seminary Sr. Dolores Liptak, R.S.M. agrees with Zmirak’s negative assessment of the Gunpowder Plot. “Clearly, the Guy Fawkes's plan was a mistake…. The concept of blowing up innocent individuals in the name of a principle (no matter what principle) is abhorrent to all Christians, I should believe.”
“Persecution is an awesome, frightening gift for a select group. It is horrible; evil. But grace is given to accept it; and, easy as it is for me to say, I know that it must be accepted – as the first of the followers of Christ, and many other good people, have done. So many have done the right thing: shed their blood for the sake of the building up of God's kingdom in this fallen world.”
The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:
Sister Dolores Liptak, R.S.M., is a Professor of Church History at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.
Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Professor of Humanities at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH. He is a co-editor of the St. Austin Review and editor-in-chief of Sapientia Press.