The yearly burning of Guy Fawkes effigies is a testament to the power of a well developed reputation, seeing as 400 years after his death the person most synonymous with the failed plot to revolutionise parliament, a disillusioned soldier and a pawn in a greater man’s plot, is celebrated with a firework extravaganza worthy of a hero’s homecoming. Despite the fact he was caught, tortured and executed, in the years following his death Fawkes’ reputation has seen a transition from villain to hero – ah the power of PR.
Fawkes’ perceived failure was successful in bringing to the forefront of the political sphere, the issue of Catholic oppression and whilst following his death Catholics were persecuted more than ever, within Catholic circles the legend of Guy Fawkes was being built.
Vilified in public but exulted in private, the years since that fateful day in 1605 has seen his overall status as villain supplanted. Modern times have seen Fawkes’ transformation to hero solidified via his home town, York, running a PR campaign in 2005 to challenge perceptions of Fawkes as a traitor. Couple that with the 2006 film V for Vendetta in which the protagonist is a revolutionary attempting to incite change within a dystopian society while dressed as Guy Fawkes, and it shows how opinion of Fawkes has changed over time.
Even today, there are protestors occupying various sites across the country sporting Guy Fawkes masks (both here and across the pond where Fawkes’ legend has little weight), in a homage to a man willing to use any means necessary to disrupt an oppressive regime and who has been considered “the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”.
The Catholic PR machine of the 1600’s (underground as it was) turned Fawkes from hero to villain following his death by detailing his heroic exploits as a soldier in Spain and over-emphasising his part in the overall plot. Popular culture and a disillusioned section of society in turn, have taken Fawkes to their breast and subsequently moulded him once more into an agent of revolutionary change.
His legacy clearly lives on today and where original views of the gunpowder plot were that it was an unqualified failure, the result it seems, is that it was an unparalleled success for Guy Fawkes (putting aside his torture and execution), developing him a reputation that money can’t buy.
Happy Bonfire Night all!