Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night Origins


Bonfire Night is celebrated across the UK on 5 November. The date marks the failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes along with a group of co-conspirators in London in 1605.

When James I came to the throne in 1603 they had hoped for greater tolerance, as the new king had quietly promised before his accession. They had reason to believe him. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had died for her faith, beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire.

He was a pragmatist and continued to persecute the Catholics, knowing that many of the English regarded the Pope as a foreign puppet and a threat to English independence. His refusal to improve Catholic rights in England disappointed and enraged the conspirators.

Their leader, Robert Catesby came from a minor gentry family in Lapworth in Warwickshire, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The intention was to kill King James I and wipe out everyone in government. The group were Catholic extremists who wanted to return England to the Catholic faith. One of the conspirators had a friend in the Houses of Parliament and sent a letter to him, warning him to stay away from the House on the day the attack was supposed to take place. The letter was intercepted and handed to the king.

Guy Fawkes himself had been brought up a loyal Protestant but at some point in his youth decided to swap faiths and became a mercenary for His Most Catholic Majesty the King of Spain. During this period he became an expert in artillery and explosives.

His advice to Catesby was to hire a house next door to the Palace of Westminster. The old palace was more like a small town, a great sprawl of connected buildings beside the river.

The kings had moved out centuries before but the two Houses of Parliament, Lords and Commons, still had premises among the slightly battered mediaeval architecture. Members of the Lords and Commons would meet the king in the chamber of the House of Lords for the State Opening.

The unused parts of the palace were put to commercial advantage. The empty cellars were rented out for private use, often as warehouses convenient for the Thames. All the plotters needed do was hire the basement immediately under the House of Lords. Fawkes made the arrangements under the unimaginative alias of John Johnson.

Then they dug a tunnel to the house they’d hired next door in the modern Parliament Square.

They worked for eight months as casks of gunpowder were delivered to the house, trundled along the makeshift passage and stacked in the cellar.

About twenty barrels of powder were smuggled right under Parliament. Fawkes with his knowledge of explosives layered iron bars on the top of the pile for greater impact, and the whole thing was hidden under the innocent but very flammable cover of coal and firewood.

When finally some of the king’s closest advisors got wind of the plot, two search parties were dispatched to explore the cellars. The first found good old John Johnson sitting beside his pile of coal and firewood. They wished him good day and passed on, looking for somebody who seemed suspicious. The second party discovered the powder and arrested Fawkes. Parliament was safely opened the next morning.

Nowadays on Bonfire Night people organise their own parties or attend big organised fireworks displays. They stand around the bonfire, set off fireworks and eat lots of nice warming Bonfire Night foods, like sausages and jacket potatoes. They might also remark...

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot,
We see no reason,
Why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot!

...Which sort of suggests that people rather admire the cheek of Guy Fawkes, trying to blow up Parliament, and that's why they celebrate Bonfire night, rather than celebrating the fact that his plot failed and he was caught!

Fireworks that are sent up on Bonfire night have really evocative names like, Roman Candles, Mount Vesuvius and Golden Shower. There are also Catherine Wheels that spin and Sparklers that children write their names in the air with.

Children make life-sized effigies of Guy Fawkes which are called Guys, to put onto the bonfires. The English have been burning effigies to mark Guy Fawkes' treason for almost 400 years. The tradition started in 1606, the year after the Gunpowder plot failed. In these first bonfires, called 'bone fires' at the time, it wasn't an effigy of Guy Fawkes that was burned, but one of the Pope. It was not until 1806, two centuries later, that the people started burning effigies of Guy Fawkes instead.

Children make a Guy by stuffing some old clothes with newspapers, craft a head out of material, and either draw a face on it or buy a special cardboard Guy Fawkes mask. For a few days beforehand children are pushing guys around in prams, push chairs and go-carts, saying 'A penny for the guy'. Adults then give them money - how much depends on how good the guy is. The money is then spent on sparklers, or at least it would be, if children were still allowed to buy fireworks in the UK, so it is probably spent on sweets instead.