ON NOVEMBER 5TH Britons up and down the country will light bonfires and set off fireworks to mark the execution of Guy Fawkes, a 17th-century Roman Catholic terrorist. More recently activists have appropriated the day as one of mass protest. Anonymous, an online "hacktivist" group, is encouraging people to march against their governments. The London faction of the "million mask march" will gather outside the Houses of Parliament, many of them wearing masks of a grinning Guy Fawkes. How did he become the face of post-modern protest?
In 1605 Fawkes was part of a Roman Catholic group that plotted to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament. The "Gunpowder plot" was intended to kill King James I, a Protestant, and install his nine-year-old daughter on the throne to rule as a Roman Catholic monarch. But an anonymous letter describing the plans was sent to the King. Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the House with 36 barrels of gunpowder nearby. He was tortured and the conspirators were convicted of high treason in January 1606. The government was particularly heavy-handed in its treatment of the group in order to try to deter future terrorist attempts. The tradition of lighting bonfires and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes began shortly after the foiled plot, and schoolchildren still learn the ghoulish rhyme "Remember, remember the fifth of November".
In the 1980s graphic novelists Alan Moore and David Lloyd created a comic strip, "V for Vendetta", in which the main protagonist is a cloaked anarchist who wears a grinning, moustachioed Guy Fawkes mask while battling against a fascist authoritarian state. The authors wanted to celebrate Fawkes by turning him into an anti-hero for the modern age. The comic was made into a film in 2006, and although it deviated from the original in a number of ways the mask of "V" was a faithful rendition of the stylised image from the book. Plastic masks to commemorate the release of the film were distributed to fans and could be bought online. Two years later, in January 2008, Anonymous launched "Project Chanology"—a coordinated attack on the Church of Scientology’s website which they deemed to be censoring information. Rule 17 of Anonymous's code of conduct, circulated to protesters before its "first real life public demonstration" on February 10th 2008 states: "Cover your face. This will prevent your identification from videos taken by hostiles". For those who chose to wear masks the decision was simple: taking inspiration from the last scene of the film, in which a crowd of Guy Fawkeses watch the Houses of Parliament explode, the "V for Vendetta" mask provided just the cover that Anonymous needed.
Since then the image has been adopted by the Occupy movement, and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has also donned a Fawkes mask. It has become a regular feature of many protests. Mr Lloyd has called the mask a "convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny…it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way". Although official masks from the film are still available online, most protesters prefer to print or paint their own. And to this day the Yeomen of the Guard, the English monarch's bodyguards since 1485, still search the cellars below the Palace of Westminster before each state opening of Parliament. The spirit of Fawkes, in many regards, lives on.