Why Do We Celebrate Bonfire Night?
08 November 2021
Last week, the London sky was lit up with dazzling lights. And the sounds of fireworks could be heard all over the city. A national holiday, celebrated for over 4 centuries, Bonfire Night falls on November 5th of every year. However, if you’ve relocated to the UK, how in depth is your historical knowledge surrounding this event? This week’s blog offers a comprehensive history of the UK holiday: Bonfire Night.
The Gunpowder Plot
The origin of this holiday dates back to November 5th 1605. Protestant King James I was in power, much to the dismay of a group of provincial Catholics. Thus, a plan was conducted to assassinate the King and his government by blowing up the Parliament House with gunpowder. Aiming to replace him with a Catholic head of State, King James’ daughter Queen Elizabeth, who was third in the line of succession, was chosen. The plan was to kidnap the then 9-year-old Elizabeth, bring her up as Catholic, and have her marry a Catholic bridegroom. Finally, they would place her on the throne as a ‘puppet monarch’. Now the plan was set, it was time to move things into motion.
Back in June of 1604, operations began. Group member Thomas Percy was appointed as Gentle Pensioner (bodyguard). Thus, gaining access to the house of John Whynniard, Keeper of the King’s Wardrobe. Fawkes also gained entry as a caretaker named John Johnson. Folk lore surrounding the story suggests the plotters aimed to dig a tunnel from Whynniard’s house to Parliament. But a more historically accurate version suggests that a room also belonging to Whynniard, leased by the schemers, was to be the hiding place for the gunpowder. Afterwards, the conspirators allegedly hid over 30 barrels of gunpowder here. Although Guy Fawkes is undeniably the most well-known of the lot, the group was actually led by a man named Robert Catesby. So why do we only remember Guy Fawkes?
The Night of November 5th
As mentioned, most of the gunpowder having been hidden back in July 1604. However, various events such as the threat of the plague delayed the plot. When Parliament reopened, some conspirators were concerned that fellow Catholics would be present if they were to light the gunpowder then. This included member of Parliament Lord Monteagle, who allied with many Roman Catholic families. In the evening of 26th October 1605, Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him to stay away. The author’s identity still remains unsolved. Monteagle informed King James of this letter. The King then ordered Sir Thomas Knyvet to conduct a search of the cellars underneath the building. Which he did in the early hours of November 5th. With Fawkes on guard watch that fateful night. Armed with a slow match, he was caught leaving the cellar and arrested. The barrels of gunpowder were found quickly after.
Remember remember the 5th of November
Shortly after Fawkes’ capture, through methods such as torture, the rest of the group’s identities were discovered. The convicted 8 members stood trial in January of 1606. All 8 were found guilty of high treason. On the 31st January, Fawkes and 3 others were dragged opposite the building they had tried to explode. All the plotters were then hanged and quartered. Fawkes was actually the last of the 8 to be hanged and asked for forgiveness from the King and State. After being hanged, his body was then quartered and distributed to ‘the 4 quarters of the kingdom’. This was done in order to display a warning to any other potential traitors to the State. A few decades after the attempted plot, Gunpowder Treason Day became a predominant English state commemoration. Effigies of Fawkes were burnt in bonfires and the 5th of November transformed into Guy Fawkes Day.
We now associate the celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day as a social occasion. With bonfire events held across the UK and fireworks mimicking the explosives found that night in 1605. Quite funny when you think about the sordid history behind this holiday. If you are someone who is not from the UK, does your country have any similar holidays with dark backgrounds? And as always, Myrooms hopes you had a fun and safe Bonfire Night.