We love delving into the history behind our annual celebrations, and Bonfire Night (also referred to as Fireworks Night and Guy Fawkes Day) is no exception. So why does this (mostly) British celebration take place every year?
Guy Fawkes is a legend we all vaguely know, but seem to forget most of the detail about. The rhyming mnemonic ‘remember, remember the 5th of November’ is still widely used, but most of us leave off the ending:
"Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot..."
The Back Story
In 1605, an attempt to assassinate the then King of England - King James I - took place. The 5th of November was the opening of State Parliament, and a group of Catholics who were annoyed about King James’ daughter being made the head of the Catholic state (as well as various other religious bugbears), came together to blow up the House of Lords.
Of the twelve men who assembled to take down the King, only one would become truly infamous. Guy Fawkes was a former military man whose role was to guard the gunpowder the group planned to use. After a tip-off weeks before, the House of Lords was searched in the early hours of - yes you guessed it, November 5th - and Fawkes and his stash of gunpowder were discovered.
He was arrested along with his fellow rebels, and in celebration of the plot’s failure, people across London lit bonfires. Eventually, an official act decreed that 5th November would be a public day of thanks. Meanwhile, Mr. Fawkes and his co-conspirators were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. When their fate was delivered, it was in the yard opposite the Houses of Parliament - a final nod to their failure. Because it was the 17th Century and a gruesome time for all involved, the plot’s leader, who had already been shot in a stand-off with police, was exhumed and his head cut off.
Celebrations on the 5th have included fireworks and bonfires almost since it's inception. It was also once an anti-Catholic celebration and church bells were often rung throughout the day. Effigies of the pope were often burned on the bonfires, which is why the 5th November is often referred to as ‘Pope Day’ in other countries (usually those with a link to the British Empire). The burning effigies later became synonyms for Guy Fawkes and today we know them as ‘Guys’, although they are becoming less and less popular
In 1682, the Bonfire Night celebrations got so wild, bonfires and fireworks were banned the following year. They were soon back in the mix, and by the 19th century, firework companies had marketed the event so successfully that it started to be known as Fireworks Night.
The home of Bonfire Night in the UK is Lewes in Sussex. The town puts on parades and fireworks that draw thousands of visitors every year.