Bonfire Night 2015: Why do we celebrate fireworks night? Who was Guy Fawkes?

Every year, on the 5th of November, we celebrate the Houses of Parliament surviving one of the most elaborate plots to blow it up. That’s right, the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes’ penchant for playing with fire went too far, and he got his fingers got burnt a touch! But what actually is Bonfire Night, and why is it so deeply embedded within British tradition? The Telegraph explain:

What is Bonfire Night?

Bonfire Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605 by a gang of Roman Catholic activists led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby

When Protestant King James I began his reign, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution felt for over 45 years under his predecessor Queen Elizabeth would finally end, but this didn’t transpire so the Gunpowder Plot conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.

Guy (Guido) Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, having rented out a house closed to the Houses of Parliament, managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building. (Physicists from the Institute of Physics later calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder beneath Parliament would have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion).

Guy Fawkes foiled!

The plot began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to the William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him not to avoid the House of Lords.

The letter (which could well have been sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham), was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5.

Explosive expert Fawkes, who had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse, was subsequently caught when a group of guards checked the cellars 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 and Lord Monteagle was rewarded with 500 pounds and 200 pounds worth of lands, for his service in protecting the crown.

Who were the Gunpowder Plot conspirators?

Guy Fawkes, Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen, John Grant and the man who organised the whole plot – Robert Catesby.

The conspirators were all either killed resisting capture or – like Fawkes – tried, convicted, and executed.

The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged from the gallows, then drawn and quartered in public. But, despite his role in the Gunpowder Plot this proved not to be the 35-year-old Fawkes’s fate.

As he awaited his grisly punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt to his death – to avoid having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes. Mercifully for him, he died from a broken neck.

His body was subsequently quartered, and his remains were sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others.

The cellar that Fawkes tried to blow up no longer exists. In 1834 it was destroyed in a fire which devastated the medieval Houses of Parliament.

The aftermath

Following the failed plot, Parliament declared November 5th a national day of thanksgiving, and the first celebration of it took place in 1606.

After the Gunpowder Plot, King James sought to control non-conforming English Catholics in England. In May 1606, Parliament passed ‘The Popish Recusants Act’ which required any citizen to take an oath of allegiance denying the Pope’s authority over the king.

Observance of 5th November Act passed within months of plot made church attendance compulsory on that day and by the late 17th Century, the day had gained a reputation for riotousness and disorder and anti-Catholism. William of Orange’s birthday (November 4th) was conveniently close.

Guy Fawkes Day today

The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the state opening, which has been held in November since 1928. The idea is to ensure no modern-day Guy Fawkes is hiding in the cellars with a bomb, although it is more ceremonial than serious. And they do it with lanterns.

Beefeaters carrying out the Ceremonial Search

If you love delving into the past and learning about the events that shape society as it is today, take a look at our History A Level course held at both Hillsborough campus and Peaks campus and see what you can uncover!

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