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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.

Resources:

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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    • aingham86 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alexandria Ingham 

      5 years ago from UK

      Guy Fawkes always interested me as a child. I remember learning about it in history when I was about 10 but the way it was taught made it sound like he really was a bad guy. The more I research, the more I wish history lessons would really tell the whole story. Maybe he could have been a champion, especially for those who preferred the original religion (catholicism).

      I'm glad you found it interesting. Thanks for commenting.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      This is very interesting. It is so odd that I came across it today as my seventeen year old grandson was telling me about it just today. He plays games on his xbox 360 with guys from across the pond and he had heard it discussed. So glad I came across this.

      Guy may have really been a champion of his people...it's all about perspective, huh?

    • KerryAnita profile image

      KerryAnita 

      5 years ago from Satellite Beach, Florida

      Good article, I learned something new:)

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