It’s that time of year again. People all over the UK are getting their winter hats and gloves on and gathering in parks to watch dummies burn on bonfires and fireworks light up the skies.
But while we all remember, remember the 5th of November, where did the tradition actually come from? And why do we celebrate it?
The Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt against King James I by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.
When the Protestant king acceded to the throne, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution they had felt for over 45 years under Queen Elizabeth I would finally end, and they’d be free to practice their religion.
When this didn’t transpire, a group of conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament. Guy Fawkes, from York, and his fellow conspirators managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building.
The scheme began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him to avoid the House of Lords. Fawkes, being the explosive expert, had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse and was caught when a group of guards discovered him at the last moment.
Fawkes was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters. The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public. But this proved not to be the 35-year-old Fawkes’ fate as he leapt off the platform to avoid this gruesome end and died from a broken neck.
Guy Fawkes Day
Following the failed plot, Parliament declared November 5th a national day of thanksgiving, and the first celebration of it took place in 1606.
These days Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated across the United Kingdom with fireworks, bonfires and parades. Straw dummies representing Fawkes are tossed on the bonfire, as well as those of contemporary political figures.
Dummies, or ‘guys’, have been burned on bonfires since as long ago as the 13th century, initially to drive away evil spirits. Following the Gunpowder Plot, the focus of the sacrifices switched to Guy Fawkes’ treason.
Traditionally, these ‘guys’ are carried through the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day and children ask passers-by for “a penny for the guy.” The fireworks represent the explosives that were never used by the plotters.
It’s Bonfire Night tonight, so don’t forget to stay safe and look after yourself. It’s always best to stick with organised bonfires and firework displays, but however you celebrate make sure you don’t put yourself or anyone else at risk. Read the Greater Fire and Rescue’s information on Firework Safety here.