Guy Fawkes: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason, why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent

To blow up king and parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below

To prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was catch’d

With a darkened lantern and burning match.

The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators
after Heinrich Ulrich
etching, late 18th to early 19th century
NPG D28145
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, Guy Fawkes Night; there are several names for the celebrations which take place on the 5th of November every year. For most it is an evening of bonfires, fireworks, sparklers, hot drinks and cold noses. Its origins are rather more sinister though. The tradition started on the 5th of November 1605, when Londoners lit bonfires across the city to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. It is a story familiar to many, largely due to the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. A group of Catholics had planned to assassinate the Protestant King James I and his Parliament by blowing up the House of Commons. Guy Fawkes was caught guarding the barrels of gunpowder, and has become by far the most well-known of the conspirators.

Largely secular now, the annual celebrations became a focus of anti-Catholic feeling. Although Guy Fawkes was executed by being hung, drawn, and quartered, one tradition surrounding the evening is to burn a ‘Guy’ in effigy on the bonfire. It is no longer a common part of the celebrations, but it demonstrates how strong anti-Catholic sentiment used to be. Guy Fawkes was viewed as a traitorous, treasonous terrorist, and treated accordingly.

In the past few decades however, Guy Fawkes has received a new lease of life in the form of the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the main character of the graphic novel V for Vendetta. Set in a dystopic 1984-style future, V is a mysterious man in a mask that sparks a popular insurrection that brings down the fascist, authoritarian government. One of his first acts in the novel is to succeed where Guy Fawkes failed, blowing up the houses of Parliament in spectacular fashion. V dies towards the end of the novel but others take up his mask, and his true identity is never revealed, turning him a symbolic figure of just rebellion. Initially unpopular when it was first published in the early 1980s, V for Vendetta has increased in popularity in recent years, perhaps due to its adaptation into a film in 2006. The Guy Fawkes masks have become a common feature of protests and demonstrations, serving both a symbolic purpose as the spirit of rebellion, and a practical one in helping to hide the faces and identities of protesters from police. In this context, Guy Fawkes is a hero who fought, and won, against overwhelming odds. He is a freedom fighter.

The ‘V for Vendetta’ mask has become a common sight at demonstrations in recent years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have been thinking about the phrase ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ a lot recently. ‘Terrorism’ has felt almost ubiquitous in the Western world over the last decade or so of the War on Terror, but it is an incredibly subjective term. The same act can be perceived as mindless violence or just necessity, depending on the attitude of those perceiving it. The changing perceptions of Guy Fawkes proves this. I am in no way condoning the way that some people choose to resort to extreme violence in order to make their point, but I do think we should be aware of the complex and subjective nature of the term ‘terrorist’, and should use it accordingly.

2 thoughts on “Guy Fawkes: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s