In 1605, a darkened, dusty cellar underneath the hallowed halls of parliament housed John Johnson, a man who argued that “a desperate disease required a desperate remedy”. The disease he was referencing was the Protestant rule of Britain during the 17th century, and the cure being an event that rocked Britain to its cultural core.
John Johnson was, of course, the guise for Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes, a figure of profound infamy within British history. Fawkes was a devout Catholic who viewed the movement of Britain towards Protestantism as a way of subjugating the oppressed Catholic believers, so he sought to change it.
The Gunpowder Plot, or The Gunpowder Treason Day as it was historically named, was a plan devised to blow up King James during Parliament’s opening on 5 November. Fawkes, alongside some 15 co-conspirators, rented out a small cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament and began loading it with 36 barrels of gunpowder. This was enough to cause serious damage to the building, and (more importantly for them) kill the king, the symbol of Catholic oppression.
However, the smallest of decisions can create mass ripples that change the course of history, and the Gunpowder Plot was no different. On 26 October, Gresham (one of the plot’s conspirators) sent a warning letter to his brother-in-law, William Parker, and duly asked him not to attend Parliament on 5 November. The letter reached the chief minister, Robert Cecil, who then demanded a search of parliament. Later that night, Sir Thomas Knyvett found the cellar, loaded with barrels of gunpowder and of course Guy Fawkes carrying a watch, matches and tools to ignite the explosives.
The story of Guy Fawkes remains arguably one of the most captivating events in British history, but what is especially powerful about it is that an event over 400 years ago still has cultural, social and political ripples today. Britain still celebrates the day that Guy Fawkes was captured with fireworks and community events up and down the country. So why the Gunpowder Plot? Soon after the failure of the plot by the conspirators, 5 November became a day when the masses would openly harness their anti-Catholic sentiment. By the late 17th century, many would pour out onto the streets and burn effigies of the Pope as a way of reaffirming the power of Protestant rule. This soon changed.
5 November took on a new skew when it came to why and how it was celebrated. No longer was the day so rigidly set on the Catholic/Protestant divide, but rather it began to surpass its original meaning. To map the changes of the cultural relevance of what we know now as Bonfire Night is to map the changing skew of British society and what issues we face as a collective.
During the Crimean War for example, 5 November acted as a morale boost for so many of those who suffered during the years of conflict. It has been historically recorded that many effigies of Tsar Nicholas I were burned as part of communal events. Similarly during World War I, huge parts of the British community saw Guy Fawkes Day as a chance to burn symbols of foreign enemies, including the German Kaiser.
The changes that the night has seen really show how often historical events transcend their original conception, and yet still maintain the root symbol of its original meaning. So no longer is Guy Fawkes night about the rebellious Catholics, but it is about jointly showing our disdain for a common social enemy, or at least ostensibly so. The Pope, Tsar Nicholas and the Kaiser: all were seen as villains amongst society during their times, and were thus used during Bonfire Night celebrations.
So what ‘joint villain’ do we have in today’s society that could justify the continuation of this age old tradition? Well, it stands true that the impact of Guy Fawkes night has followed historic trends when it comes to its modern day reincarnations of the events of 1605. It is definitely true that the actual traditions of Guy Fawkes night itself are not as politicised as they once were, with fireworks and sparklers making up the bulk of the evening’s celebrations. But that is not to say that the image of the events of 1605 bear any less of a cultural and political influence on our modern day society. The symbol of Guy Fawkes still maintains its relevance when it comes to uniting a group of people against a common enemy, which is what we are seeing currently.
V for Vendetta, a film that follows a revolutionary figure fighting against the fascist establishment in a post-nuclear war Britain, has taken the image of Guy Fawkes as a subjugated member of an oppressed class and rocketed it into the modern world. Designed by David Lloyd, the mask within the film became a way in which the populous could anonymously rise up against the ruling elite. The merging of modern issues of governmental elitism and the historical connotations of Fawkes’ act of rebellion now form the basis of why 400 years later it is still as relevant as ever.
As a result of that film, elitist politicians and the establishment have now become the new ‘joint villain’ that has come to define the ‘Guy Fawkes’ symbol. The ‘Anonymous’ hacktivist movement’s main inspiration is the fight against the politicians, banks and financial institutions that have arguably not been sufficiently held accountable after the financial crash of 2008 and beyond. It is in this sense that the Guy Fawkes image has maintained its purpose of uniting a community against a common enemy, and the anonymous nature of the mask helps to demonstrate this point even more explicitly by stressing the joint nature of the struggle.
The image of the V for Vendetta mask has now expanded beyond anarchist hackers protesting big corporations – it has moved to now becoming a self-identified international network that fights terrorism. After the shocking Paris attacks of November 2015, Anonymous revealed a video that declared war on the so-called Islamic State.
This propelled the Guy Fawkes image to the new ‘joint villain’ that is so consistent throughout its timeline. International terrorism is the new enemy that we face as a community, and following the trend of Guy Fawkes’ memory it stands to continue his historical legacy.
What is interesting is that while the event itself was so long ago, the basis of Fawkes’ beliefs thread through the ages. The Anonymous group have themselves acted illegally and have partaken in acts that are tangent to a conformist view of society, but have done so because they view the terrorist organisations as the enemy that our community faces.
It will undoubtedly be interesting to wait and find out what the Guy Fawkes image sees as its next collective enemy. But as for now, the ethos of what Guy Fawkes stood for lives on – Anonymous and many of those who used Guy Fawkes’ memory as a protest believe, much like he did nearly 400 years ago, that they are providing the desperate remedy to a very desperate disease.