Every November 5th, on a cold winter’s night, the dark skies of England are lit with bright fireworks and filled with the smell of wood smoke. People recite the famous lines:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.”
By Charlotte Mountford

riends and families gather in private gardens or public parks to light bonfires and set off the fireworks – ‘rockets’, ‘sparklers ’, ‘catherine wheels’ and more. 

This is called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or ‘Bonfire Night,’ which is quite an unusual tradition, and all because four hundred years ago, on November the fifth, 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes tried to assassinate the King of England and all his government. His plan: to blow the Houses of Parliament and everyone inside them to the skies.

Fawkes’ plan is known as the “Gunpowder Plot.” There were thirteen men involved, but Guy Fawkes remains the most famous of these criminals because he was the one caught red-handed with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, about to light a match.

Like most plots, wars and conspiracies of the age, his motive was religion: Catholics had been fighting Protestants in England for decades, and though both were Christian, each side bitterly persecuted the other. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in Protestant England. He had converted to Catholicism as a child and had gone to Spain, where he renamed himself Guido. He was an impressive looking man, tall and well built with thick red hair, a bushy beard and flowing red moustache. The aim of the Gunpowder Plot was to assassinate the Protestant King, James I, and replace him with a Catholic monarch.

On the fifth of November 1605, Guy Fawkes hid in a spare room far beneath the House of Lords chamber. He had with him wood for a fire and thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. His instructions were to light the fire with a slow burning taper. It was the official opening day of Parliament after the summer (it opened late that year due to plague in the city) and all of Parliament, the king and state were sitting in the Houses above.

However, some of the conspirators were worried about fellow Catholics being in the Houses of Parliament and being killed too, so they sent an anonymous letter to a Catholic Lord warning of “a terrible blow” due to happen on the day Parliament opened. The Lord was scared, and he showed the letter to the King. Guards immediately performed a search of the rooms underneath Parliament, and they discovered Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder before the fire had been lit. Fawkes and the other conspirators were all charged with treason, tortured and sentenced to death. There was great rejoicing in the country: the terrible plot had failed!

The same day Fawkes was discovered, Londoners were instructed to celebrate the near miss by lighting bonfires in the city. An act of Parliament designated every November 5th as a remembrance day, always provided that this celebration is carefully done without any danger or disorder. To this day, all around England, the night that Parliament and king were not blown to pieces is celebrated with bonfires (symbolic of the fire in the chamber that was never lit) and fireworks (the explosions that never occurred).

Throughout the country, schools and communities will often organise great Bonfire Night celebrations with hundreds of people attending. It is quite a spectacle – bonfires can be meters high and fireworks displays can last half an hour or more. It is custom to eat delicious fire roasted pork and sage sausages in squishy white buns, the English equivalent of a ‘hotdog’, and to drink hot wine spiced with cinnamon.

Accordingly, every November, shops fill their shelves with fireworks for sale to the public. Yet despite many adverts on the television promoting responsible firework handling, the “danger and disorder” continues to be a problem.  Bonfire Night in the UK is the busiest night for the fire department, and the ER room gets very full too, with many accidents and burns taking place. The public is encouraged to go to official celebrations and not let off their own fireworks at home (though many say this isn’t as fun).

Some people have argued that public sales of fireworks should be made illegal to avoid so many accidents. Another major complaint is the effect the celebrations have on dogs and cats, who find the explosions in the sky terrifying. As soon as fireworks become available in shops in late October, teenage boys buy hundreds and let them off for weeks, not just the night of November 5th, so it’s even worse for the animals.

Despite the downsides, the popularity of ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ has continued, especially over the last two centuries, where Guy Fawkes has been portrayed in literature more as a maverick action hero and a romantic figure. It’s easy to forget that the actions of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators would be deemed terrible acts of terrorism today. Modern simulations of the Houses of Parliament, blown up using the amount and type of gunpowder Guy Fawkes was to use, have confirmed that everyone in the building, including the king, would have been killed if even half the gunpowder had exploded.

The tradition of burning Fawkes in effigy began straight after the failed plot of 1605. People created figures from straw and clothes and burnt them on the bonfires. This act was called ‘burning the guy,’ and it resulted in the word ‘guy’ being used to generally describe a male person in the USA.

In the anti-Catholic mania that followed the failed 1605 plot in England, effigies of the Pope were often placed on the bonfires and burned as well. Later, effigies of Catholic noblemen who had annoyed the public were also burned, and gradually so too were the effigies of anyone at all who had attracted public indignation: Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of England from 1979 to 1990, was once a very popular target. The most famous and enduring effigy however, has been that of Guy Fawkes, the arch plotter himself, and the legend lives on:

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.

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