“Remember, remember the fifth of November” begins the nursery rhyme (c. 1606) by an unknown author that recounts the plot of 13 conspirators who attempted to blow up the House of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder in November 5, 1605, known as the “Gunpowder Plot.” The most famous of the terrorists, was Guy Fawkes who was captured and after six days of torture confessed his crime to kill King James I and members of Parliament and name his co-conspirators. (His signed confession is on display at the National Archives.) Fawkes was found guilty of high treason and was hung, drawn, and quartered, dying as a treacherous criminal. Ironically, centuries later Fawkes is regarded as the 30th Greatest Briton, according to a poll conducted by the BBC (2002). Go figure.
On the evening of November 5, 1605, the relieved British subjects celebrated the King’s good fortune by lighting bonfires throughout London. Parliament also rejoiced that they had been spared and passed an act that designated November 5 as “the joyful day of deliverance.” After the 1650s, fireworks were added to the nightly festivities. About twenty years later, the revelers began the tradition of burning effigies of the current pope and Guy Fawkes often constructed out of papier-mâché.
The modern stylized — and now iconic — Guy Fawkes mask (the white face with sinister smile, high cheek bones, mustache and pointed beard), based on a portrait of Fawkes, first appeared in the comic book series, V for Vendetta, in 1982. The series was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. The series focused on a vigilante who was set on destroying an authoritarian government in a future dystopian England. Llyod wrote a note to Moore about the protagonist: “Why don’t we portray him as a resurrected Guy Fawkes, complete with one of those papier-mâché masks, in a cape and a 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 Nov. 5th but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!” The mask was further popularized by the visually dazzling 2006 film, V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue and written by the famous Wachowski brothers (who wrote and directed the Matrix trilogy), based on the original comic book series. Soon after, the mask became an international symbol of protest. In addition, the mask is one of the best-selling mask — each year Time Warner, the company that owns the rights to the modern design, sells more than 100,000 units. Long live Guy Fawkes!
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For further reading: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, Vertigo (2008)