The History of Bonfire Night








With Autumn well upon us and Halloween having just passed us by, there is one event that all brits are getting excited for: Bonfire night! During the first week of November, with darker evenings setting in, Britons look to the sky to revel in a night of illuminations and colour. When you think of the 5th November, you may conjure up images of sweet toffee apples, exciting funfair rides, grand bonfires and spectacular firework displays, but ask yourself, do you really know how Bonfire Night came to be? Why is it that we brits are continuing this tradition 415 years later?



On the night of the 5th November, 1605, a man claiming to be John Johnson was found hiding among 36 barrels of gunpowder that were concealed by piles of firewood in the Palace of Westminster basement. Johnson was found with pockets full of fuses and was arrested on the spot. After days of torture, he finally confessed to being a man named Guy Fawkes and told officials about how he and his fellow plotters were planning to start a Catholic revolution by blowing up parliament with King James I in it.


Political Context

Before the 16th century, England was indisputably Catholic and saw the Pope as the central force for the country. People from all classes would follow his ruling and those who did not would be considered heretics. During these times, even translating the Bible from Latin to English was seen as an extreme and radical act of defiance. Tensions and pushback against the Pope’s authority began to gain momentum across Europe, resulting in the movement known as the Reformation which saw a religious switch to Protestantism. Catholics began to be considered as an ‘enemy within’ and followers continued to practise their religion behind closed doors.



Gunpowder Plot

In 1603, King James I took the throne and with it signed a peace treaty with Catholic Spain in 1604, thwarting any plans or hopes that Spain might reinstate Catholicism through invasion. Shortly after, on Sunday 20th May 1604, in a pub in London, a group of upper-class Catholic men met to discuss what was happening in the country. These men included Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes. Robert Catesby, the ringleader behind the gunpowder plot, proposed a plan to blow up parliament with King James I inside. After some discussion, the five men swore on a prayer book and set to hatching their plan. By October of the following year, more upper-class Catholic men had been brought into the plan, making a final total of 13 plotters involved. 


The Plot

The plotters had a relatively simple plan: to blow up parliament and kill King James I and his noblemen. What was less clear was how this would have led to Catholicism being re-imposed in England. Some surmise that with the countr


y in chaos, the plotters planned to lead a pro-Catholic revolution, capturing King James I’s daughter and placing her as queen of the Catholics with a nobleman by her side.

The plotters were able to get hold of gunpowder relatively easily as there was a surplus of it left over from the war with Spain on the black market. The plotters first sub-letted a property from other Catholics near the Palace of Westminster under Thomas Percy’s name. Guy Fawkes, who was unknown by most at parliament, took on the alias John Johnson and served as Percy’s pretend servant. However, in March 1605, a more convenient and ideal location became available to rent; the basement beneath the House of Lords. The building was a labyrinth of wine cellars, meeting rooms, shops and even taverns. As such, stashing 36 barrels of gunpowder did not end up posing any real challenge for the plotters. With the 36 barrels in place, the plotters waited for the perfect moment to carry out their plan: 5th November, the opening of Parliament.


Caught in the Act

The Seizure of Guy Fawkes

The Seizure of Guy Fawkes

Around a week before Guy Fawkes was scheduled to blow up parliament, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic sympathiser and, himself, a former Catholic received a letter from an unknown sender that read:

‘My Lord out of the love I bear to some of your friends I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift off your attendance at this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time…they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.’

While it has not been entirely confirmed where the letter came from, the most logical supposition is that it was sent by Sir Francis Tresham, Monteagle’s brother-in-law. Monteagle was instructed to destroy the letter after reading but instead passed it forward immediately to King James’s right-hand man, the Earl of Salisbury who, in turn, informed the King. Word got back to the plotters that the plans had been leaked, however, Catesby successfully convinced the others to continue with the plan. On the night of the 4th November, a search was made of the basement rooms of the Palace where Guy Fawkes was found hiding among a copious amount of firewood. While this initially seemed strange to the officials, nothing was made of it and ultimately, they left the Palace. However, upon learning that the space was being rented out by Thomas Percy, adding another level of suspicion, a second search was ordered by the King during which Sir Thomas Knyvett, who was heading the search, found barrels of gunpowder and fuses on Fawke’s person. Fawkes was subsequently arrested and a warrant was put out for the arrest of Percy.



After days of intense torture, Guy Fawkes succumbed to the questioning and confessed to the plot, giving details which, with the help of investigators and several information sources, saw the disclosure of the names of the other plotters, resulting in their subsequent arrest. Those plotters who had not already been killed during a final attempt at resistance, were found guilty and were subjected to a traitor’s death by order of hanging, drawing and quartering. The men were hanged, cut down the middle of their bodies, dismembered, castrated and beheaded for their involvement in the plot. Fawkes, on the other hand, was spared the suffering of this type of death and was hung, dying instantly.


Celebrations Today

guy fawkes effigy

Guy Fawkes Effigy

Traditionally, children would make a ‘Guy’ out of household items as a type of effigy of Guy Fawkes. This would be paraded around town, with children asking passers-by for a ‘penny for the Guy’, which would invite people to give them money so that they could buy sparklers and sweets. These effigies would then be thrown on a communal bonfire during the celebrations on the night of the 5th November. Nowadays, celebrations on Bonfire Night (less commonly called Guy Fawkes’ Night) have been enormously tamed and no longer hold any real remanence of religion or religious imagery. Rather, the day has now become a time to get together to celebrate the beginning of the darker evenings and enjoy spectacular firework displays and illuminations.

About Christian Copeland

Graduate Degree in Modern Languages and Translation (French/Spanish) from Cardiff University, UK. Studied in UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland and Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Spain. English teacher, translator and proofreader in the French and Spanish to English combinations.

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