With Halloween now firmly behind us, the next tradition for us to celebrate is Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night as it is also referred to, which is held on the 5th November. A British tradition spanning over 400 years, Bonfire Night is still enjoyed all over Britain today. In celebration of our historic tradition, I thought I would compile a fact file of the infamous British traitor and the foiled Gunpowder Plot.
Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 in York. He attended St. Peter’s school in York, which is the fourth oldest school in the world and the only place in Britain which refuses to celebrate Bonfire Night, as a mark of respect for its former pupil.
An explosives expert, Guy Fawkes was in charge of the gunpowder that was in a room beneath the House of Lords, in the Houses of Parliament.
He and other conspirators were Roman Catholic activists and wanted to assassinate King James 1, who was attending the state opening of Parliament. The King was a Protestant and the activists wanted to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne, so better treatment would be given to Catholics and they would be free to practice their religion.
Fawkes was found and captured in the early hours on the 5th November 1605, after King James was shown an anonymous letter which stated information of the intended attack. Fawkes was then taken to the Tower of London and tortured until he confessed the names of the other perpetrators.
On the 5th November 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the failed assassination of King James, by lighting bonfires. This has remained the tradition in Britain for over 400 years.
The sentence given to Fawkes for plotting to kill the King, was a traditional traitors death and he was to be hung, drawn and quartered. However whilst standing on the gallows awaiting his punishment, Fawkes leapt to his death avoiding the agony of mutilation and broke his neck. Fawkes’ body was still quartered and sent to the four corners of Britain as a warning for other would-be traitors. He died on 31st January 1606, aged 35.
Although there were other conspirators, Fawkes became synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot and his effigy is traditionally burned on a bonfire.
The cellar where the gunpowder was held no longer exists. It was destroyed in a fire in 1834 with the medieval Houses of Parliament.
The term ‘Penny for the Guy’ was a tradition carried out by children, where they would make a life-size Guy Fawkes effigy and parade it around, usually in an old pram or go-cart. They would ask for a ‘Penny for the Guy’ which was money to spend on fireworks or sweets. The effigy would then be thrown onto the bonfire during the celebrations on Bonfire Night.
Fireworks are also traditionally used on Bonfire Night. These are reputedly known to represent the explosives which were never used by Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators.
Up until 1959, it was illegal not to celebrate Bonfire Night, this was due to an act of Parliament.
Still to this day, it is custom for the Yeomen of the Guard to search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster prior to the State Opening of Parliament. This is to make sure that there are no modern day Guy Fawkes’ lurking in the shadows, but this is more to do with tradition than anything else.
Traditional food eaten at Bonfire Night celebrations are: baked potatoes, parkin cake (a cake made from oatmeal, ginger, treacle and syrup), treacle toffee, toffee apples, black peas and hot soup or a hot drink.
So there you have it, some facts about an infamous villain and our traditional Bonfire Night celebrations. I’ll be celebrating Guy Fawkes Night with a cup of hot soup and some sparklers, let me know if you’ll be doing the same.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.