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History of Bonfire Night

History of Bonfire Night
History of Bonfire Night (Getty).

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot!

The Fifth of November
English Folk Verse (c.1870)

On November 5 this year people across the UK will light bonfires, let off fireworks, and burn effigies of a man named Guy Fawkes. The reason we do this is because it’s the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot (1605); a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London by a group of dissident Catholics.

In 1603, Protestant James I became King of England. His predecessor Queen Elizabeth I had repressed Catholicism in England. Many Catholics hoped that James, being the son of the late Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, would be more sympathetic to their plight. He wasn’t and continued to carry out persecutions against them.

It was during this time that a Catholic man named Robert Catesby began plotting the king’s demise. Catesby wanted to kill the king and his establishment, spark an uprising and restore a Catholic monarch to the English throne. Together with his cousin Thomas Wintour, Catesby began recruiting other Catholics to his cause and had soon mapped out the first part of their plan; by placing multiple barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords, they would blow up the king and his government on the opening day of parliament. To achieve this, they needed an explosives expert; enter Guido Fawkes.

After years of fighting on the side of Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers, Fawkes had returned to England and was now introduced to Catesby by Wintour. During his time in Spain, Fawkes had adopted the Italian version of his name in an attempt to sound more continental and therefore more serious about his Catholic faith.

Soon the conspirators numbered 13 and their plan was in motion. They leased a vault underneath the House of Lords and under the cover of darkness brought in 36 barrels of gunpowder. On the night of November 4, Fawkes was tasked with guarding the vault.

During this time an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic loyal to the crown, with a warning to avoid the State Opening of Parliament stating, “they shall receive a terrible blow.” Although it has never been proven who sent the letter, many believe it was conspirator Francis Tresham, the brother-in-law of Lord Monteagle.

The letter had soon reached the king who ordered an extensive search of the Houses of Parliament. It was just after midnight when Fawkes and the stockpile of gunpowder were discovered.

The king ordered Fawkes be tortured at the Tower of London, to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. A confession was eventually extracted from him but by this time the other conspirators had already been arrested, except for four, including Catesby, who died in a gunfight with English troops.  

After a show trial in January 1606, Fawkes and his remaining co-conspirators were found guilt of treason and sentenced to death. They were all publicly hung, drawn and quartered, although Fawkes managed to avoid the latter part of his execution by leaping to his death as he awaited the gallows and subsequently died of a broken neck.

As news spread of the plot, Londoners began lighting bonfires in celebration of the fact James I was still alive and in 1606 the Observance of 5th November Act was passed, enforcing an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot's failure. It became known as Gunpowder Treason Day.

In the many years that followed, effigies of the Pope were burnt on November 5 continuing the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time. Celebrations became more elaborate with fireworks and mini explosives being let off and on many occasions the night became a very raucous and sometimes violent event. 

Towards the end of the 18th Century, children began walking the streets with homemade masked effigies of Guy Fawkes, begging for "a penny for the Guy." As such, Guy Fawkes eventually replaced the Pope atop the burning bonfires and the day shifted from Gunpowder Treason Day to Guy Fawkes Day. The commemoration had begun to lose its religious and political undertones and in 1859 the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed.

Nowadays Bonfire Night, as many prefer to call it, has all but lost its original focus and perhaps even its appeal. With the recent increase in popularity of Halloween, combined with stricter health and safety regulations around fires and fireworks, the future of Bonfire Night is somewhat under threat.

As for the legend of Guy Fawkes, whilst he is incorrectly remembered as the ringmaster behind the plot, his reputation has shifted from traitor to revolutionary hero in some circles. This is largely thanks to the influence of the 1980s graphic novel V for Vendetta and the 2006 film of the same name, in which an anarchist freedom wearing a Guy Fawkes mask battles a neo-fascist regime in the UK. The mask has now become a popular symbol to use in protest against tyranny.