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‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November!' 9 facts about Bonfire Night
It’s hard to forget the date of Bonfire Night thanks to the catchy poem that’s always reminding us ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November!’ And on that day for the past 400 years, Brits have been lighting bonfires, setting off fireworks and burning effigies of a man named Guy Fawkes who famously tried to blow up parliament.
Whilst it might seem strange that we continue to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot some four centuries later, there's a surprising number of other facts about November the 5th that you might not know about.
1. Guy Fawkes wasn’t the main man
That’s right. Whilst many believe Guy Fawkes was the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, he was far from it. The man who put the whole thing together was Robert Catesby, a dissident Catholic who wished to rid of Protestant King James I of England.
To blow up the Houses of Parliament (along with the king) - an act Catesby hoped would spark a Catholic uprising - he needed a team as well as an explosives expert; enter Guy Fawkes.
After stocking a vault under the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder, Fawkes was tasked with guarding it on the night of November 4. However, the king got wind of the plot and ordered the Houses of Parliament to be searched. Fawkes was caught red-handed.
As for the ringleader Catesby, he died in a gunfight with English troops as they rounded up the remaining conspirators.
2. Fawkes wasn’t burned on a fire
Although effigies of Fawkes are placed on top of bonfires still to this day, the man himself wasn't burned to death on one.
After being found guilty of treason in a show trial in January 1606, Fawkes and his remaining co-conspirators were 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.
3. The Pope was the original effigy on the stake
We’ve discovered Fawkes wasn’t the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot nor was he burnt alive on a bonfire. Now, we learn he wasn’t even the original effigy! That honour went to the Pope.
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. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that 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.
4. The Houses of Parliament are still searched
Just in case someone is hoping to achieve what Fawkes couldn’t, the Yeoman of the Guard (the oldest British military corps still in existence) search the Houses of Parliament every year, usually just before the State Opening of Parliament.
The practice is more ceremonial rather than serious, with the Yeoman carrying lanterns as they search the premises.
5. Lewes is the bonfire capital of the UK
Every year the sleepy picturesque East Sussex town of Lewes comes boisterously to life on Bonfire Night. The Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations are truly a sight to behold, and it claims to be the biggest November 5th event in the UK.
There are around seven Bonfire societies in Lewes, with each one putting on separate processions and firework displays throughout the town. Themed effigies are created by the societies and displayed during their processions. Past ones have included Russian President Vladimir Putin wearing a mankini and Donald Trump dressed as Humpty Dumpty.
Up to 30 other societies across Sussex descend on the town to march the streets, wielding flaming torchlights. All this means that up to 5,000 people can be taking part in the celebrations. That’s not to mention the many more who come to witness the spectacle, swelling the ranks of the 17,000 who already live there with an additional 80,0000 spectators.
6. Burning tar barrels of Ottery St Mary
Lewes might have the biggest Bonfire Night celebrations but perhaps not the weirdest. Surely that goes to Ottery St Mary, a town on the River Otter in Devon some 10 miles east of Exeter.
On November 5, for some reason lost in history, people from the town lift flaming tar barrels and carry them through the streets. Thousands of spectators watch on as numerous barrels soaked with tar are set alight and hoisted onto the shoulders of willing participants. You have to see it to believe it.
7. 40ft Brockham Bonfire
If the bonfire part of Bonfire Night is more your thing, make sure to head to Surrey this November 5, as the Brockham Bonfire is famous for its massive bonfire. With traditions dating back to Victorian times, the event includes a procession, fireworks, and an enormous bonfire around 40ft in height. That makes for one hell of a fire!
8. Toffee apples and parkins
It’s customary on Bonfire Night to indulge in a toffee apple or three but why exactly is the sticky fruit associated with the event? The practice of serving fruit with sugar or honey dates back centuries and what more abundant fruit to serve on November 5 than the bountiful apple? With autumn orchards bursting from the seams, there’s no better fruit to coat in sugary goodness at this time of year.
In certain parts of the country, the parkin is said to be as much a part of Bonfire Night as sparklers. The deliciously sticky cake made of oatmeal and black treacle dates back to pre-Gunpowder Plot days. The tradition of eating parkin during the winter months probably originated with the pagan practice of eating celebratory cakes on the first day of winter.
9. Bonfire Night in June?
In the city of Cork and many western rural parts of the Republic of Ireland, Bonfire Night has nothing to do with November and everything to do with the 23rd of June. Known as St. John's Eve, the night is marked by the lighting of large bonfires throughout the countryside.
With ancient roots, the festival coincided with the Summer Solstice as people gathered and celebrated in the hope of ensuring a bountiful harvest.
Find out more about the history of Bonfire Night and its various traditions, in Sky HISTORY's Bonfire Night hub.