Arena Stage The Mead Center for American Theater MY ACCOUNT
Event Calendar


NOV 18, 2011 – JAN 1, 2012

Soldier, Straw-man, and SymbolRemembering Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes is remembered as the principal conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by English Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament with King James I inside, for the simple reason that he was the one discovered guarding the gunpowder hidden in the cellars of parliament. He is further immortalized by Bill Cain in Equivocation, in an early draft of William Shagspeare’s play about the plot. Today he is known to people all over the world, but when we remember him, who is it we remember? Is it the soldier driven to take drastic action on behalf of his faith? Is it the effigy dressed in ragged clothes and thrown on the bonfire? Is it the symbol of resistance whose meaning is constantly shifting, depending on those who appropriate it?

Guy “Guido” Fawkes: The Soldier

“Mr. Fawkes was taken and the whole plot discovered” – Confession of Robert Wintour in 1606 Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder plot by Antonia Fraser

Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570 to Edward and Edith Fawkes. He was initially raised as a Protestant, but when his father died in 1578, Fawkes’ mother remarried Denis Bainbridge, a Catholic recusant, and his family began to follow the Catholic faith. It is therefore unsurprising that by the time Fawkes reached adulthood, he was a devout Catholic.

In 1593, Fawkes enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Netherlands, where he was able to practice his faith freely. Two years later, he distinguished himself at the capture of Calais and was recommended for a captaincy by 1603. During his time abroad, Fawkes abandoned the name Guy, choosing instead to go by Guido, the Italian version of his name, as a means of showing his allegiance to Rome and the pope. It is this name that he would use in his signature thereafter.

Upon returning to London, Fawkes came to the notice of Robert Catesby, the instigator of the Gunpowder Plot. Fawkes was outspokenly devoted to restoring Catholicism to England. As a soldier, Fawkes had extensive experience in “siege craft” – the process of carrying out a siege, which often involved the use of explosives. Finally, Fawkes’ years abroad meant he was unknown in London and might move through the city without attracting notice. This combination of bravery, skill, piety, and anonymity made him an excellent coconspirator, so Fawkes was recruited and involved with the first meeting of the inner circle of the conspiracy in May 1604.

The conspirators all agreed that the situation in England, in which Protestantism was the state religion and the practice of Catholicism was illegal, was insupportable. Some had hoped for more religious toleration under King James I, whose mother had been a Catholic, but their hopes came to naught when James imposed even more severe penalties upon practicing Catholics. The only solution, the conspirators agreed, was to remove both James and the Protestant-dominated parliament and to install James daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as a puppet queen. This would be achieved by blowing up the parliament buildings on opening day, when the king, court, and both Houses of Parliament would be present.

Fawkes was chosen as the “trigger man,” responsible for igniting the gunpowder the conspirators had hidden in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament and for blowing up King James I and the members of parliament assembled in the chambers above. However, Fawkes was discovered standing watch over 36 barrels of gunpowder in the early hours of Nov. 5, 1605, the day of the intended attack. He was immediately taken into custody and soon after transferred to the Tower of London, where he underwent five days of questioning and torture. For the first four days, Fawkes insisted his name was John Johnson and refused give up any information on his coconspirators. On the fifth day, he was finally broken and gave his confession, but by then, most of the information he gave authorities had been obtained by other means.

Fawkes was tried, with the other surviving conspirators, on Jan. 27, 1606, and executed four days later in Old Palace Yard at Westminster. Yet it was clear the impact of the Gunpowder Plot would not be as easy to lay to rest as Fawkes himself. Unlike past plots, which had targeted the monarch and his family or supporters, the Gunpowder Plot would have killed thousands of people, both in the initial explosion and in the fires that would have followed. It revealed the fragile stability of the British state. Therefore, the British parliament appropriated Nov. 5 for patriotic purposes, to demonstrate the enduring strength of the state.

Guy Fawkes Day: The Straw Man

On the Jan. 21, 1606, parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act, which made Nov. 5 a public holiday to celebrate the foiled Gunpowder Plot. It was first deemed a religious occasion, added to the Anglican prayer book and accompanied by nationalistic and anti-Catholic sermons. In the 17th century, however, it became a rambunctious celebration in which bonfires were lit and effigies of the pope thrown into them. In the 18th century, effigies of the pope were joined by the figure of “the guy,” meant to represent Guy Fawkes. By the mid-19th century, a climate of increasing religious toleration in England led to a reevaluation of the representations of Catholicism in relation to remembrances of the plot. As a result, the Thanksgiving Act was repealed in 1859, and Guy Fawkes supplanted the pope as the central figure in these newly secularized celebrations.

Today, Nov. 5 can be called “Firework Night,” “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Day.” It is celebrated with bonfires, firework displays and burning barrels of tar rolling through the streets. Some areas, like Lewes in Sussex, have elaborate parades. The tradition of throwing the guy on the fire also remains, and children in England often spend the weeks before the fifth making their guys, usually from old clothing stuffed with newspaper. They then display their effigies on the street, to collect donations to buy fireworks, chanting the following rhyme:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot!
Penny for the Guy!” – 17th century, Traditional

The British state also continues to remember the Gunpowder Plot by performing a ceremonial search of the Houses of Parliament before each state opening, hunting for a modern day Guy Fawkes who might be concealed there. Parliament also commemorated the 400th anniversary of the plot in 2005 with numerous nationalistic activities around London and an exhibition in Westminster Hall.

However, there is another more politically subversive side to Guy Fawkes Day. Around the same time the celebrations began to lose their religious ties, antiestablishment sentiment began to emerge among rebels and radicals, which has continued into the 21st century. In recent years, effigies of current political figures – such as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush – have joined Guy Fawkes in the flames of the bonfire. What was once a closely defined state holiday has become a rollicking festival that teeters on (and sometimes crosses) the line into disturbance of the peace. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the image of Guy Fawkes has shifted over time, coming to signify not a desperate villain but also a symbol of resistance.

Guy Fawkes: The Subversive Symbol

“Man cannot read my heart, but heaven can; and the sincerity of my purpose will be recognized above. What I am about to do is for the regeneration of our holy religion; and if the welfare of that religion is dear to the Supreme Being, our cause must prosper. If the contrary, it deserves to fail, and will fail. I have ever told you that I care not what becomes of myself.” – Guy Fawkes in Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance by George Macfarren

In the 19th century, around the time Guy Fawkes became the central figure in Bonfire Night celebrations, literary representations of Fawkes began to change. In George Macfarren’s 1822 play, Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason. An Historical Drama, in Three Acts, Fawkes becomes a patriot fighting against a tyrannical regime. In Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason: An Historical Romance, the novel by William Harrison Ainsworth, Fawkes is a sympathetic figure, championing freedom and the Catholic faith. In the 20th century, this sympathetic representation was taken a step further by Alan Moore and David Lloyd in their comic book series V for Vendetta, which was first serialized in 1982.

Set in 1997, after a fascist regime comes to power in the wake of a nuclear war, V for Vendetta chronicles the story of V, a man who refashions himself in the image of Guy Fawkes and sets out to take revenge on the repressive regime that has abused him and to free his countrymen from its control. This use of Guy Fawkes was a conscious departure from the image of Fawkes as a villain, as illustrated by a letter David Lloyd wrote to Alan Moore, “I was thinking, why don’t we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier-mâché masks, in a cape and conical hat? He’d look really bizarre and it would give Guy Fawkes the image he’s deserved all these years. We shouldn’t burn the chap every November 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!” Through their comic book series, Lloyd and Moore use the image of Fawkes as a symbol to advocate for the use of vigilantism in the fight against corruption.

The film V for Vendetta, a reinterpretation written by the Wachowski brothers and directed by James McTeigue, makes the Guy Fawkes symbolism in the character of V far more explicit. When justifying his plan to blow up parliament, V says, “The building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world.”

Today, the idea of Guy Fawkes as a symbol of resistance has been picked up by a number of different people in different contexts. The group Anonymous, an Internet vigilante group based on a philosophy of “hacktivism,” wears Guy Fawkes masks at protests. In addition, Guy Fawkes masks have appeared recently at protests like Occupy Wall Street and others worldwide, demonstrating how potent this new symbolic representation of Guy Fawkes has become and how distant it is from the events of 400 years ago.

So, the answer to the question “When we remember Guy Fawkes, who is it we remember?” seems to be that we remember not one thing but many. We remember the soldier and the straw-man and the symbol, because he is all those things and more. He is the face of the Gunpowder Plot and, perhaps, the face of the future.