Every year on the 5th of November British people light enormous bonfires and assemble incredible firework displays to set off into the dark night sky. But why do they do this? It is all because of a man named Guy Fawkes, who lived over 400 years ago.
Guy Fawkes was born in the city of York in April 1570. Later in life he converted to Catholicism, a rebellious and dangerous thing to do in a staunchly Protestant country, and left to fight his religious cause in Europe in the 80 Years War. He fought for Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers. During his time fighting in the Spanish lowlands he acquired the name Guido Fawkes.
So he had established early in his life that he was prepared to risk his life fighting for what he thought was right. This was during a period when there was enormous conflict between Catholics and Protestants across Europe, and in England the religion of the country was flip-flopping between the two faiths according to beliefs of the incumbent King or Queen. It was a dark time of intrigue, conflict, conspiracies and always the threat of accusation, torture and death.
In 1605, Fawkes was presented with an opportunity that was too good to miss. He was introduced to Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate King James 1 and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. This was the conception of the infamous “Gunpowder Plot”, in which Fawkes was placed in charge of many barrels of explosives that were positioned under the House of Lords. Unfortunately for Fawkes, there was a traitor within the group who had written an anonymous letter tipping off the authorities. The undercroft of Westminster Palace was searched in the early morning of 5th November 1605, and Fawkes was found in situ with his explosives.
Fawkes was questioned and tortured, and eventually gave up the information that his inquisitors were seeking. He was tried and condemned. The following January, when he was led to the hangman’s noose, he lept off the scaffold breaking his neck, thus avoiding the the agony of being hanged and robbing his executioners of the pleasure of taking his life.
Since that time, we have commemorated the failure of the Gunpowder plot with what is commonly referred to as “Guy Fawkes Night” or “Bonfire Night”, held on the same day of the year that Fawkes was discovered. “Remember, remember, the 5th of November” is a chant that originated in Victorian times, uttered by working class children as they went from door to door asking for combustible materials, money, food and water.
The “guy” is an effigy of Fawkes, which is burned in a kind of mock execution, and the fireworks are a reminder of what the London sky would have looked like had the gunpowder plot succeeded and the house of lords had blown up.
It is all rather gruesome, but the point of the evening is to celebrate that the plot was foiled, the British government and its politicians were saved, and order was retained across the land.
Please enjoy your Bonfire Night safely and sensibly.