Updated: Nov 2, 2021
The 5th of November, also known as Guy Fawkes Night, Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night is an annual event observed in the United Kingdom. The story of the festival emerged from a failed, ambitious plot to blow up the Parliament in 1605.
The Gunpowder Plot
The plan was to blow up Parliament on the State Opening on November 5th 1605. This would 'decapitate' the government, eliminate the King and serve as a signal to open up a revolt to put a Catholic head of state on the throne. The plot was devised by a group of English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.
Guy or Guido Fawkes had over ten years military experience fighting with the Spanish army in the Dutch Revolt and he was nominated to be the man responsible for the explosives. The plotters leased an "undercroft", a storage cellar under the Parliament building. That space was packed with 36 barrels of gunpowder. The plot was betrayed in an anonymous letter which meant the King was able to issue instructions to search the grounds of the Parliament. Late on the night of the 4th November Sir Thomas Knyvett and Edmund Doubleday discovered Guy Fawkes. He was carrying several slow matches which were intended to light the fuse before he planned to escape the resultant explosion. Fawkes insisted his plan was to kill the King but he had acted alone and gave his name as John Johnson.
An investigation had already started to reveal the names of the plotters but Fawkes was moved to the Tower of London on 6th November. He was almost certainly tortured on the rack and he broke on the 7th and confessed the plan and his fellow conspirators.
The contrast between the usual signature of the man and then the signature on his confession document after torture is a chilling indication of just how horrendous his experience in the Tower of London was.
Capturing the Conspirators
Catesby and several of his fellow conspirators attempted to find sanctuary but found doors closed in their faces across the countryside. They were tired and cold in the open country and whilst trying to dry some gunpowder were engulfed in flames from a resultant stray spark lighting the powder. Burnt, singed or even blinded and were captured or killed at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Catesby was killed in the shoot out. Four of the conspirators were arrested.
Foreign powers immediately distanced themselves from the foiled plot, calling them atheists and Protestant heretics. The news of the the failure created a wave of goodwill toward the King as the arrested plotters were interrogated in the Tower of London over the next ten weeks.
The Trials & Execution
The conspirators were tried in the Star Chamber starting January 26th 1606. It was almost a forgone conclusion that they would be found guilty and the punishment was one of the more grizzly and macabre forms of execution that humanity had devised. The infamous Hanged, Drawn and Quartered. The Attorney General Sir Edward Coke delivered the sentence at the conclusion of the trial.
The guilty conspirator would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. He was to be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". His genitals would be cut off and burnt before his eyes, and his bowels and heart then removed. Then he would be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of his body displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air"
Those who escaped the executioner did not escape the indignity. Their bodies were exhumed and decapitated. Their heads were displayed on spikes outside the House of Lords. On a cold winter morning, January 30th 1606 the first four men underwent their horrendous punishment. The next day the following four were executed. Fawkes, in a final act of defiance, escaped the unimaginable torture of the full sentence by jumping from the gallows and breaking his own neck before being castrated and disembowelled.
Such an ambitious conspiracy spelt the end of Spanish hopes to secure a more tolerant environment for Catholicism in England. The introduction of an Oath of allegiance that required Catholics to reject the heresy of the Pope's doctrine to support deposing or assassinating excommunicated Princes.
The festival night started as the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 that called for annual public thanksgiving for the failure of the plot. It required everyone to attend a short Thanksgiving Church service to hear the reading of the Act text. The Act was repealed in 1859. Celebrations extended to ringing Church bells, lighting bonfires and fireworks in some of the earliest annual events.
During the Republican period of English history later in the 1600s despite an aggressive attempt to outlaw festivities and celebrations the observances of November 5th remained untouched, a clear indication of the popularity of the festival. The nature of the event became an evening in which the lower classes engaged in a night of revelry and disorder rather than the desire to hold a festival of thanksgiving.
The festivities became an annual cultural phenomenon still observed today. A tradition of children making an effigy of Guy Fawkes made of old clothes stuffed with newspaper developed, reported as widespread in the Times in 1790. The Guys would be displayed in the street and children would raise money for fireworks before burning the Guy on the bonfire on the night of the 5th. The children would cry "Penny for the Guy" and the word Guy came into common use in the 19th century as an oddly dressed person and into modern era English to simply mean any male person.
The tradition of the Guy has morphed more into the custom of making effigies of contemporary culturally unpopular figures or politicians to be burnt on the bonfire. Most Prime Ministers have suffered this in modern times but footballer David Beckham had also become the subject of public anger in 1998 after receiving a red card in a World Cup match that England ultimately lost to Argentina.
Public Bonfire events still take place, but the firework portion of the evening has become much larger. The popularity of a loud and chaotic night in the winter cold has never really declined. In fact in moments of history it finds an unexpected resurgence. The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 saw the 5th of November once again develop new significance. Effigies of the Pope and Catholic Bishops were burnt with mass marches and demonstrations in various parts of the country. Although, the anti Catholic emotion did not reach the extremes of the demonstrations in 1677 that had an effigy of the Pope burnt with a belly filled with live cats whose desperate squalls added to the hideous spectacle.
The violence gave way to organised fireworks displays and connections with Guy Fawkes and anti Catholicism have started to rapidly decline from view. In fact the festival has become overshadowed by the commercial juggernaut that is Halloween. Guy Fawkes masks have returned to cultural favour with the success of the comic book and subsequent film 'V for Vendetta' breathing new life into the story of the Gunpowder plot and it is not uncommon to hear English speakers in the UK utter the phrase "Guy Fawkes: The last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions!"
The success of the V for Vendetta film saw the rising popularity of the iconic face mask which in itself has become a global symbol of protest against power.
The mischievous nature of the night has returned with youths often launching fireworks in the week leading up to the night of the 5th and pet owners dread this time of year across the UK.
First Certificate Use of English practice Use of English Part 1
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Our Podcast discussion
The Bulldogz team discussed the 5th of November in our episode "Remember, Remember". The programme can be heard on our podcast available on multiple platforms including Spotify and Apple, Search for Dead Air or find more details on our Anchor fm page
Alternatively you can hear it via our Youtube Channel:
Please be aware, some of the conversation includes description of torture and brutal execution practices.
The programme also has an associated set of materials:
Editors Note: The names of the men who arrested Guy Fawkes are known. According to the Parliament records, Sir Thomas Knyvett and Edmund Doubleday found Guy Fawkes in the basement of the House of Lords on 4 November, not Gary...or John! More info at the UK Parliament website.