Every 5th of November, many people go to see spectacular firework displays, which light up the night with sparkling, whooshing, banging displays of colour. But why do we remember this night each year?
On this page, we’ll explore the true story behind Bonfire Night; discover who Guy Fawkes was; and find out why fireworks are such an important part of the celebrations.
ONE FATEFUL NIGHT
Over 400 years ago, on the night of the 5th of November 1605, 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden behind a pile of firewood in a storeroom beneath the Palace of Westminster in London. Guards also found a man who called himself John Johnson, who had fuses for lighting the gunpowder in his pockets. He was arrested straight away.
Once he was imprisoned, the man was questioned and even tortured to try to make him tell the guards everything about the plan. Eventually, he gave in.
The man’s real name was Guy Fawkes. Along with a small group of plotters, he had planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing everyone inside, including King James I, and many important nobles. He had hoped that this would spark a Catholic rising in England.
Before the 16th century, England was a Roman Catholic country. However, Henry VIII set up a new Protestant Church of England after the Pope said he could not divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon. His son, Edward VI continued this new religion during his short reign, but after he died, Mary I became queen and changed England’s official religion back to Catholicism. During her reign, many people were executed for refusing to change their religion to match the queen’s.
After Mary I died, her sister Elizabeth I became queen. She changed the religion again, back to the Church of England. Elizabeth I died in 1603 and in 1605, her cousin James I was on the throne and the Church of England was still the official religion.
All these changes had taken place in a short amount of time and were very stressful for people, who could be executed for following the wrong religion. People had to go to a Protestant church or risk paying large fines, so many Catholics worshipped in secret, in their own homes. Most of them felt their belief was private, and they remained loyal to the Crown. But not all of them…
On Sunday 20th May 1604, a group of Catholics met at a pub called the Dog and Duck in London. These men were Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes. They were mostly wealthy men, and all of them were devout Catholics.
It was Robert Catesby who thought of the plot. He told the men that he had a plan to blow up the king and his Parliament and persuaded the others to swear an oath that they would help him. But if it was Catesby who came up with the plan, why is Guy Fawkes the name we all remember?
Guy Fawkes was a well-liked and highly skilled soldier. He spent time fighting in Europe, and probably learnt about gunpowder and explosives while he was there. As a result, he was the one chosen to light the gunpowder under the Palace of Westminster, but that put him at risk of being caught – and he was.
The plan was a simple one: to blow up the Palace of Westminster during the opening of Parliament, killing everyone inside – including King James I and his heir Prince Henry. What the plotters were going to do afterwards is not very clear, but it seems that they planned to lead a Catholic uprising. They would also capture King James’s young daughter Elizabeth and make her queen, with a Catholic nobleman ruling for her. And so, they hoped, England would be a Catholic country once more.
It was easy to get the gunpowder. A war with Spain had just finished, and there was lots available on the black market. The big problem was to get it to the Palace of Westminster without anybody noticing.
One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, rented a storeroom underneath the House of Lords, and Guy Fawkes pretended to be Percy’s servant, called John Johnson. There wasn’t much security, and they were easily able to hide 36 barrels of gunpowder in a dark room. Now the plotters just had to wait for their chance – the opening of Parliament on 5th November.
By the 30th of October, the plot was beginning to unravel. A few days earlier, Lord Monteagle had received an anonymous letter telling him not to go into Parliament on the 5th of November. The mysterious author asked Monteagle to burn the letter after he had read it but instead, he took it straight to the Earl of Salisbury, who worked for the king. A servant told Robert Catesby that his plot had been shared with the king, but he decided to continue anyway, and persuaded the other plotters to do the same.
On the night of the 4th of November, the king ordered the Palace of Westminster to be searched. They found Guy Fawkes in the storeroom with a lot of firewood. Then they discovered that the space was being rented by Thomas Percy, and this made them more suspicious. King James ordered a second search.
Sometime around midnight on the 5th of November, they went back into the storeroom and found the gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was there too and had fuses with him to light the powder. He was arrested immediately, and a warrant was issued for Thomas Percy’s arrest too.
A TRAITOR’S DEATH
To make him share the names of the other plotters, Guy Fawkes was not only questioned but also tortured. It was hoped that the pain would make him talk, and after two days, he gave in. Using the information from Guy Fawkes’ confessions and information from spies, investigators uncovered the names of the other plotters and quickly went to arrest them.
On the 8th of November, eight plotters tried to make a last stand against 200 men in Staffordshire. Most of them were either killed or wounded, including Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy, who died from their injuries. The survivors were arrested and put on trial. All the plotters were found guilty and sentenced to a traitor’s death, by being hung, drawn and quartered, for their crimes.
A FIERY LEGACY
The plot became part of England’s story almost immediately. People thought that the discovery of this plot and the defeat of the Spanish Armada during Elizabeth I’s reign were signs that the English were favoured by God.
In January 1606, Parliament passed an Act that meant that every church in England had to hold a special service on the 5th of November each year, and these were often anti-Catholic. In the decades after the plot, other celebrations started to appear as well as the church services. There isn’t a lot of evidence, but it seems that they were widespread, and included bonfires, bell ringing and sometimes official artillery gun salutes and fireworks.
From 1673 up to the 19th century, some crowds paraded a model of the Pope through the streets, and put it on a bonfire, symbolising that people still believed bad things about Catholics. However, during the French Revolution, Britain was on the same side as the Pope, and English and Irish Catholics fought for Britain. After this, Guy Fawkes became the villain of Bonfire Night rather than the Pope.