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What is Guy Fawkes Night?

Updated on April 27, 2015
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Public domain
Public domain

Guy Fawkes : Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

Who is Guy Fawkes?

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

How is Guy Fawkes Night celebrated?

What are the trappings of Guy Fawkes Night?

For many Americans the Fall season sees the celebrations of Halloween.

In Great Britain, the major celebration is Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, Cracker Night), which takes place on the evening of November 5th.

If you are unaware of (or even know about) Guy Fawkes and his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot and why many in the UK commemorate the Fifth of November - then here is your chance to find out the history behind the celebrations.

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot: An Overview of the Events of November 1605

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a plan by a group of Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament, in particular the House of Lords upon the event of the next State Opening, thereby killing the reigning Protestant sovereign, King James 1 of England and VI of Scotland. The planned explosion would wipe out the major part of the Protestant aristocracy and usher in a new Catholic monarch.

The exact reasons for the conspiracy are unclear, but it is thought that the principle plotter, Robert Catesby, had the intention of bringing about a rebellion, thereby allowing for greater freedom and toleration of Catholics in a Protestant Great Britain.

The plot began in May 1604 when Catesby's cousin Thomas Wintour employed a mercenary with explosive expertise called Guy Fawkes. With his vast experience of dangerous situations, Fawkes was to be the man to oversee the transportation and lighting of the gunpowder.

Catesby had rented a house close to the Palace of Westminster and had arranged for a tunnel to be dug under the Houses of Parliament. However, this plan was soon abandoned, and in March 1605 Thomas Percy used his connections at the Royal Court to rent a cellar right under the House of Lords. Posing as Percy's servant, "John Johnson", Fawkes filled the cellar with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.

Everything was now set in place, and all the conspirators had to do now was wait. However, doubts soon came to haunt some of the plotters, concerned that fellow Catholics would be present in Parliament on the appointed day, the 5th of November.

Only ten days before the Opening of Parliament, Lord Monteagle, an apparently reformed Catholic, received an important letter giving warning of the gunpowder plot. The authorship of the letter has never been definitely identified, but Monteagle was Francis Tresham's brother-in-law.

Monteagle immediately showed the letter to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State. The Privy Council had the vaults beneath the Lords searched on the 4th November, first by the Earl of Suffolk and late the same evening by Sir Thomas Knyvett. The search discovered Guy Fawkes guarding the gunpowder, along with other explosive paraphernalia, and he was immediately arrested.

Upon hearing that the plot had failed, Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour escaped to the Midlands where they met with the rest of their party in Warwickshire. They managed to travel amongst the houses of friends for three days before finally being captured in a bloody raid. Catesby, Percy and the two Wright brothers were killed, while a wounded Thomas Wintour and Ambrose Rokewood were taken away to London. Others were captured and all the conspirators, save for Tresham, were executed for their crimes.


The Gunpowder Plot Unravelled

Gunpowder: The Players Behind the Plot
Gunpowder: The Players Behind the Plot

Gunpowder tells the story of the events of Oct 1605 to May 1606 through its key players and the original documentary evidence in which they appear. Illustrated with contemporary portraits, engravings and original, unpublished documents, this perilous and fragmented world challenges our perception of the past.

 

The Story of the Gunpowder Plot: A Simple Plan: A 6 Part BBC DocuDrama

Celebrating the Defeat of the Gunpowder Plot: The Bonfire Night Traditions Begin

The immediate impact of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot was for the general population to celebrate with street parties, including bonfires and in later years, fireworks.

Further, November 5th was designated by King James I (via an Act of Parliament) as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance." This Act remained in force until 1859. It would appear that similar celebrations took place on each anniversary thereafter and, over the years, became a tradition. The practice has remained popular and continues today. Three major components of the celebrations are explained below:

The Bonfire: As early as 1607, there is a record of bonfire celebrations taking place in Bristol on November 5th and it was traditional for children to black their faces with ashes in imitation of Guy Fawkes who, it was believed, performed a similar function in order to try to camouflage himself. Bonfires were often used to cook potatoes known as "roasters" on this special night.

The Fireworks: Fireworks have been a traditional part of the celebrations since 1677. The first record of fireworks being used in England was during the wedding of Henry VII in 1486 and increased in popularity during the reign of Elizabeth I who created a "Fire Master of England."

The Guy: Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations include making an effigy of Guy Fawkes, which is called "the Guy". Children used to keep up an old tradition of walking in the streets, carrying "the Guy" they had just created, and begged passersby for "a penny for the Guy." The kids used the money to buy fireworks for the evening festivities. The guy was then thrown onto the bonfire. Modern dangers, current laws and the increasing practice of community organized firework displays have now prevented children from keeping up this tradition.

The tossing the guy into the bonfire probably began in the Eighteenth Century and included effigies of the Pope, the Young Pretender and Devils as much as they did Guy Fawkes. The custom of burning the guy had become an integral part of the celebrations by the Nineteenth Century. The model guys are usually grotesque with a clumsy air about them. The head is often villanous-looking and may sport a brightly-colored mask.

Source

V For Vendetta: Movie Character Inspired By Guy Fawkes

V for Vendetta (Full Screen Edition)
V for Vendetta (Full Screen Edition)

Based loosely around the events of the Gunpowder Plot, controversy and criticism has followed this film since the beginning, but there's no hiding the message the film is trying to express: Radical and drastic events often need to occur in order to shake people out of their state of indifference in order to bring about real change.

 

Handling Your Fireworks & Bonfire Safely

Over 130 million fireworks were sold in Britain in 1995. At family displays, sparklers cause more injuries than air-bombs, bangers, rockets and Roman candles combined. Half of all firework accidents happen to children under the age of 16 and more than 60 under-fives went to the hospital in 1997 following firework accidents.

The main injuries caused by fireworks are burns to the hands and arms and accidents where people have been lighting their own bonfire using flammable liquids. Cases where people have had fireworks thrown at them, can also result in very serious injuries.

For those who are planning to stage a display for family, friends or the general public, following some simple dos and don'ts can greatly reduce the risks.

DO'S and DON'TS

  • Keep fireworks in a closed metal box and take them out one at a time.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions on each firework. Read them by torchlight (flashlight) - never a naked flame.
  • Light fireworks at arm's length using a safety firework lighter or fuse wick.
  • Stand back after lighting. Never go back to a firework once lit - it may go off in your face.
  • Keep a bucket of water handy. Used fireworks should be collected after the display with care. Douse with water, bury or place in a metal container. Keep children under control. Keep pets indoors.
  • BONFIRES
  • Bonfires present additional hazards when it's dark. If a bonfire is lit in connection with a fireworks display, then:
    • Site well away from houses, garages, sheds, fences, overhead cables, trees and shrubs and always away from fireworks.
    • Before lighting the fire check that no pets or children are hiding inside it.
    • Build the stack so that it is stable and will not collapse outwards or to one side.
    • Never use flammable liquids to light the fire.
    • Don't burn foam-filled furniture, aerosols, and tins of paint or bottles.
    • Keep everyone away from the fire - especially children, who must be supervised all the time.
    • For an emergency keep buckets of water, the garden hose or a fire extinguisher ready.
    • Pour water on the embers before leaving.

A Typical Guy Fawkes Night Celebration

Guy Fawkes: Buy From Art.com

Traditional Gunpowder Plot Rhymes

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot!

I see no reason, why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot!

A stick or a stake for King James' sake

Will you please to give us a fagot

If you can't give us one, we'll take two;

The better for us and the worse for you!

Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day (Profiles in History)
Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day (Profiles in History)

An enjoyable book tracing the various ways in which November 5th has been celebrated between the seventeenth century and modern times.

 

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,

The Gunpowder Treason and Plot to surrender,

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent

To blow up King and Parli'ment.

Three-score barrels of powder below

To prove old England's overthrow;

By God's providence he was catch'd

With a dark lantern and burning match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Guy Fawkes Night: A Personal Memory

Around twelve years ago, I was in England with my British husband, Richard. This was my first time there, and I was experiencing life in a typical English neighborhood.

To help get through my homesickness, I wrote regular newsletters back to family and friends in the US. It just so happened that I was there for both Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night, and here is a short extract about that Guy Fawkes Night experience.

We just celebrated Guy Fawkes Day November 5th, commonly known as Bonfire Night. It is in celebration of the capture and murder of Guy Fawkes who tried to burn down The Houses of Parliament about a billion years ago...talk about your traditions.

Anyway, Godalming, the town 2.6 miles from us, always hosts a bonfire and the townspeople have a torch parade ending at the bonfire site next to Sainsburys (the grocery store from Hell, remember?). Rich explains to me that the fireworks are incredible and can be seen right out his bathroom window. So, appropriately I make popcorn and about 8pm we traipse upstairs to the bathroom to watch fireworks. There we were, Rich sitting on the toilet, me on a chair, drinking a beer and eating popcorn, watching fireworks out of the bathroom window, giving our commentaries of "oooooh" and "ahhhh" at each one. Mandy from next door heard us laughing and giggling and so she decided to come over.

Now there's three of us in Rich's bathroom, "ooohhhing" and "aaaahhhing". After the light show, Mandy and Rich leave to go downstairs. I said I would join them in a minute, as all the excitement caused me to need to pee. Rich always turns lights off as he leaves a room, so I reminded him that the bathroom light was broken, and to please leave the hall light on for me. Well, lo and behold, he turns off the light and he and Mandy go dead silent. There I am, midstream on the toilet. All of a sudden I see something coming through the darkened hallway. It is my wonderful, deranged Richard, crawling on his hands and knees to scare me. We are just lucky there are bathmats in front of the toilet!

As you can probably guess, this is not the usual way to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night - three people huddled in a bathroom with beer and popcorn!

In fact, in many towns across the UK, the celebrations begin with a torchlight procession through the streets of the town towards a huge bonfire strategically built for full effect. There is usually a representation of Guy Fawkes (the "guy") on the bonfire, and sometimes other figures (usually political) can be seen among the firewood. Once the procession has gathered around the bonfire, the torches are placed or thrown in.

As the flames take hold, a firework display unfolds, much like one would expect at a July 4th celebration in the US. All the while, children and adults can be seen enjoying sparklers, hot drinks or beverages with a little more potency, along with traditional foods such as baked potatoes, soups and toffee (candy) apples or the ever reliable hotdogs and burgers.


What Are Your Thoughts About Guy Fawkes Night?

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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glenis Rix 4 months ago from UK

      I enjoyed the personal anecdote! Don't forget to keep pets indoors on bonfire night - they don't like the bangs.

    • profile image

      MarcellaCarlton 3 years ago

      How history would have changed had this been pulled off. Interesting!

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I loved the story of the bathroom, the beer and the popcorn! Also, the Occupy movement took the Guy Fawkes mask as their anonymous identity here in the states, which I thought was rather odd, but probably worked for them. I also liked "Remember, remember, the 5th of November," which will probably stick in my mind forever! This lens will be on my FB page Hand In Glove With History and also on my blog handinglovewithhistory.blogspot.com. Thank you for a great historical lens!

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 3 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      V for Vendetta made Guy Fawkes a bit more mainstream I guess. Before that movie I had no idea about Gut Fawkes Night

    • tonybonura profile image

      Tony Bonura 4 years ago from Tickfaw, Louisiana

      A great lens about a little known (in the USA) holiday in England. I knew about Guy Fawkes and his attempt to blow up Parliament, and the holiday celebration. But it was interesting hearing about it from your point of view.

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