Guy Fawkes: Terrorist Or Freedom Fighter?

Behind the bonfires, fireworks and funny effigies, there looms an enigmatic historical figure. How SHOULD we regard Guy Fawkes?

Guy Fawkes


Here are the facts: in 1605, a Catholic fundamentalist called Guy Fawkes conspired with other fanatics to commit what would have been a massive terrorist outrage. He failed, and his story has become more a thing of folklore than stone-cold history. When we think of Fawkes now, it's as a blundering buffoon, a cartoon character, or - more absurdly - a heroic symbol of rebellion.

That's only because his actions took place several centuries ago, and the buffer of time allows us to semi-forget the sheer brutality of his aims. He and his co-conspirators wanted to murder not only King James I, but the whole of Parliament. An appalling massacre that would have left a vast crater in the heart of London.

According to a modern-day reconstruction of what a successful attack would have looked like, the explosion at Parliament would have killed everyone within a 100 metre radius, and likely blown out windows in the surrounding area. The explosion would have been heard for miles around.

As a terrorist atrocity, striking at the heart of a nation, it would have dwarfed 9/11

As writer Max Davidson puts it, "As a terrorist atrocity, striking at the heart of a nation, it would have dwarfed 9/11. Guy Fawkes would not have been a harmless bumbler, recreated in pillowcases stuffed with leaves and chucked on bonfires, but a hate figure to rival Osama bin Laden."

Fawkes was the exact Jacobean equivalent of a "home-grown" Islamist terrorist today. He was motivated by his fanatical religious beliefs. He was a member of a persecuted minority (the Catholics of England), who nevertheless were overwhelmingly faithful to their country, with only a tiny minority of extremists sharing Fawkes' beliefs.

Heavyweight historian Dr David Starkey leaves us in no doubt as to the true nature of Guy Fawkes and his secret associates. "The parallels between the actions of the plotters and modern-day terrorists are terrifying and the motivation is the same: that religion is the only important thing and that if the Government does not subscribe to the idea that your religion is absolute it must be removed."

And that, ultimately, is what drove Guy Fawkes. A single-minded dedication to a radical cause, with human beings as collateral damage. His obsessive desires and dark-hearted lack of pity made him as much a terrorist as anyone striking fear on the world stage today.


This question takes us back to that old cliché, about how one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter. But in the case of Guy Fawkes, the details are important in defining the man. Yes, he helped orchestrate a plot that would have killed people, but it was all a far cry from acts such as 9/11 or the London 7/7 bombings.

Before we get to that, let's just emphasise how dire the situation was for Catholics at the time. Under Elizabeth I, Catholics had been systematically ostracised, victimised and brutalised. Some houses even had to have "priest holes", where desperate outlaw clerics hid from murderous agents of the state, in a manner Anne Frank would have recognised.

When James I came to power, Catholics felt a shy blossoming of optimism. The new king, while being a Protestant, also happened to be the son of a Catholic, and he had made conciliatory noises which seemed to imply a relaxing of the rules against Catholics practising their faith.

Bonfires are a traditional symbol of Guy Fawkes night in Britain.

Bonfires are a traditional symbol of Guy Fawkes night in Britain.

Such hope was short-lived. Despite those early signs, James I soon cracked down hard on the rival religion, even pronouncing his "utter detestation" of Catholicism. It's no wonder people like Fawkes felt bitter and betrayed. The continuation of Elizabeth's iron-rod attitude was the final straw for people who were right to feel crushed by their own government.

None of which can ever justify a plot to murder people, but the context is important for defining Fawkes. He was a freedom fighter, insofar as he was literally fighting for his freedom. And his target is important as well.

The major thing differentiating Fawkes and his accomplices from terrorists as we know them today is that they did NOT target civilians. The aim was to wipe out the elites at the top of England's power structure, not members of the public. This is a crucial thing to bear in mind.

In addition, their aim was not to inspire terror or fear. They didn't intend to simply set off an explosion and skulk off into the shadows, in the way terrorists do. They wanted to replace the James I with his own daughter, Elizabeth, and create a new government overnight. In other words, this wasn't a failed act of terrorism so much as it was a failed military coup.

Once you factor these things in, it must surely be agreed that Guy Fawkes cannot be defined as a "terrorist" in the way we understand the term today.

What do you think? Should we consider Guy Fawkes a vicious terrorist or a wrong-minded freedom fighter, and do such distinctions matter anyway?