Fireworks over the Palace of Westminster as seen from the South Bank.

Fireworks over the Palace of Westminster as seen from the South Bank.

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There are lots of well-known dates to observe and celebrate across the global yearly calendar, so we will forgive you if you don’t remember that November 5 is Guy Fawkes Day. You’ll recognize Mr Fawkes’s name from somewhere, of course, and you’ll recognize the now-famous mask that bears his likeness, but what’s this day really all about? Let’s learn you good once and for all.

Guy Fawkes is famous to us because he took part in a plot to assassinate a king. (Imagine if this happened today – it’d be one crazy story.) In 1605, Fawkes and his co-conspirators wanted to murder the Protestant King James I of England and install on the throne the king’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, as the figurehead of a Catholic government. They filled a small room directly below the House of Lords with explosives (hence the name “Gunpowder Plot”) but hours before they were to execute their plan, an anonymous tipster gave them away. When authorities burst in, Mr Fawkes was the one guarding the store. He was taken into custody and under torture (likely via the rack – yikes!), gave up the names of his would-be co-mutineers. Fawkes was hanged, then drawn and quartered – a ghastly punishment designed to make a clear example of what treason leads to.

Every year since then, Guy Fawkes Day, sometimes called “Bonfire Night,” has been observed (first in England and now in many Commonwealth countries) on November 5 to commemorate the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, and express gratitude for its failure. Participants set off fireworks and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, (or “the guy” as kids call him). A simple nursery rhyme was even written to teach kids not to plot to kill their king. The first line? “Remember, remember the fifth of November.”

Demonstrator dons Guy Fawkes mask in Oporto, Portugal (September 15, 2012).

Demonstrator dons Guy Fawkes mask in Oporto, Portugal (September 15, 2012).

In recent years, Mr Fawkes’s reputation has seen a resurgence. In some circles, he’s now seen less as a crazed turncoat and more frequently as a man once brave enough to act upon his beliefs. In the 2003 movie V for Vendetta, the main character launches attacks against the fascist government of a fictionalized near-future United Kingdom, all while wearing a stylized Guy Fawkes mask. Just a few years later, this mask – designed specifically for the film – was appropriated by Anonymous, an international conglomerate of protest groups and activists. Members began showing up at protests around the world (most notably the “Occupy” movements following the 2008 financial crash) wearing the mask, turning it into a widely recognized symbol of revolution. According to Time in 2011, the protesters' adoption of the mask led to it becoming one of Amazon’s most sought-after items, selling in the hundreds of thousands each year.

And there you have it, friends – a little bit of anarchist education to make your November 5 water-cooler conversation a bit more informed. Will you mark Guy Fawkes Day in any way? Will you have your own moments of personal protest somehow? Tell us here, and always, remember, remember the fifth of November. (And if you plan to blow up any kings, this post never happened, okay?)


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