“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” the old British rhyme goes.
For more than 400 years, Britain has remembered. Every year on this day, fireworks are set off, bonfires are built, and effigies are burned to commemorate the failed 17th-century plot by a group of English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament—with the country’s entire political establishment and reigning Protestant monarch, King James I, inside.
But for an event rooted in remembrance, what has come to be known here in Britain as Guy Fawkes Night (named after one of the key plotters) could not be further removed from it. Today, the annual ritual is more festive and fun than religious and monarchical. Even Fawkes himself has taken on new meaning, becoming best known around the world not as a would-be religious extremist and terrorist, but as a populist hero. His life has been romanticized in film, his likeness has been preserved in masks, and his legacy has morphed into an almost mythical tale of anti-government rebellion, anarchy, and subversion.
How we remember Fawkes, as both a person and a symbol, presents a case study for how the meaning of historical events can be bent to serve the religious, political, and cultural needs of the present. But it also presents a fundamental question about how much is too much historical alteration. By turning people into symbols, do we run the risk of changing them into someone they weren’t?
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.
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.
Perhaps the starkest difference between the two is that whereas V emerges as a heroic martyr acting for the greater good, Fawkes is first and foremost seen as a traitor acting in the interest of a radical few. “He may have wanted religious freedom, but it’s unlikely that if he was in a position of power, he would have extended that freedom to his religious enemies,” Alastair Bellany, a professor of history at Rutgers University, told me. “He wanted a Catholic kingdom.”
It’s not just the 2005 film that shifts Fawkes’s image in the zeitgeist. The mask popularized in V for Vendetta soon emerged in anti-government demonstrations worldwide, from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement to protests in Bahrain, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. The mask also become the symbol of the hacktivist group Anonymous. James Sharpe, the author of Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day, told me that even the Guy Fawkes Inn, a York pub located across the street from where its namesake was baptized, swapped its original portrait of Fawkes for one of the iconic mask. “The modern perception, the mask, and so on is a complete reconfiguration of Fawkes,” Sharpe said.
David Lloyd, the British artist and illustrator who designed the V for Vendetta mask, said the iconic image is open to interpretation. “It’s an all-purpose badge of protest and rebellion,” he told Britain’s Daily Telegraph in 2015. “The smile can be interpreted as eternal optimism, of course—which is something essential to the survival of protesters everywhere.”
In this populist age, where protesters the world over are taking to the streets and ballot boxes to voice their discontent with the status quo, perhaps the emergence of a Fawkes-like symbol is necessary. But in amplifying one narrative about the historic figure, we risk losing the other.
“People will hold him up as a symbol of whatever they want to believe in,” Holland said, “but we’re getting further and further away from the man that he was.”