Bonfire Night 2015: Why do we celebrate with fireworks tonight? Who was Guy Fawkes?
November 5th marks the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, when Catholic explosive expert Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and Britons everywhere set fire to things
What is Bonfire Night?
Bonfire Night tonight 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 acceded to the throne, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution they had felt for over 45 years under Queen Elizabeth would finally end. When this didn't a group of 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).
The scheme 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 discoverd him 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 plus £200 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 punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt off the platform 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.
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.
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.
Bonfire Night events around the UK
Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in the United Kingdom, and in a number of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, with fireworks, bonfires and parades. Straw dummies representing Fawkes are tossed on the bonfire, as well as those of contemporary political figures.
Dummies have been burned on bonfires since as long ago as the 13th century, initially to drive away evil spirits. Following the gunpowder plot of 1605, the focus of the sacrifices switched to Guy Fawkes' treason.
Traditionally, these effigies called 'guys', are carried through the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day and children ask passers-by for “a penny for the guy.”
Today the word 'guy' is a synonym for 'a man' but originally it was a term for an "repulsive, ugly person" in reference to Fawkes.
You learn something every day if you pay attention. ~Ray LeBlond