Thursday, 5 November 2009

Remember, Remember The Fifth Of November

Thanks to Google, here follows a potted version of a bit of English History to give you all another chance to add to your store of pretty useless facts, and to save me from writing a post myself! :-)

In 1605, thirteen young men planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Among them was Guy Fawkes, Britain's most notorious traitor.

After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact, decided that violent action was the answer.

A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics. Today these conspirators would be known as extremists, or terrorists.

To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder - and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords.

But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. Was the letter real?

The warning letter reached the King, and the King's forces made plans to stop the conspirators.

Guy Fawkes, who was in the cellar of the parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th, was caught, tortured and executed.

It's unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder, we'll never know for certain.

Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called "the State Opening of Parliament". Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition.

On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way, whether they are celebrating Fawkes' execution or honoring his attempt to do away with the government.

For 400 years, bonfires have burned on November 5th to mark the failed Gunpowder Plot.

The tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires actually began the very same year as the failed coup. The Plot was foiled in the night between the 4th and 5th of November 1605. Already on the 5th, agitated Londoners who knew little more than that their King had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving. As years progressed, however, the ritual became more elaborate.

Soon, people began placing effigies onto bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, and sometimes those of the Pope, graced the pyres. Still today, some communities throw dummies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope on the bonfire (and even those of a contemporary politician or two), although the gesture is seen by most as a quirky tradition, rather than an expression of hostility towards the Pope.

Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, which is called "the Guy". Some children even keep up an old tradition of walking in the streets, carrying "the Guy" they have just made, and beg passersby for "a penny for the Guy." The kids use the money to buy fireworks for the evening festivities.

On the night itself, Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight; and fireworks displays fill the sky.

The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its Bonfire Night festivities and consistently attracts thousands of people each year to participate.

Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain. The tradition crossed the oceans and established itself in the British colonies during the centuries. It was actively celebrated in New England as "Pope Day" as late as the 18th century. Today, November 5th bonfires still light up in far out places like New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada.


  1. Nice post Jinksy.

    I listened to 'The Penny Dreadfuls Present: Guy Fawkes' on Radio Four today. Plenty of humour and well worth a listen. If you didn't catch it, you can still hear it on the iPlayer.

  2. A bit of history I didn't know. There have always been extremists. Too bad that humans feel that violent acts are justified.

  3. I'm glad you cleared that up, for I once saw a program with dummies called Guys. I didn't know they were Guys -- thought they were guys. I was confused.

  4. Thanks for such an interesting account of why the Brits celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. I'd heard of it, but not the whole story. Now I know.

  5. haha jinksy, you know you are the only one to catch the 'swine dive' i quite literally imagined that last poem, because i have the swine flu (goes to really do never know what is going on in someones head when doing something) :) On that note, your post is slightly too long for my fevered head to focus and concentrate back when the heads not spinning! :)

  6. Hi jinksy, until tonight I didn't know the history behind Guy Fawkes, reading one other post as well as this one has brought me up to date and I so enjoyed reading about this day in history....thank you jinksy.....:-) Hugs

  7. Never knew of this! Very interesting read.

  8. Fascinating reading, thanks! My knowledge of English history is so poor I didn't realise the Catholic connection.

  9. Hello Jinksy,

    As I mentioned in my comment to your Halloween post, I've certainly begged "a penny for the guy"! I even lit a sparkler myself last night. The innocent joy of youth!

  10. My boys lived in England with us during their formative years...they still have their bonfire on November 5th!
    Happy Guy Fawkes to all!

  11. two of your holidays when i lived in bromigin was boxing day and guy fawkes day....i couldn'st stop partying on those two days , all the time parties...what fun loving people over here i can't figure out waht to do with our 4th and 24th of julys...i hate fireworks, so what do you do for utah's statehood and the nations birthday???

  12. Hello Jinksy,

    Thanks for a very interesting post. The tradition seems to be dying out, it is ages since we have seen anyone collecting a penny for the guy. Last night we did not hear a single firework.

  13. I find the whole thing a bit macabre, Jinksy. The idea of burning an effigy all seems a bit pagan to me - and I hate loud fireworks too.

  14. Every year, when I talk to my American friends about Bonfire night and the fireworks involved (usually with reference to my dogs), I have to explain again what it's all about and why we're letting fireworks off in November.

    Thanks for posting this - maybe some of my friends will see it and actually remember for next year? They don't seem to believe me! LOL!

  15. "Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way, whether they are celebrating Fawkes' execution or honoring his attempt to do away with the government."--I love this!!! Hilarious!!! Terrific post, Jinksy!! As always, entertaining and enlightening! You always write such great posts...even when you "pirate" them from Google. ;-) Wonderful! Love to you, my dear friend! Janine XO

  16. Oh yes we still light up here in New Zealand in celebration of Mr Guy Fawkes' crimes.

    And we too light bonfires, let off fireworks and generally enjoy the occasion. Being the beginning of summer we often also have the first barbeque of the season with friends and neighbours.

  17. Thanks for the fascinating history lesson. I

    When you said in an earlier post that you had imported Hallowe'en from the U.S., my thought was "Wait a minute. You started it, not us."

  18. I love bits of history from which customs, rituals, celebrations, and holidays arise. This is a most interesting fact I did not know.

  19. Great and informitive post Jinsky and thank you for signing up to my blog.
    It is always interested to read up on something like this to refresh one's memory.
    I expect people have been tempted to blow up Gordon Brown and his cronies recently LOL
    I was going to invite you to appear in the Sunday Roast but I see David has already beaten me to it.

  20. I learned something I didn't know. It was well written too.

  21. I suppose the history is macabre. But as a tradition - lots of folks enjoy being round a fire in the dark. Maybe it's the comfort of warmth, light and being with folks that makes it so popular?

  22. I hung on every word you wrote, jinksy.
    I had never heard this...didn't know anything about the 5th of November 'celebration.' I had read on other blogs about the bonfires and fireworks...but didn't know what they were about. This is fascinating! Thank you so much. (An old teacher...that would be me....learns something new every day.)
    Smiles from Jackie


Curiosity Cats can leave a whisker here...but not before noting, please, that I choose to have an award free, tag free, meme free blog. But by all means, talk to me by email - I love to 'chat'...