Today is the 5th of November and what in the UK is known as ‘Bonfire Night’. It’s a day that many people hold bonfires in their back gardens, or attend events where bonfires are the central feature, often with an effigy of Guy Fawkes (or someone else) on top of the fire (to be burned) and a lot of fireworks are released into the sky too with an overall atmosphere of fun and merrymaking. A lot of us in the UK will also have heard of the phrase “Remember, remember the fifth of November” but do you know how the rest of the rhyme goes? And do you know who Guy Fawkes is, or why we burn him on Bonfire Night?
Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Day began after the discovery of a plot to kill King james I in the year 1605. James I was a Protestant king but a group of Catholics wanted to kill him to overthrow the Protestant monarchy and government and install a Catholic one instead. To understand why they did this you have to first understand that there were a lot of problems in England before James the I came to the throne, every since Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic Church, in 1534, in order to be able to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn – his first wife couldn’t produce a male heir and he was desperate for one. For years afterwards, although the English monarchy became protestant (apart from when Mary I was in power, she was Catholic), people from both the protestant and catholic faiths continued to hate each other and and many were persecuted and killed for their beliefs.
In 1603 there were still a lot of problems, though protestantism was now firmly the religion of the country, and then James I became King of both England and Scotland. He was already king of Scotland (known as James VI) but when Elizabeth I died with no heir, he was next in line to the throne and inherited the title of King of England, as well as the one he already had in Scotland, uniting both under one monarchy forever more.
James the I hadn’t been on the throne that long when the Gunpower Plot was arranged. A group of catholics led by Robert Catesby decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the King’s visit. During a State Opening of Parliament (which still happens today) the monarch (the King or Queen), officially opens up the Houses of Parliament by visiting them, and in particular, the House of Lords. It was during this state opening in 1605 that this group of catholics led by Catesby planned to kill the king and everyone else inside parliament, by blowing up the building with lots of gunpowder.
Guy Fawkes didn’t mastermind the plot but he is the most well-known of the conspiritors. On the night before the official state opening, suspicions were raised by an anonymous letter which was sent to and warned one of the people who was going to be at the State Opening of Parliament. The letter warned the individual to stay away from parliament during the opening, but this seemed suspicous and obviously that letter and warning was passed on. The parliament building was searched that night and in the night of the 4th, or the early hours of the 5th November, a discovery was made in the cellar. Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar along with barrels and barrels of gunpowder. He was there to guard all the gunpowder Catesby’s group had planned to use to blow up parliament, and there was enough of it to blow up the whole building! Guy Fawkes was arrested and later tried and executed for treason (as were, eventually, his co-conspiritors).
If the plot had succeeded the houses of parliament, along with everyone inside (including King James I) would have been killed on 5th November 1605, but the plot was foiled and ever since then people have held bonfires and burned effigys of Guy Fawkes to celebrate the fact that the plot had failed, that the monarchy had survived. Guy Fawkes never planned the plot, he was just there to help the Catholic group and because almost a scapegoat as history remembers him more than the others, but it wasn’t his plot and so some people today think that Guy Fawkes has been unfairly remembered and treated in history. Although the whole Gunpowder Plot, could today be called an act of terrorism, the people had their reasons behind why they wanted to get rid of the king (even if their method/idea was bad) and some of these reasons, some argue, are worth considering (although there’s too much detail to go into it in this post). Interestingly, a traditional Guy Fawkes mask is now sometimes worn by certain anti-government protestors. Here is what it looks like:
Rhymes and displays
The most well known rhyme about Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night is this:
Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
The rhyme, being easy to remember, has been passed down through generations and to this day, people are able to recall it, even if they don’t quite know or remember the whole history surrounding the Gunpowder Plot. In the centuriess that followed, Bonfire Night became a bigger and bigger celebration with fireworks becoming a big part of the night and special big displays of them put on where many can watch and enjoy having fun and getting together.
Modern day celebrations
In Britain today, many people choose to celebrate Bonfire Night by lighting a fire in their back garden and setting off some fireworks, while others decide to visit special firework displays and more still decide to do nothing (or watch their neighbour’s displays from a bedroom window, as I did when I was young!). Modern day celebrations at home often do without the straw effigy of Guy Fawkes, although some families still choose to create an effigy of some sort.
Official displays with bonfires will sometimes burn more than one effigy or a larger one than you typically get at home, and these modern day effigies are often of particular well-known figures that cause a lot of anger or controversy. They include, and are often, effigies of politicians or other controversial well-known figures. Big firework displays are also arranged and these can draw in big crowds of people and are great for those who don’t want to or are unable to handle at-home-fireworks (which are still explosives) safely. Sparklers are often held by children and adults too as a safter way to have fun during Bonfire Night (although caution with these should be taken too).
Bonfire Night is a tradition in the UK and one which will probably always exist, but a lot of people forget the reasons behind the celebrations and forget that it is ultimatelly celebrating the discovery and failure of a plot by Catholics to overthrow the king. And in burning an effigy we are also in some way celebrating the arrest, death and execution of a Catholic…which when you think of it that way, makes it sound weird (especially if you are or know someone catholic!). For most people today, the night is simply a time to have some fun, get together with family and friends and enjoy the atmosphere of being around a fire, as the nights are getting darker and colder, and enjoying the beautiful and mesmerizing displays of fireworks.
Precautions before you celebrate…
If you are planning to have your own Bonfire Night in your back garden then please, please, please do take care and make sure you and others stay safe:
- Check your bonfire BEFORE lighting it – if you have errected a pile of logs and other things to burn earlier in the day, please go through it and check that no little creatures have decided to nest in there for the night. Hedgehogs and other creatures often find piles of wood an appealing place to rest and sleep, so check your bonfires BEFORE you light them.
- Be careful and safe when handing/using fireworks – Every firework you buy from shop is an explosive so keep them in a safe place and not just sitting on your kitchen counter or held in your hands. Read the instructions carefully and don’t mess around with them, or point fireworks at people, even for a joke, a small spark could leave you or another seriously injured. (I was once walking back from school when some teen boys let off a rocket, pointing it in my direction. I was only saved by the fact the firework arched upwards over my head just in time, but if it had gone in the direction they had chosen, I’d have been hit! 😮 )
- Keep children and others safe – It goes without saying but children should constantly be supervised if you plan to have a bonfire and fireworks and you should make sure everyone attending stays away from the fireworks and at a safe distance from the fire too. Only one person should handle the fireworks, one at a time, and the person handling them should NOT be drinking alcohol. Also make sure everyone wears gloves for handling sparklers, especially children.
- Be aware of neighbours, pets and others’ health issues – Make sure not to have your fireworks going on too late into the night, it will annoy the neighbours, and also be cautious around pets and make sure they stay indoors. If you have pets that are especially afraid of fireworks then why not try putting on some radio or tv to block out the sound of them, or even get a special vest that mimics a tight hug (or just hug them yourself) to keep them reassured. Some pets might also benefit from other things like certain pet aromatherapy or a nice secluded hidden spot to hide in for the night (if your pet feels safe in a particular spot and doesn’t want to come out why not let them have their dinner there for once or give them a treat or two to feel better). Also be aware of any health issues people might have. Some might have heart problems that loud firewokrs can make worse, while others, like me, react in an asthmatic way to bonfire smoke so please be wary.
Despite the safetely warnings I gave, I really hope all of you celebrating have a wonderful Bonfire Night! And to those of you who didn’t know the origin of this special celebration, I hope you enjoyed my little journey into history! 😀
Some information sourced from my own head (I know and remember a LOT of history!) the rest is from: https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/gunpowder-plot and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes_Night
Did you know the origin of Bonfire Night? Do you celebrate bonfire night or any other day with fireworks? Let me know what you think in the comments below 🙂