Remember, remember the 5th of November…but why? Bonfire night is much more than an excuse to gather and watch fireworks. Most of us are somewhat familiar with the tale of Guy Fawkes and the sabotaged plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. But that also might be where our knowledge peters out and fond memories of evenings wrapped-up warm take over. Here we delve into the history of bonfire night and how it became the phenomenon it is today.
Over 400 years ago, in November 1605, the infamous Guy Fawkes and 12 others got terrifyingly close to blowing up Parliament. The roots of this plot lay in conflicting religious beliefs; Catholics had suffered much persecution at the hands of the Tudor State and were hopeful that James I, despite still being a Protestant king, would stand for a peaceful new era. It was not to be however; James I expelled all Catholic priests from England in 1604. This was the final straw for the conspirators, over the course of the year they planned to kill the king and all of his Parliamentary associates in the hope that Catholic rule could be restored. According to historians, Robert Catesby was the leader of the plot. He is thought to have been from a gentry family with a strong, charismatic personality—quite the eligible bachelor really, before the treason. He set about recruiting likeminded men to carry out his plan and they started acquiring gunpowder, storing it in a basement in the Palace of Westminster where it could do the most damage.
Little did the dissidents know however, that a nobleman, Lord Monteagle, had received a mysterious anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5th. Word of this spread to the king and resultantly, Parliament’s neighbouring buildings were thoroughly searched, where they found a suspicious amount of firewood in a storeroom, guarded by an equally suspicious looking man: Guy Fawkes.
Had the 2,500kg of gunpowder exploded, the city of London could look completely different today. Calculations suggest that the blast could have destroyed Westminster Abbey and reached as far as Whitehall. As it is though, the accomplices were swiftly tracked down, some killed in the process and others sentenced to execution. Guy Fawkes was also sentenced to hang in 1606, but on the day he jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck in the process. Although not the ringleader, Fawkes became the man associated with the plot and his tall bearded figure in a cloak, boots and wide-brimmed hat is still illustrated all over the world today.
For the king, the astounding discovery of the plot actually became a great propaganda tool. In the aftermath of the event London was lit up by bonfires topped with effigies of Guy Fawkes, to celebrate the failure of the conspirators. The word ‘bonfire’ is actually derived from ‘bone fire’ which describes the burning of witches and bones. In those days it was believed that throwing a dummy on a bonfire would ward away evil spirits, it’s only since the Gunpowder Plot that this association has become lost. These bonfires, in combination with the Thanksgiving Act in 1606, which required every parish church to deliver a sermon on the 5th November in remembrance, is what began to form the basis of bonfire night as we know it today.
Up until 1959 you were actually required by law to celebrate bonfire night. These days, the bonfires still burn bright across the nation, as do the spectacular fireworks to represent gunpowder, but the association with treason has become much less significant. In some regions it is still an event to be reckoned with, the Devon town of Ottery St Mary, for one. Each year, men carry flaming barrels of tar on their shoulders down the high street, taking it in turns until each barrel burns to ash—probably wise to just stick to your toffee apples unless you’re a local.
The Gunpowder Plot still continues to make its mark on Parliament as well. Each year the Yeoman of the Guard check every inch to make sure there’s no one plotting in the basement before the State Opening of Parliament in November.
The night sky will soon be lit up with fireworks, so why not think about brightening a dark room in your home too? One of OKA’s co-founders shares her top tips in this useful blog.