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The History of Bonfire Night

Updated on March 12, 2013

Why Are Bonfires so Popular?

Will you be placing an effigy on your bonfire this November 5?
Will you be placing an effigy on your bonfire this November 5? | Source

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators planned to blow up the House of Lords on its opening session in 1605. The original date was set for July 28 but due to the plague, the opening of the new session did not happen until November 5, 1605. Due to an anonymous letter, James I of England (James VI of Scotland) found out about the possibility of the plot and Fawkes was caught. He later confessed and was executed. This has lead to a tradition in the United Kingdom. November 5 is known as Bonfire Night – or Guy Fawkes Night – but where does the tradition come from?

Celebrating the Failed Assassination

Guy Fawkes was caught in the early hours of November 5. That night, the people of London went out to celebrate the failed assassination plan. They were encouraged to light bonfires while watching out for safety. Parliament created an Act, which meant that November 5 became a day to give thanks for “the joyful day of deliverance”. This Act remained until 1859.

While there were others who were tried and convicted for the plot, Guy Fawkes remains the most popular. He was the many who was caught first and confessed to the plot to assassinate the King, blow up the House of Lords and place James I’s daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne to turn Britain into a Catholic state.

The Introduction of Fireworks and Effigies

In the 1650s, fireworks were added to the celebrations. This is a tradition that continues today. Fireworks have become more elaborate in modern days but the idea is still the same – it loosely mimicked the way the House of Lords would look after being blown up.

From 1673 onwards, the tradition moved to burning an effigy. At first, this was the Pope. In recent times, other public figures have also been featured in effigies, including Margaret Thatcher and Paul Kruger. However, Guy Fawkes remains popular and it is commonly referred to as burning the “guy”. The effigy is usually created out of newspapers, old clothes and a mask and some schools offer competitions on the best guy. From the 19th century, the term “guy” was used to refer to a person who was dressed in a strange way.

Evil or Honest?

Guy Fawkes was seen as an evil man during the 17th century. He was entering Parliament to assassinate the King, which was frowned upon everywhere. However, people started to see him in a different light from 1841. The author, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a novel that portrays Fawkes sympathetically. He has also been portrayed as a hero. Now, he is commonly seen as “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”. It is worth thinking about the way the country would be run now had the House of Lords been blown up.

Whichever way you look at it, Guy Fawkes has become one of the most populated and celebrated men in Britain. He was a man who attempted to assassinate the King for his own gain and now has people setting off fireworks, burning effigies and lighting bonfires every year. Unlike many of the more influential men and women from history, he has a day named after him.


House of Commons Information Office. The Gunpowder Plot. (2004) Accessed November 5, 2012.

Fraser A. The Gunpowder Plot. Published 2005. ISBN 0-7538-1401-3.

Harrison Ainsworth, W. Guy Fawkes; or The Gunpowder Treason. Published 1841.

Books About the Gunpowder Plot


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