“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot!”
From the “Guy Fawkes Party!” invitations on Facebook to the UPAC showing of V for Vendetta this Saturday, it’s clear that students will be taking this Saturday to remember Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder Plot over 400 years ago. Since this historic date only really gained prominence in the United States after the release of V for Vendetta, an enormously popular dystopian thriller released as a movie in 2006 (and as a graphic novel in the 1980s). The premise of this movie was that the world was overcome by war and environmental crisis, and as a result, Europe tried to gain security by putting into power the authoritarian Norsefire party. The movie follows protagonist V as he works to start a revolution, relying heavily on metaphors from the Gunpowder Plot as he promises to blow up the iconic Parliament building. As V is horrifically burned and disfigured from his political imprisonment, he always dons a Guy Fawkes mask, accentuating his purpose as more of an idea than an individual. This mask was shortly thereafter picked up as an icon by Anonymous as a metaphor for civil disobedience and rebellion against oppression.
It’s clear that this movie and, to the large extent, the United States romanticizes Guy Fawkes as a patriot. This is a stark contrast to the perception of Fawkes in the United Kingdom, as celebrations on the 5th—Bonfire Night—often including burning effigies of Fawkes and other “hate-figures.” The strong culture surrounding the 5th often surpasses the history and the facts of the day.
The conflict was based on religious motivations—there was much strife between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, and England was no exception. The Gunpowder Plot was a failed assassination attempt against the Protestant King James I, led by Catholic Robert Catesby, as hopes for greater religious tolerance within the nation were sinking. The plan called for blowing up the House of Lords on the 5th of November, 1605, thus killing the King (and all others within the building) and placing the King’s nine-year-old daughter Princess Elizabeth on the throne as a Catholic ruler. The plan was foiled when William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter on October 26; Guy Fawkes was captured when he was found guarding the gunpowder on the 4th, and upon torture and interrogation, he revealed the plan and other co-conspirators.
So, while I hope that you enjoy the day through movie screenings and parties, I think that it is valuable to know the history behind the day.
November 5th is a historic date here for another reason as well—it is the 187th anniversary of our dear Alma Mater. On November 5, 1824, this school’s founder Stephen Van Rensselaer (who also celebrated his birthday this Tuesday) wrote to Rev. Samual Blachford:
“I have established a school at the north end of Troy, in Rensselaer county, in the building usually called the Old Bank Place, for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life,” thus founding Rensselaer and putting in place the principles that define us still today.
In respect for this anniversary, when you’re not watching V for Vendetta with your Guy Fawkes masks, I encourage you to reflect on this principle, “the application of science to the common purposes of life,” that is the cornerstone of our founding. The skills and knowledge that we gain in every classroom is taught for this principle—not to pass the time, not for school image, but to turn freshmen into strong Rensselaer alumni that will use their knowledge as a tool to shape the world.