Showing posts with label English history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English history. Show all posts

Monday, June 25, 2012

Behind the masks

Over the last few years, this grinning mask has attained planetary notoriety as a symbol of political protest:

Anonymous at Scientology, Los Angeles (2008) — Vincent Diamante

This iconic disguise has been adopted by members of the Anonymous group of hacktivists, but they were not the inventors of the mask, which had been a key visual element in the 2005 movie V for Vendetta by James McTeigue.

Today, it has become one of the most famous masks of all time, on a par with theater masks of Ancient Greece:

Or the carnival masks of Venice:

The historical personage depicted in the mask is supposed to be the English Catholic would-be terrorist Guy Fawkes [1570-1606].

In the early hours of 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes and a small group of conspirators, opposed to the Protestant monarch James I, made a foiled attempt to blow up the English Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. We might say that the veritable creator of the iconic mask was the anonymous 17th-century Dutch artist who dashed off this famous drawing of the group of conspirators.

Did the Dutchman actually see any members of the group before drawing their portrait? Probably not, but that's neither here nor there, for the artist had a knack for drawing convincing conspirators: the proof being that his iconic "conspiracy look" is still making front-page news some four-and-a-half centuries later.

The eight conspirators who were captured alive were subjected to some very nasty treatment, to say the least. It started with sessions of torture in the Tower of London. Then they were rapidly tried and condemned. The following drawing shows the so-called hurdles of wattle branches on which the condemned men were finally strapped and drawn by horses to the gallows at Westminster.

One of the executed conspirators (not shown, curiously, in the group portrait) was a Leicestershire knight, Sir Everard Digby [1578-1606]. He was in fact the only one of the conspirators who pleaded guilty. He also had the dubious honor of being hanged for a short period of time. Consequently, when they cut him down, he was still perfectly conscious... and therefore capable of observing in agony the ensuing operations of castration and disembowelment.

Digby (issued from a long line of distinguished males, most of whom were named Everard) came from the village of Tilton, just a few kilometers to the north of our ancestral village of Skeffington. Here's a recent photo of the parish church of Tilton-on-the-Hill (as it is now known) and the old school-house (made from the same stone):

Our ancestor Sir William Skeffington [1460-1535] was married in that church in 1492. And his 20-year-old bride was a village girl, Margaret Digby, daughter of an Everard Digby... who was a predecessor of the Everard Digby involved (over a century later) in the Gunpowder Plot. William, a Catholic—known familiarly as "the Gunner" because of his military predilection for heavy artillery—had seven offspring with Margaret. Then, when she died, William seems to have concluded that Digby women were a good affair, for he married Margaret's cousin Anne Digby, and had another five offspring.

Getting back to the famous mask, I have the impression that no authentic images of Guy Fawkes have survived. On the other hand, we do have an authentic portrait of at least one of the condemned conspirators: Everard Digby.

It's quite possible that this Digby portrait was the only visual document that could be accessed by the anonymous Dutch artist who created the group drawing of the conspirators. I have the impression that Digby's facial features and his vaguely cynical expression are not unlike those of Guy Fawkes in the group drawing. If it were the case that the Digby portrait inspired the Dutch artist, then that would mean that all those modern V for Vendetta masks might be thought of as joyful mementos of a curious Catholic from the tiny Leicestshire village of Tilton who was knighted by King James I on 24 April 1603, and then tried to blow up that same monarch just two and a half years later.

What would Sir William Skeffington "the Gunner" have thought of the behavior of this Digby descendant? We shall never know, of course, because these two Leicestershire knights were separated in time by a century. But I have my own idea on that question.
Remember, remember the 5th of November:
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason that gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.