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A Brief History: Guy Fawkes Day and the Revolutionary Spirit

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Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot

The famous poem penned by John Milton refers to the infamous foiled plot to blow up the House of Parliament in 1605. More than four centuries later, David Lloyd’s rendition of the Guy Fawkes mask in the 2005 film V for Vendetta has become an international symbol of anarchy, subversion, and anti-establishment rebellion.

Throughout the years, Guy Fawkes and his tale have illustrated various issues. Still, People celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks and festivity each year.

Who Was Guy Fawkes and Why Is He Celebrated?

When security personnel conducted a sweep beneath the Palace of Westminster on November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered with enough gunpowder to blow up the whole Westminster area, and then some. He and his accomplices would have been responsible for Britain’s most significant terrorist attack ever had they been successful.

Many historians might overlook him and other failed revolts. However, November 5 is celebrated as a nationwide holiday in the United Kingdom.

The Protestant monarch, King James 1, was more sympathetic to the plight of English Catholics than his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth 1, owing to his mother’s Catholic background. He was not, and Catholic persecution continued unhindered, unfaltering.

Though the attack aimed at dismantling the Protestant ruling elite and installing a Catholic power in its place, the unsuccessful manoeuvre shot Guy Fawkes to instant notoriety.

Nowadays, burning likenesses of prominent figures and organisations have replaced the burning of his effigy. Though his actions centred around religious discrimination and political aggression, Guy Fawkes Day has lent support to diverse groups for varying purposes at different times through the centuries. David Lloyd remarked to the New York Times that the mask he designed “…is a great symbol of protest for anyone who sees tyranny.”

Before the massive popularity of V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes was famous only throughout Britain. Now, the effigies, costumes, and the mask are an international best-seller, a symbol of dissent, used by everyone from Turkish airline employees to anonymous computer hackers.

Guy Fawkes Day – How It Began

Unlike titular days like International Emoji Day and International Social Media Day, November 5 holds paramount significance. The phenomenal popularity of the Guy Fawkes mask and its overwhelming sales itself is kind of ironic. The anti-establishment stance of many donning the mask seems out of place since a giant corporation, Warner Bros, owns its rights and generates revenues from increasing sales.

History

Though born into a Protestant family in York in 1570, Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism in his teenage years. Catholic oppression plagued the nation, including barring them from owning land, voting, and holding public office. This targeted repression drove the young stalwart away from fighting for the Catholic-ruled Spanish army in the Netherlands. This was where he became well-known for his expertise with explosives.

Although not an officer in the army, his technical skill drew the attention of many other like-minded individuals, some of whom discussed plans of a possible invasion of England. Other English Catholics like Thomas Winter and Thomas Percy recruited and initiated him into their plans in 1604.

The Gunpowder Plot

Guy pretended to be a servant at Thomas Percy’s household to blend in and normalise his presence in and around the neighbourhood. A house that was conveniently located next to the House of Lords. Guy adopted the alias, John Johnson, and assimilated quickly in the new environment.

Robert Catesby plotted to blow up Parliament and the Protestant bourgeoisie to install a Catholic regime. During a security sweep on November 4, Guy, or John Johnson, took care of a suspiciously large pile of firewood. He was a smooth talker who weaselled his way out from the initial questions.

The plan failed. Police suspicions proved correct, and a further search revealed the gunpowder concealed under the firewood. Guy initially proved difficult to break. Surprisingly, he gave up nothing in repeated interrogations until the king permitted to use torture and extract information through any means necessary.

Guy Fawkes’s co-conspirators were rounded up, tortured for information, tried, charged with high treason, and eventually executed. The newspapers painted the would-be rebel as a villain of the most treasonous kind. Guy became a derogatory term, used to describe something as being grotesque and ugly.

Mere yards away from the very place that Guy Fawkes was about to destroy, his execution took place in the Old Palace Yard of Westminster. Authorities diffused the upheaval that might have occurred, and Londoners were obligated to light bonfires and commemorate the monarch’s survival. The uproar that event caused was that the ruling regime enacted compulsory celebration of the day into law.

Guy Fawkes Day- a Celebration of Freedom from Tyranny

Burning Guy Fawkes’ likeness on bonfire night was the precursor to modern celebrations with fireworks and effigies. His initial notoriety as a religious extremist morphed into an underdog revolutionary over the centuries, including the burning of other Guys (President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the disgruntled movie producer Harvey Weinstein).

In the 17th century, people identified the day as a Protestant celebration of deliverance. In the time of the Hanoverians, it was an occasion for disturbance, riot, and occurrences of rebellion by the lower classes. It was only in the 20th century and onwards that fireworks and bonfires became the celebratory mechanism, a far cry from the violent history of the plot hatched by Robert Catesby.

But pre-2005, Guy Fawkes Night and his symbol mainly were restricted to Halloween and November 5 in Britain. Come Alan Moore’s 1980s novel, V for Vendetta, and the adapted film with Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, and the film’s distinct mask became an international sensation; a symbol of protest against tyranny and the systematic abuse of power.

Guy Fawkes’s Mask Today

Man wearing Guy fawkes mask

With current sales of more than 100,000 masks a year and features in popular TV shows like Netflix’s Money Heist and HBO’s Gunpowder, the symbol has become synonymous with activism, much like the picture of Che Guevara.

A fundraising website for an American politician, Ron Paul, whose same URL was ThisNovember5th.com, raised more than $4 million in a campaign of civil disobedience. His statement, “The true patriot challenges the state when the state embarks on enhancing its power at the expense of the individual”, echoed the sayings of great revolutionary thinkers like the essayist, philosopher, and poet, Henry David Thoreau.

Hackers known as Anonymous protested the censorship and interference of the Church of Scientology in the US in February 2008, wearing Guy Fawkes masks.

The movement, known as “Project Chanology“, has become part of the worldwide populist pushback against multimillion-dollar corporations and governments.

After Anonymous’ political demonstration, it wasn’t long before the mask became the go-to feature of anti-establishment movements worldwide. The Occupy movement of 2011 rallied protestors on November 5 to support efforts to end social injustice and curb corruption among giant corporations.

Cities worldwide experienced the symbol of Guy Fawkes as a rallying cry and resistance against embedded, unfair social structures and the lack of digital privacy afforded by first-world governments. Even the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, wore it to an Occupy protest in London.

During the Arab Spring, photos of the protestors wearing these masks circulated around the globe and inspired other nations.

It was so significant that some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia have gone ahead and banned the mask’s import and sale altogether. They stated that it “instils a culture of violence and extremism.” Bahrain went a step further and wholly prohibited masks in the country.

Conclusion

Guy Fawkes may have been an anti-establishment villain and traitor, but his image and symbol have become iconic in this populist age. From the knife-wielding, anti-fascist, heroic martyr in V for Vendetta to the financial manoeuvring of Money Heist, the Guy Fawkes symbol continue to warp into different activist forms.

As an all-purpose badge of rebellion and protest, the survival of protestors everywhere depends on the rallying cry this iconic image represents.

The permanent smile on David Lloyd’s illustrated mask is a picture of unfailing, eternal optimism, as the fictional figure rides the wave of Guy Fawkes’s increasing anti-establishment popularity.

FAQs

What is the tradition of Bonfire Night?

Bonfire Night is celebrated on November 5, and it is also known as Guy Fawkes Night. Bonfires and fireworks are displayed on this day. The day has a lot of history behind it; Guy Fawkes is why this day because of his infamous plot to assassinate Protestant King James I in 1605. The plan to place explosives in the House of Lords and Guy Fawkes was to keep him. It failed, obviously, and all the conspirators were arrested. King James, I made it possible for the citizens to celebrate, and citizens did that by lighting bonfires.

Interestingly, the celebrations were approved because there was no public disorder. November 5 was to celebrate the fact that the king survived this plot. Parliament later recognised the passing day of November the 5th Act. During that day, anti-Catholic sentiments were openly manifested as sermons were given to highlight the dangers of popery. The effigies of hateful figures were burned.

The settlers carried this tradition to the British colonies in North America and the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations. The celebrations waned as the religious and political significance faded. People are now competing against each other to show how well their rockets can fly and play trivia games.

When is Guy Fawkes Day?

Just five days after the Witches and Pumpkins Festival, another equally important celebration is in England. Yet, it remains unrecognised outside the borders of the United Kingdom.

Every year it’s the festive commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot or Gunpowder Plot. It is an event that dates from the beginning of the 17th century. Every November 5, people launch fireworks, children light sparklers, a kind of little spark sticks, and detonate firecrackers. Then, a cardboard effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned publicly.

As we can see, this festival initially had a very marked political and religious significance. It was the relic of a time when political and religious tensions were extreme. But today, it is above all the festive scope of this celebration that is retained.

Why do people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day?

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, also called the British Bonfire Night, the night of bonfires. This date initially commemorated the failure of the infamous powder conspiracy in 1605, a plan to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament (the Palace of Westminster) and assassinate King James I.

Guy Fawkes is the name of the conspirator arrested in the cellars of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder, ready to detonate them. November 5 has evolved into a popular night for fireworks and bonfires in recent years.

How to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day?

On November 5, we party in London, of course, across Great Britain! Here are the places that offer notable Guy Fawkes Night events:

In the South East of England

The UK’s most important Guy Fawkes Night is in Lewes, near Brighton. Seven associations participate in the Biggest Bonfire Contest, with parades in period clothing throughout the city.

The traditional “Guy”, a mannequin burnt over a bonfire, represents Guy Fawkes himself, but much more original figures can be used in Lewes.

In the north of England

On November 5, the city of Sheffield in Yorkshire hosts the fantastic After Dark fireworks display. Every year, this event attracts more than 18,000 spectators. It features a great funfair, warm-up food stands, concerts, a bonfire, and fireworks.

Guy Fawkes Night in Scotland 

Mar Lodge Estate occupies almost 7% of the Scottish Cairngorms National Park, covering some of the UK’s most secluded and scenic areas. The perfect backdrop for the Guy Fawkes Night festivities, with fireworks and a bonfire, lit by a torchlight procession accompanied by bagpipes.

Guy Fawkes Night in Wales

In South Wales, Caerphilly Castle is the second largest castle in Europe. It becomes pretty spectacular when lit by the extraordinary fireworks display in November. This annual event is free.

Guy Fawkes Night in South West England

In Devon, at Ottery St Mary, the brave locals carry burning tar barrels as they run through the streets. It’s not clear why except it’s a weird British tradition. Men, women and children all run around town while spectators have fun trying to dodge the flames of the runners!

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