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A fireworks display over Albert Bridge in London on the 5th November

History of Bonfire Night

Image Credit: | Above: A fireworks display over Albert Bridge in London on the 5th November

On November 5th 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.

The History of Guy Fawkes Night

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.

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder Treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot!

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 4th November, 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 5th November 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.

The Gunpowder Plot Siege - Holbeche House

Guy Fawkes was famously arrested after being found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed away in a vault under the House of Lords in London. The plan had been to blow up the protestant King James I and his government on the opening day of parliament.

Whilst Fawkes’ name has become synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, he neither acted alone nor was he the ringleader. The conspiracy totalled 13 members with Catholic dissident Robert Catesby at the helm.

Fawkes’ capture set off a chain of events that eventually led to a dramatic last stand at a mansion near Dudley, between the remaining conspirators and the Sheriff of Worcester.

This is the story of what happened after ‘Remember, Remember, The 5th of November’.

The plan falls apart

The plot came undone after 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’. With the king now in the know, the Houses of Parliament were given a thorough search, which eventually led to the capture of Fawkes.

The king ordered Fawkes be tortured at the Tower of London, to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. As word spread of Fawkes’ arrest, most of the plotters fled London and headed north.

Catesby was convinced that a successful armed uprising was still on the cards and hoped to stir up support in the Midlands. However, the conspirators were stone-walled by nearly everyone they attempted to convert and the revolution rapidly petered out before it had even begun.

Although Fawkes held out admirably under torture, he eventually revealed the names of his fellow conspirators.

Gathering arms

With time running out, Catesby and the others decided to stock up on arms before making their last stand. They raided several places for supplies, including Warwick Castle, which got the attention of the local sheriff, Richard Walsh.

With Walsh now hot on their heels, several of the conspirators eventually gathered at Holbeche House late on the evening of 7th November. The large Staffordshire mansion was owned by a man called Stephen Lyttelton. Although Lyttelton was a prominent member of the local Midlands Catholic society, his foreknowledge of the conspiracy was somewhat limited and so he is not considered one of the 13 original plotters.

An unfortunate event

The gunpowder that the conspirators had collected on their way to Holbeche had become soaked in the rain. To dry it out, they spread it out in front of the fireplace. It wasn't the most sensible idea as a spark flew out from the fire and ignited the gunpowder.

The ensuing explosion left several members of the party injured, including ring-leader Catesby. One of the conspirators, John Grant, was left blinded by the unfortunate event.

Some, believing the explosion was a sign from God, decided to abandon the cause and fled from Holbeche later that night. Just seven remained behind, awaiting the inevitable arrival of the king’s men.

The ones who stayed included Catesby, his cousin Thomas Wintour, Yorkshire brothers John and Christopher Wright, their brother-in-law Thomas Percy, the now blinded John Grant and Ambrose Rookwood.

The last stand

On the morning of 8th November, Walsh arrived at the property with a company of 200 men and proceeded to lay siege. It didn’t last long!

Wintour was shot and wounded by a crossbow as he crossed the courtyard and was subsequently captured. Grant and Rookwood were also shot, wounded and taken prisoner. The Wright brothers were shot and killed (Christopher took a couple of days to die from his wounds).

Catesby and Thomas Percy stood together outside the door of the house, swords in hand, and were shot by a sharpshooter called John Streete, who was hiding behind a tree. It was said that both Catesby and Percy were felled by a single bullet.

The wounded Catesby crawled into the house, grabbed a picture of the Virgin Mary, kissed it, and died. Percy succumbed to his wounds a few days later.

Once the conspirators had been subdued, Walsh’s men rushed the property and stripped the men of their clothing and valuables.

Rounding up the fugitives

A short while after Holbeche House had been taken, conspirators Robert Keyes and Thomas Bates were both captured. Sir Everard Digby, who had fled Holbeche House the night before the last stand, surrendered to a small band of pursuers the following morning.

John Wintour, the brother of Thomas, had also scarpered from Holbeche before Walsh had descended on the property. He’d left with Lyttelton and the pair lasted the longest on the run hiding out in barns and houses. They were both finally apprehended in January the following year after an informant tipped off the authorities.

The final member of the conspiracy, Francis Tresham, had chosen to remain in London after Fawkes was captured. However, he was eventually named by Fawkes and taken to the Tower of London on 12th November.

Many believe Tresham was responsible for the famous Monteagle letter that inadvertently led to the downfall of the conspiracy.

The final act

Those who had been captured were tried with high treason and found guilty. All but Tresham - who died of complications from a urinary tract inflammation whilst in prison – were hung, drawn and quartered in late January 1606.

Fawkes managed to escape the worst of his suffering by leaping to his death as he awaited the gallows, subsequently dying of a broken neck.

The disembodied parts of the conspirators were sent to ‘the four corners of the kingdom’ to be displayed as a warning to anyone else who harboured treasonous thoughts.

As for Holbeche House, the Grade II listed building was a private nursing home for many years but now lies derelict and boarded up. However, it is said that bullet holes from the famous last stand of the Gunpowder Plot can still be seen on the walls of the property.

UK’s Biggest Bonfire Night Celebrations

Every year cities and towns up and down the UK claim to have the biggest and best bonfire night celebrations and this year is no different. Every local community will have their own special event and we’re highlighting some of the biggest and best below:

1. The Fifth in Lewes

The popularity of the bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, East Sussex has grown so much that it’s now simply known as “The Fifth” and everyone knows just how exciting it will be. The quiet medieval town is transformed into a flurry of fireworks, explosions and more, with many also donning costumes and parading the streets carrying flaming torches. It’s a special experience like no other and this is taking place on 4th November and is recognised globally as the biggest celebration of 5th November there is. The town turns into a carnival and a huge bonfire takes centre stage. Visitors travel from miles around to see the spectacle at Lewes.

2. Guildford Lions Fireworks Fiesta

The Fireworks Fiesta organised by the Guildford Lions Club is a huge charity event and a chance to see some fantastic fireworks. The event is used to support the local community as well as local charities and it’s more than just a chance to see some fireworks. The event is a huge celebration and the local covers band, Blurasis, will also be on stage playing the hits of Blur, Oasis and Coldplay. Visitors can also enjoy a real ale tent, traditional German Bierkeller and plenty of hot food options. This event is also on 4th November this year.

3. LCCC Fireworks Evening

Leicestershire County Cricket Club always put on a fantastic event for Bonfire Night and this year their big Fireworks Evening is organised for 3rd November. The Uptonsteel County Ground welcomes hundreds of guests to enjoy a huge fireworks display produced by the award-winning Komodo Fireworks company. As well as fireworks, there will also be light, and laser displays and a fairground to keep younger visitors happy too. There’s also an on-site food and drinks village and due to the location, cricket-themed fun too with professional coaches on hand to give kids the chance to practice and play.

4. Betley Bonfire

The charming Staffordshire village of Betley might not gain a lot of attention during the year, but the Betley Bonfire celebrations are amongst the biggest in the country. The event is run entirely by volunteers and monies raised go back into the local community. This year’s Betley Bonfire is taking place on 4th November and the sky will be alight with fireworks as the enormous bonfire burns. The event takes place at Betley Mere, and the surrounding parkland and visitors can also enjoy Stanworth’s Fun Fair.

5. Alexandra Palace Fireworks Festival

Alexandra Palace is one of London’s most iconic landmarks and it’s also a fantastic place for a party. The Alexandra Palace Fireworks Festival takes place on 3rd and 4th November and it’s a huge musical celebration where the fireworks are set to music, usually curated by a renowned DJ. Alongside the fireworks, visitors can enjoy plenty of street food options, a dramatic lighting show produced by the Lords of Lighting and a German Bier Fest for all to enjoy. There will be further musical performances from popular tribute acts, DJ sets and glorious shows from well-known drag queens Jonny Woo and John Sizzle.

In addition to these super-sized events, there will be many more in local towns and villages around the UK so everyone can enjoy this unusual part of British history.

Find out more about the history of Bonfire Night and its various traditions, in Sky HISTORY's Bonfire Night hub.