Why do we celebrate Guy Fawkes night?

Every year on 5th November, people throughout the UK attend public events featuring bonfires and firework displays, with many holding smaller versions in their own gardens.  Many of us have fond childhood memories of wrapping up against the autumn chill, standing in a field admiring the huge fire, marvelling at the spectacular fireworks, trying to write our names (or perhaps even a rude word or two!) with sparklers, and warming ourselves with baked potatoes, hot dogs and (if you’re from the Midlands or further North) mushy peas.  But as with many of our modern celebrations, most people don’t think too much about – or don’t even know – the origins of what we’re doing.

Essentially, Guy Fawkes night is a celebration of the foiling of a terrorist plot over 400 years ago.  In 1605, Catholics in this country had been suffering decades of religious persecution. A group of powerful Catholic families, mainly from the Midlands, devised a plan to eliminate the established ruling class (King James I and his parliament) and use the ensuing confusion to place a Catholic sympathiser on the throne and push through laws to give them a more equal status.  Renting a property close to the Houses of Parliament in London, they were able to gain access to a network of cellars and tunnels that actually ran underneath the Parliament buildings.  Into these cellars they smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder.  Their intention was to detonate these explosives during the State Opening of Parliament – the one occasion in the year when you could guarantee that the King, his ministers and the entire Parliament would be under one roof.  The man charged with the task of carrying out the actual explosion was York-born Guy (or Guido) Fawkes.  Unfortunately for the conspirators, one of their number sent a letter to a relative who was an MP warning him not to attend the event.  The suspicious MP passed the letter to the authorities, who conducted extensive searches of the Parliament and surroundings, during which they discovered Guy Fawkes with the gunpowder in the cellar.  Fawkes was arrested and tortured at the Tower of London, during which he signed a confession and gave up the names of his fellow plotters.  Troops were dispatched to their homes and gathering places, and most were either killed trying to evade capture or arrested.  All were tried for high treason and sentenced to death.

Several things happened in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.  Firstly, even stricter laws were introduced to prevent Catholics becoming a powerful force in the country, many of which remained in place until the 19th Century.  Secondly, the date on which the plot was foiled – November 5th – was declared a national day of thanksgiving from the following year 1606.  In actual fact, there was a law that made marking the date compulsory!  As was the tradition for many festivals at that time, people lit fires to celebrate and, over time, the tradition of letting off fireworks on 5th November became widespread, as they were seen to represent the explosives that would have been let off under parliament.  The other very traditional element that persists today is the burning of life-sized human effigies on the fire.  Originally, these were meant to symbolise Guy Fawkes or other public hate figures, including the Pope at times when there was very strong anti-Catholic sentiment.  Eventually, the term “guys” became the standard designation for these effigies, with the word eventually coming to be a non-specific term for a man or, nowadays, a person more generally.  The 19th Century saw the emergence of poor children creating elaborate guys, which they would display in the run-up to November 5th, asking people for coins in appreciation of their work – this is the “Penny for the guy” tradition.  Meanwhile, every year before the State Opening of Parliament the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament are still searched by guards with lanterns, although of course this is more of a ceremonial than practical operation these days.

Because of the traditions that have emerged, many people would probably assume that Guy Fawkes was burned for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.  However, the sentence for high treason was not burning.  In fact, burning at the stake was a punishment that was hardly ever used in England, except during the religious persecution of Tudor times, with even witches – contrary to popular misconception – mainly being hanged in this country in the rare events they were executed at all.  Awaiting Fawkes and his co-conspirators was brutal execution by the method known as “hanging, drawing and quartering” (hanging until almost dead, having entrails and other body parts cut out while still alive, then when dead having the body divided into four parts to be put on public display around the kingdom), certainly not burning.  In a final act of defiance, Guy Fawkes managed to escape from this fate by leaping to his death from the scaffold before he was hanged, although his body was still quartered.

Like so many of our celebrations, Guy Fawkes Night also has links to ancient folk traditions in this country, which probably helped to establish it.  Part of the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, which marked the transition between the light and dark seasons of the year, involved lighting large fires and gathering around them to celebrate the time of year.  Although Samhain tends to be more closely linked to Halloween, the week before Guy Fawkes night, a festival involving fires in the first week of November was certainly not a new thing for people in this country.  There have even been suggestions that Gunpowder Plot thanksgiving provided an opportunity for the (Protestant / Puritan) religious and secular authorities to subvert the pagan practices that persisted throughout the land to what they considered a more acceptable purpose.  Meanwhile, the alternative popular name of the celebration “bonfire night” comes from the old term “bone fire”.  A bone fire was a large fire lit to dispose of bones – either from church crypts once they were full, or the mortal remains of people who had been labelled witches or heretics and could therefore not be buried in consecrated ground.

For many years the original political element of Guy Fawkes night persisted, with fires and fireworks accompanied by equally fiery sermons and speeches against the perceived threat of Catholicism.  There are numerous instances when this actually spilled over into civil unrest and attacks on Catholic members of the community.  However, as the religious climate in the country slowly settled down these aspects increasingly receded, disappearing altogether by the early 19th Century by which time laws giving equal rights to Catholics were under discussion.

Given its specifically British origins, it is perhaps not surprising that Guy Fawkes night is not widely celebrated in other countries.  In the early days of the British Empire and colonisation, the date was marked in the traditional way, but this came to an end as ties to Britain weakened and new, independent nations emerged.  Even within Britain itself, as Halloween has become increasingly significant in recent decades there are fears that Guy Fawkes night is losing its identity and may even be under threat in the long term.  Certainly the number of public and community events has declined sharply in the last 20 years.

Guy Fawkes night remains a distinctly British celebration that can be hugely enjoyable for families.  But like all celebrations, it’s important to remember why it the date is marked.  If Fawkes and his fellow plotters had succeeded, the impact would have been immense.  The Royal household along with the entire government and ruling class of a nation being wiped out in a single moment is almost impossible to comprehend.  It would certainly have been the most notorious and influential act of terrorism in history – greater even than 9/11, which is perhaps the closest modern equivalent in terms of its effect on a nation’s psyche.  What might have happened if the Gunpowder Plot had not been thwarted is something we can only speculate about, but no doubt British and world history as we know it could have been very different.

Thanks as always to the amazing Blue Badge Guide Ian Braisby.