He wasn’t an anarchist. He didn’t manage to blow up parliament. He wasn’t even the mastermind behind the Gunpowder plot. Why then do we remember Guy Fawkes in the way we do? Why has his very image become synonymous with resistance to authority and promotion of anarchy?
Guido Fawkes was born Guy Fawkes on the 13th April 1570 in York. It is recorded that Fawkes lost his father at the age of eight; his mother then remarried a Catholic man, with Fawkes later converting to Catholicism in a country increasingly abhorrent of his new faith. For about 10 years, Fawkes fought abroad for the Catholic cause in Europe in the Eighty Years’ War and it is here that Fawkes adopted the Italian name Guido for the remainder of his life.
Fawkes returned to England with fellow English Catholic Thomas Wintour, who introduced him to Robert Catesby. The leader of the group, Catesby masterminded the Gunpowder plot with the help of Fawkes, Wintour and 10 other disaffected Catholics to overthrow the Protestant King and Parliament while they sat in November. In charge of explosives, Fawkes was caught guarding the kegs of gunpowder underneath Parliament on the 5th November after a tip off from an anonymous letter.
Upon his capture the government declared that ‘bonfires be lit’ to celebrate the King’s escape from death and for this to be repeated every year. It is from here onward perhaps, that the legacy of Guy Fawkes truly stems from. Defiant when captured, Fawkes remained resolute and unrepentant for his actions. He endured three days of torture, from the 6th to the 9th, until he fully revealed the names of his co-conspirators and their plan – by this time around half of his colleagues managed to evade capture. Fawkes, along with the other conspirators, were hung on the 31st January 1606 and quartered thereafter.
The development of ‘Bonfire Night’ is a history in itself, and something addressed excellently by James Sharpe. However to focus upon Fawkes, the effigies that was burnt on the bonfire on the 5th usually resembled the pope until a development later, in the 19th century, which saw the ‘guy’ burnt on the bonfire. The figure of Fawkes, or the ‘guy’, is now burnt as he is the figure most associated with the plot, perhaps as he remained the only known suspect for a number of weeks. Yet recent developments in the late 20th and 21st century have seen a disassociation of Fawkes and the ‘guy’ in the commemoration of ‘Bonfire Night’ and indeed the ‘guy’ with the 5th generally, as it is now more common to light fireworks instead.
The disassociation of Fawkes and the body of the ‘guy’ with ‘Bonfire Night’ is arguably the most important development in his legacy. It represents a loss in the connotation of treason with Fawkes. Fawkes’ legacy is therefore now in his dissociated image a symbol for resisting ‘oppression’. This symbol has been perpetuated by the ‘V for Vendetta’ comic in the 1980’s and movie adaption in 2005. The mask of the ‘guy’ -or Fawkes- now adorns the faces of the disaffected and disillusioned in modern society at rallies and protests.
The ‘Guy Fawkes mask’ came to its contemporary prominence after the 2005 movie adaption. The movie is set in a future dystopian Britain in which an autocratic Parliament rules. The main character ‘V’ wears the ‘Guy Fawkes mask’ to hide his identity and instead promotes the idea of anarchy and freedom. The film concludes with him –successfully- blowing up Parliament. The global online activist group ‘Anonymous’ famously used the mask in 2006, when battling the Church of Scientology over their censorship of an interview with Tom Cruise. Since then the mask became their symbol and the symbol of many other activists groups fighting ‘oppressive’ authority.
Although unhappy with the state of Catholicism in Europe, Fawkes was not an anarchist and would have happily seen a return of an autocratic Catholic monarch to Britain. Yet this is arguably his legacy. Hero or Villain; it really depends on your interpretation of Fawkes’ legacy and your level of dissatisfaction with the world we live in today.