Guy Fawkes Night Bonfire: Origins & Traditions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Guy Fawkes is one of the most infamous figures of English history, so why have a night bearing his name? In this lesson, we'll explore the history and traditions of Guy Fawkes Night, and see how the English have commemorated it over time.

Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night

There's an old English nursery rhyme which chants:

Remember, remember the fifth of November.

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Despite the age of this rhyme, there really doesn't seem to be any chance of it being forgotten. Travelers passing through England of November fifth of each year are likely to note the bonfires and fireworks lighting up the night sky in an annual holiday known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. Apparently, letting people light things on fire one day every year is a pretty good way to help them remember it.

The Gunpowder Plot

To understand Guy Fawkes Night, we need to first understand Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was one of many Catholics in England who were tired of being persecuted by the strongly anti-Catholic Queen Elizabeth. In 1603, Elizabeth died and England's Catholics became hopeful that the next king, James I, would be much nicer to them. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. A small group of men decided that the best of course of action would be to kill King James, as well as the rest of the English government. Guy Fawkes was amongst their ranks.

Guy Fawkes

Their plan, known as the Gunpowder Plot, was to ignite kegs of gunpowder underneath Westminster Palace on November 5 of 1605, on the day that the king was supposed to open a new session of Parliament. With 36 barrels of gunpowder in place, Guy Fawkes was selected to be the one who would light the fuse. Unfortunately for him (but fortunately for James), one of the plotters had warned a pro-Catholic lord to stay away from Parliament that day. The cellars were stormed on the night of November 4, and Fawkes was arrested. It wasn't long before the rest of the plotters were captured, and publically executed.

The Bonfires

On the night of November 4 and into November 5, bonfires were lit across London to let people know that there had been a failed plot to assassinate the king, and that James was still alive and well. The next year, the people of London again lit bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot and to demonstrate their support of the king.

Guy Fawkes Night bonfires from 1776

The tradition of the bonfires was maintained year after year, becoming more and more of a spectacle. Eventually, people started bringing effigies, or dummies, of Guy Fawkes to burn on the bonfires. On occasion, effigies of the Pope were burned as well, maintaining the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time period. Over time, the tradition grew into an annual ritual were English children would create life-size, homemade effigies of Fawkes out of paper and straw, and display them in the streets to the cry of 'Penny for a Guy!', thus raising money to buy fireworks for the evening's festivities.

The celebration of Guy Fawkes Night spread from London and across all of Britain. It also spread beyond the island itself, and across the empire. New England celebrated Guy Fawkes Night until after the American Revolution. Canada, Australia, and South Africa would celebrate it well into the 20th century.

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