Gunpowder, treason and a 400-year-old ritual

Plotter: Fawkes died after jumping from a platform in order to avoid being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Is it time to move on? Since 1605, we have celebrated the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot with flames, fireworks and festivities. Some say this anti-Catholic tradition is outdated.

Each year, we wrap up for the cold autumn night and amass in parks, gardens and greens. Fireworks light up the sky, bonfires roar and the Guy is tossed into the flames.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November…

It is a story we all know. In 1605, Guy Fawkes, one of a gang of Catholic conspirators, was discovered holed up under the House of Lords with enough gunpowder to obliterate the protestant King James I, the Houses of Parliament and almost the entire English establishment.

It remains one of the most ambitious terrorist plots in British history.

That very night, fires roared all over London to celebrate the King being saved, although the people were not told just how close the plot had been to success. Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act weeks later, enshrining the annual occasion. Until 1959, it was illegal not to celebrate Bonfire Night.

The celebrations became more riotous with every passing year. By the 18th century, the fires and festivities were used as a cover for vigilante violence and wild revelry.

In the Victorian era, local authorities clamped down on the anarchy and held orderly fires on village greens. This coincided with a decline in anti-Catholic feeling. Until then, it was common to burn effigies of Catholic bishops with the Guy.

The holiday was revolutionised again in 1910. Fireworks manufacturers sought to boost business by rebranding November 5 as “Fireworks Night”. The name is now widespread and the UK spends around £350 million on Bonfire Night displays each year.

The biggest celebration is held in the town of Lewes in Sussex, where 80,000 people attend the festivities each year. Here, modern politics clash with deep-rooted tradition. Indeed, last year the townspeople torched effigies of President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

Fawkes himself continues to resonate. Since the 1980s, the Guy Fawkes mask has been adopted by numerous anti-establishment groups to symbolise their disdain for authority.

But is it time to move on?

Penny for the guy

Absolutely, say some. Britain should aim to be a modern, inclusive nation, and a celebration that glorifies the killing of Catholics is neither of those things. Besides, fireworks are dangerous, bad for the environment and frightening for animals — not to mention a huge waste of money when public services are under so much pressure.

Don’t be ridiculous, respond others. Bonfire Night is a rich tradition steeped in history that forms part of our national character. It is one of the few times when communities come together and create a celebration for themselves. Not to mention, in our troubling times it is more relevant than ever to celebrate victory over terror.

You Decide

  1. Is the origin of Bonfire Night relevant to us today?
  2. Are fireworks a waste of money?


  1. Make a timeline of the Gunpowder Plot starting from when James I become King, up to the execution of Guy Fawkes.
  2. Write a scripts for a scene about the plotters, in which ringleader Robert Catesby tries to convince a group of Catholics to work with him. Some are enthusiastic, but some are hesitant. Find out more about how Catholics were treated at the time to explain Catesby’s reasoning.

Some People Say...

“Threescore barrels, laid below, to prove old England’s overthrow.”

“The Fifth of November”, an English folk poem

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Today is November 5. On this day 413 years ago, at the state opening of Parliament, Guy Fawkes was caught under the House of Lord about to light barrels of gunpowder. The plot was foiled when one of the conspirators warned a Catholic lord, who was loyal to the king, not to attend the opening. On Bonfire Night, we throw an effigy representing Guy Fawkes into the flames of a bonfire.
What do we not know?
How England today would be different if the plot had succeeded. Modern historians estimate that the explosion would have destroyed the House of Lords, the House of Commons, Westminster Hall (the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster) and caused damage as far as Whitehall. King James I and his heir prince, Henry, would have been killed. The conspirators planned to launch a Catholic uprising as soon as the attack was carried out.

Word Watch

A figure — usually made out of wood, fabric or straw — that represents Guy Fawkes. It is traditionally thrown on a large fire at Bonfire Night celebrations.
At the state opening of Parliament, MPs, Lords and bishops would have been in attendance. This means that almost all of the English government would have been wiped out, leading to an unprecedented crisis of authority.
When a group of citizens carry out their own revenge and punishment without legal authority against individuals believed to have done wrong.
Noisy celebrations, especially involving alcohol.
Lawlessness. Disorder due to a lack of authority.
Since the mid-1500s Catholics were excluded from most positions of power in England and forced to renounce the authority of the Pope. The 1829 Catholic Relief Act removed many of these restrictions.
A white face with a black moustache and beard which was first used in the V for Vendetta comic book series. It is now used by protest groups such as Anonymous and the Occupy movement.

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