The face of modern protest: how Guy Fawkes became a symbol of social justice

By Emma McClelland and Dora-Olivia Vicol - 05 November 2022

These days, Bonfire Night - or Guy Fawkes Day - is mostly about getting together with friends and family around a big bonfire to eat toffee apples and watch fireworks. But there's much more to this annual event. In this blog post, we look at the historical significance of Bonfire night, and how its meaning has shifted over the years - from a celebration of the Crown to an event symbolic of protest against social and political wrongs. 

A bit of history

Historically speaking, Bonfire Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, during which a group of Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Led by a man called Robert Catesby, the group of 13 conspirators united in their anger at King James I for failing to support greater religious tolerance to Catholics, whose freedoms had been oppressed by Protestants. For instance, during the 1590s, being a priest constituted high treason and harbouring one was punishable by death - there were even priest hunters to seek them out! 

But the conspirators' plot was never to come to fruition, as an anonymous letter informed the Parliament of the group's radical plan, and guards were placed on alert. On the day of the plot, Parliament guards discovered Guy Fawkes with a rather incriminating fuse on his person! All co-conspirators were either killed resisting capture, or tried and executed. This included Guy Fawkes. 

Guy Fawkes today: a symbol of protest against injustice

In 1606, Parliament declared November 5th a national day of thanksgiving. Now, effigies of Guy Fawkes are thrown on bonfires and, in a ceremonial nod to the event's history, guards at Parliament perform a search of the building to check for arsonists! 

Interestingly, Guy Fawkes' reputation has shifted from that of a traitor to that of a revolutionary hero (despite the fact that, far from being anti-establishment, he was actually working to reinstall Catholic rule). The change in perception is partially due to the 1980s graphic novel 'V for Vendetta' (and the consequent film of 2005), which depicts him as an anarchist fighting an authoritarian regime. In both novel and film, the antihero wears a stylised Guy Fawkes mask, which has since been adopted by protest groups such as the hacktivist group Anonymous, and The Occupy Movement who, in 2011, invited protesters to gather on 5th November to "rally again for our efforts to end corruption and social injustice."

In 2013, Turkish Airlines employees wore the masks in a protest (and video) for their rights as workers. The members of labour union Hava-Is were striking over pay and a recent round of sackings. Now, far from representing traitorousness, the visage of Guy Fawkes is seen as a global symbol of modern protest.

What cause would you support?

The need to fight against injustice isn't new; it has a significant presence throughout the halls of history. And, unlike the protagonist in 'V for Vendetta', it wears many masks. For some, protest is showing solidarity in public demonstrations, and using the effervescence of street gatherings to raise awareness. For others, the fight against injustice is waged in everyday acts - in the slow, diligent process of documenting the abuse of power, and building a legal case against those who abuse it; or in the careful gathering of case studies and research, which help to expose injustice in the media, and thus bring it into the public consciousness. 

At the Work Rights Centre, we do both of these things. We use casework and research to help migrants and disadvantaged Britons to access employment justice - whether that's recovering unpaid wages or challenging discrimination - and work to improve their social mobility. More broadly, we are driven by the desire to dismantle the systems that create socioeconomic disadvantage. 

Your support will help us challenge injustice

To help our multilingual caseworkers provide vital support to low-paid workers and their families, the easiest thing you can do is to make a donation today. This helps our frontline caseworkers to guide desperate beneficiaries through difficult times, and allows us to continue carrying out important policy and research work that we can use to push for systemic change. 


If you have been affected by the current cost-of-living crisis and want to make your voice heard, the campaign group 'Enough is Enough' organises rallies across the UK as part of its ambition to tackle this crisis. To find an event near you, visit their website

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