Today is Guy Fawkes Day. In Great Britain, Guy Fawkes Day — and its post-meridian counterpart, Bonfire Night — have been celebrated every Nov. 5 for centuries, since soon after Fawkes’ death in 1605.
So who was Guy Fawkes, and how did he become a symbol of protesters more than 400 years after his death?
Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who, spurred by religious persecution, led a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and bring down England’s Protestant monarchy. He was caught, imprisoned in the Tower of London, and tortured for four days under personal orders from King James I.
He refused to name his co-conspirators, but they were caught anyway. The plotters were tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Annual commemorations of the foiled plot began soon after, as reminders to defend England from other traitors, especially disloyal Catholics. Over time they became a day and night of fun and pranks, with bonfires, fireworks and the burning of children’s effigies of Fawkes. Today kids have swapped effigies for Halloween, leaving just Bonfire Night and its fireworks, according to The Guardian.
In Britain in the early 1980s, artist David Lloyd and writer Alan Moore created the graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” about a masked rebel named V who fights a fascist future British government. Lloyd suggested having the rebel wear a Guy Fawkes costume.
“We shouldn’t burn the chap every 5 November but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!” Lloyd wrote in a 1983 essay titled “Behind the Painted Smile.”
This inverted Fawkes’ image — from traitor to hero fighting an unjust state. It also separated it from religion. The movie adaptation of “V for Vendetta” concocted a finale in which a whole movement of discontents wearing Guy Fawkes costumes watch the Houses of Parliament burn.
The Fawkes mask resembles the man only in having dark hair and a moustache. The mask adds the soul patch, rosy cheeks and charismatic-trickster look.
In 2008 the Fawkes mask was appropriated by the hacker group Anonymous as its public face for a protest against Scientology, according to the BBC. Forbes.com has reported that Anonymous has said it would execute a computer attack on the Mexican drug cartel Zetas today, a date picked for its echo of Guy Fawkes Day.
And a Facebook page with an image of V in Fawkes costume asked “all OCCUPY Protestors to come together on November 5th, 2011, to rally again for our efforts to end corruption and social injustice.”
A final ironic twist: The mask is licensed by Time Warner, which released “V for Vendetta,” so anti-big-corporation protesters buying official versions of the masks are helping enrich an example of the target of their demonstrations.