The History Behind the Guy Fawkes Masks and Protest

tags: British history, Protest, Guy Fawkes

Ms. Barrett is a photo editor in the Opinion section.

Lately it seems like everyone has something to protest. The streets are filled with the noise of dissent, from marchers demanding democracy in Hong Kong to demonstrators insisting on economic equality in Chile to climate activists marching worldwide. Oddly, wherever they take place and whatever their particular grievance, these movements all claim a failed 17th-century British insurgent as their symbolic confederate.

In 1605, a small group plotted to assassinate King James I, who they felt had not done enough, quickly enough, for the country’s Catholics. Known as the Gunpowder Plot, the plan was to kill James, his family and supporters during the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament. Guy Fawkes, an agitator for Catholic causes, was responsible for guarding the barrels of explosives that had been hidden in the cellar of the House of Lords. The plot, and Fawkes, were discovered before the explosives were detonated. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and through torture revealed the names of his co-conspirators. All those captured were hanged for treason except Fawkes, who ignobly fell while climbing to the gallows and broke his neck. The anniversary of the plot’s discovery, Nov. 5, was soon made an official holiday and has been celebrated ever since by lighting bonfires and burning Fawkes in effigy.

Since the Victorian era, it has been common for people to dress up as Fawkes himself, often wearing a stylized mask with an upturned mustache, thin goatee and arched eyebrows. But he didn’t break into the global mainstream until 1988, nearly 400 years later, when Alan Moore and David Lloyd published “V for Vendetta,” a comic series featuring Guy Fawkes as the ultimate antihero in a future, fascist England.



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