Here in the UK, Guy Fawkes’ Night (aka Bonfire Night/Fireworks Night) is celebrated annually on the 5 November.
It’s a long-standing tradition that has been publicly acknowledged since the Stuart times, where bonfires are lit, fireworks are displayed, and sparklers are waved around in the air. All because a man, called Guy Fawkes from York, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in on 5 November 1605.
What is not always realized is the attempt to blow up Parliament happened, but it wasn’t Guy Fawkes who actually did the whole thing himself.
Fawkes was part of a group of 13 men, led by Robert Catesby, who were planning on blowing up King James I (aka VI of Scotland), as well as other important people, while they were seated in the House of Parliament on 5 November.¹ The plotters were all English Catholics, and they hated the Protestant King. There had been hopes of greater religious tolerance for the Catholics after Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, but these hopes faded with the said King, after the years of persecution.²
Due to his many years of experience in the military, Guy Fawkes was the one in charge of the explosives. They managed to get 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath the Houses of Parliament, via the river Thames, and Fawkes’ job was to light it on the designated night. Fatefully, on said night, there was a search conducted in the undercroft, and Fawkes was arrested. He was tortoured for two days straight, and eventually he gave out, revealing the names of his co-conspiricors. He was executed on 31 January 1606; but to avoid feeling the pain of being hung, drawn, and quartered, he jumped from the scaffold, and broke his neck first.³
In fact, it was a letter written by one of the members of the group, Francis Tresham. A friend of his was to be among those seated that day, and he wrote him a letter of warning, not to be in Parliament that day.⁴ This is what gave the plot away. Horrible Histories (who make fantastic comedy sketches about histories) dub Tresham as The Idiot of the group, for his actions:
There is a poem that is often recited on this day:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
The gunpowder, treason, and plot
I know no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.⁵
There is even another tradition when kids run around saying: “Penny for the guy?”
I believe that because he was the one who was caught, Fawkes is the one who is remembered for all this. Until I watched the Horrible Histories sketch, I never knew who the other plotters were. One other tradition that is done on Bonfire Nights, is placing a dummy (often like a scarecrow) of Guy Fawkes, and placing it on the bonfire, which somehow makes him look like he is being executed all over again (And perhaps we honour the day with fireworks because they actually contain gunpowder?):
Despite all this, the reasons for the traditional celebrations remain unclear. I grew up seeing it as a bit of harmless fun, watching fireworks; and I was always told that it was celebrating the freedom of the people, because the Houses of Parliament did not blow up.
But now, I’m not so sure.
For most of my life, this has been a traditional night of harmless fun. But thinking as an academic; in current times of terrorism, why are we celebrating an act of terrorism – that was also in the name of religion – when too much of a similar is already going on in this world? Isn’t it getting to the point that it’s hitting a little close to the mark? The Houses of Parliament still checked throughly before the monarchy enter for the “State Opening of Parliament”⁶ because of the Gunpowder Plot.
Bearing all of this in mind, I would still take this observation as harmless fun, and remember that in history, a bunch of people did a crazy thing, which got aborted, and has bought us this annual tradition of fireworks.
⁴ Horrible Histories, Fawkes' 13, Season 2, Episode 1.
- The other images of Lewes’ celebration seems to hit quite close to home, showing a burning Big Ben, and 17 crosses on fire. It’s possible that they are celebrating how Protestantism won that night. That said, it looks almost intolerant, anti-Catholic, and KKK. Not the meant-to-be-English way at all!