The Guy Fawkes celebrations are, paradoxically, rooted in his failure. Though born into a Protestant family in York, in the north of England, Fawkes converted to Catholicism in his teens. At the time, Catholics suffered severe repression across the country and were barred from voting, holding public office, and owning land. The religious persecution prompted Fawkes to leave England for the Netherlands, where he served in the army for Catholic-ruled Spain. As he rose in the ranks, Fawkes became notorious for both his skill as a soldier and his handling of explosives—a talent that caught the eye of a fellow English Catholic, Robert Catesby. It was Catesby who crafted the plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament during their State Opening on November 5, 1605—an act he and his group of plotters hoped would be enough to wipe out the ruling elite and install a new Catholic monarch, ushering in an end to Protestant rule.
Of course, it never came to that. On the eve of the plot, authorities conducted a sweep of the Palace of Westminster’s cellars, where they discovered Fawkes with enough gunpowder to destroy the building twice over. “That would have [not only] killed everyone in Parliament, but the whole Westminster area would have been destroyed as well,” Nick Holland, the author of The Real Guy Fawkes, told me. “It would have been the biggest terrorist act in British history.”
Upon discovery, Fawkes and his co-conspirators were taken to the Tower of London and interrogated—though Fawkes notably didn’t reveal a thing. It was only after the king authorized the use of torture that authorities were able to extract a confession. Fawkes was found guilty of high treason and executed in Westminister’s Old Palace Yard, mere yards away from the building he had tried to bring crashing down.
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In the immediate aftermath of his execution, Fawkes was widely regarded as “a huge villain,” Holland said. Guy became a pejorative term used to describe someone as grotesque (though nowadays the word simply refers to a man or a person). Londoners lit bonfires to celebrate King James’s survival, and an annual day to commemorate the thwarted plot was enacted into law, with observance made compulsory. This became the precursor to the modern tradition of bonfire celebrations, complete with effigies, or Guys (a ritual that has since expanded to include famous figures such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Donald Trump, and the disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein).
But Fawkes’s reputation didn’t stay this way. In the centuries since, his memory has morphed from one of a religious extremist to one of a populist underdog—a shift that has been attributed in large part to the serialization of his life in the British graphic novel turned film V for Vendetta. Set in a future dystopian Britain ruled by a fascist government, the Fawkes-inspired character, known simply as “V,” bears little resemblance to his historical counterpart. Whereas the real Fawkes was driven by religious aims, the masked, knife-wielding V lashes out against his enemies for the purpose of bringing down the fascist state. They both share the goal of bombing the Houses of Parliament as a catalyst for their ultimate aims, though where Fawkes fails, V succeeds.