What Is Guy Fawkes Night?

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“Remember, remember, the fifth of November / gunpowder treason and plot.” If you’ve seen the 2005 dystopian thriller film V for Vendetta or read the 1980 graphic novel that inspired it, you’ve likely all but had this lyric permanently ingrained into your head. When you remember it, you likely think of a white mask with an angular mustache and small goatee. That mask is known as the Guy Fawkes mask – and tonight, the U.K. and other countries will observe Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night).

What is Guy Fawkes Night? Learn all about V for Vendetta’s biggest connection to the modern world below.

Who is Guy Fawkes?

Guy Fawkes was one of five British citizens who plotted to attack the House of Parliament in 1605 and end the reign of King James I. Prior to King James’ ascent to the throne in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I enforced policies that strongly marginalized Catholic people. Many people believed King James would ease Queen Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policies, but he instead doubled down on her bigotry – and Fawkes and his co-conspirators decided to do something about it.

What did Guy Fawkes do?

In 1604, Guy Fawkes and his four co-conspirators – Robert Catesby, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy, and Tom Wintour – began discussing plans to overthrow King James. They plotted to explode gunpowder in the House of Parliament, which would kill most lawmakers and rulers aligned with King James. Eight additional co-conspirators joined Fawkes in what would eventually be known as the Gunpowder Plot (as heard in that fated lyric).

Despite Fawkes’ position as the public face of the Gunpowder Plot, history credits Robert Catesby as the leader of the attack. Fawkes may have become the face of the plot due to his extensive history backing Spain in its battle against Protestant rebels in the Netherlands, which Spain then controlled. Fawkes had also previously petitioned Spain to send military support in a planned coup of King James’ reign.

Why is Guy Fawkes celebrated?

The answer to this question may depend on who’s celebrating Guy Fawkes Night. The Gunpowder Plot never came to fruition – an anonymous source informed King James’ supporters of the plot, thereby foiling it – so some people honor the violent plot’s failure on Guy Fawkes Night. Others, however, see Fawkes as a hero.

V for Vendetta planted the seeds for the shift in Guy Fawkes’ public perception. Prominent hacktivist group Anonymous sealed the deal when acting against the Church of Scientology in 2008. In the group’s first real-life, non-internet protest, demonstrators wore Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities. Since then, anti-government demonstrators ranging from anti-capitalists to full-on anarchists have claimed the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of their missions.

How is Guy Fawkes Night celebrated?

In the U.K., Guy Fawkes Night celebrators light fireworks and sparklers, set bonfires, and serve toffee apples. Often, a doll or dummy resembling Guy Fawkes is thrown atop bonfires to remember the Gunpowder Plot. Whether lighting this Guy Fawkes figurine is done in reverence of, or disdain for, him depends on who’s celebrating.

How do you celebrate Guy Fawkes Night? Sound off in the comments!

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