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Why the British Have Celebrated Bonfire Night for Over 400 Years


Glenis lives in England and has a passionate interest in the country's history and ancient traditions.

Religious Differences Led to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605

In 1605, England was ruled by King James I, and Protestantism was the established faith in the United Kingdom. Henry VIII had put paid to the power of the Church of Rome after he was excommunicated by the Pope as punishment for declaring that his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was not valid. Henry established the Church of England and declared himself Defender of the Faith. In the years that followed, Henry's decree of the official religion wavered between Protestantism and Catholicism, according to the beliefs of the ruling monarch.

By the early seventeenth century, Anti-Catholic feelings ran high. Catholicism was seen as authoritarian, persecuting and antagonistic to England, beliefs reinforced by the attempted attack on England in 1588 by the Armada of Catholic Spain (Wolffe, p.82). Those who held to the Old Faith were rooted out and forced to recant under threat of dire consequences should they refuse.

Remember, remember the 5th of November,

The Gunpowder Treason and plot;

I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

— Traditional rhyme

The Plot to Blow up King James I and His Parliament Is Discovered

The Catholic conspirators had hoped to restore the Old Faith by killing the Protestant king and his parliamentarians, but on the 5th November in 1605 they were discovered guarding barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the House of Lords. Their treasonous actions had shattered all hope of a return to older days ((Wood, p. 285). Amongst the men who were arrested and sent to the Tower of London for interrogation under torture was Guido Fawkes. The masterminds behind the plot were hunted down. Some died fighting; those who survived were put on trial along with Guido Fawkes, on the charge of treason, in January and March of the following year.

An engraving of the gunpowder plot conspirators in the National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons Licence

An engraving of the gunpowder plot conspirators in the National Portrait Gallery, London Creative Commons Licence

The Punishment of the Catholic Conspirators of 5th November 1605

The surviving participants of the plot were publicly hung, drawn and quartered on 1 February 1606. But Guy Fawkes had avoided the grisly fate by breaking his own neck by throwing himself from the flight of steps as he mounted to the scaffold.

The rack (or stretcher)  torture device in the Tower of London

The rack (or stretcher) torture device in the Tower of London

The Anti-Catholic Propaganda That Followed the Failed Gunpowder Plot

On 9 November King James addressed Parliament, presenting his theological argument for the failure of the attempt on his life. His speech was followed the next day by a sermon at St. Paul's. The official line was that the plot was the work of the devil and that God had saved the King.

The trials in 1606 expounded the official version of events:the assassination plot had been the work of fanatics who had been encouraged by Jesuits. A liturgical celebration, Powder Day, was established to commemorate the thwarting of the plot and the preservation of the King's life through God's intervention. Powder Day (and the lighting of fires on Bonfire Night) 'would imprint itself on the national psyche' (ibid, p.285).

How Is November 5th Celebrated in the UK?

Nowadays, Bonfire Night is just for fun. So, what happens?

This being England, it often rains on the actual date of the commemoration. It’s hard to keep a bonfire alight during heavy rain and, what’s more, people dislike getting unnecessarily wet, and so the celebrations might be delayed until the weather becomes more clement.

The centrepiece of the event is the bonfire. Some are constructed for community events and are enormous. Others, more modest, are built in the gardens of domestic premises and are a convenient way, though not particularly environmentally friendly, of disposing of garden refuse and other unwanted household items

The second essential piece of paraphernalia on Guy Fawkes Night is an effigy of the man himself. This is placed at the top of the bonfire to be burnt. Grisly, I think you will agree. In living memory, children often constructed an effigy of Guy and begged ‘A penny for the Guy’ on street corners. Making Guys is still a fun pastime but the begging aspect of the activity has largely disappeared.

The third element of Guy Fawkes Night is the fireworks, symbolism for the explosion that would have been caused in Parliament if the plot had been successfully carried out. Some people buy fireworks to ignite in the gardens of their homes and each year nasty accidents that have incurred severe burns are reported in the media. A safer option is to attend one of the large-scale community displays that are held in almost every town or village.

The biggest celebrations on 5 November take place in Lewes, Sussex, where seven different Guy Fawkes Night societies mount fancy dress parades through the town. Intense heat is generated by firebrands that are carried by the numerous participants, who parade close to crowds of spectators. The event has become so popular that on 5 November the Police restrict access to the town centre and the Council discourages non-residents from visiting the town on the day of the parades.

1960 in Wales. Children with an effigy of Guy Fawkes.

1960 in Wales. Children with an effigy of Guy Fawkes.

Edible Treats on Bonfire Night

As in all celebrations, food is frequently involved during Bonfire Night activities. Traditional treats are sticky Bonfire Toffee and toffee apples. Warming drinks or soup are sometimes served to fight the effects of standing around out of doors on a chilly autumn evening.


Further Information About Bonfire Night


Wolffe, J.(2008) Tradition and Dissent in English Christianity, Milton Keynes,The Open University

Wood, M.(2003) In Search of Shakespeare, London, BBC Worldwide Ltd

© 2018 Glen Rix


Arthur Russ from England on February 22, 2019:

When our son was young we did take him to one of the large community displays in Bristol, and had a wonderful evening. The temperature was below freezing point that evening, so we were well wrapped up; albeit the bonfire itself (fenced off) was massive, and gave off a lot of heat, so there were no problems in keeping warm.

Other years, after that, we would take it in turns with our friends to host the bonfire in our back gardens; and the families would club together to buy the fireworks. When we hosted the bonfire in our back garden, along with a BBQ and buffet, I always made sure everything was done safely; and everything always went off without a hitch, and everyone enjoyed themselves.

Although the last couple we attended in our friends gardens wasn’t done safely (too much beer in the evening before letting off the fireworks ergo, irresponsible fathers) e.g. one rocket was set off accidently and embedded in the back of a chair someone was sitting in, and the following year the rocket fell over (because it wasn’t properly secured in the ground) and pointed itself towards us just as it ignited; but fortunately everyone scattered, and no one was hurt.

So as you said, the large-scale community displays are much safer; albeit, provided the parents (fathers) are responsible, and follow all the safety guide lines, then holding bonfire night in your back garden can be quite safe. But if the fathers drink too much, it can be a more adventurous evening, followed by a few choice words from their somewhat concerned wives!!!!

Liz Westwood from UK on October 01, 2018:

I laughed when you mentioned the rain. So very true. It's miserable being out in the rain and cold on a November evening. This is an impressive and informative article. You give an excellent explanation of how we mark November 5th in the UK. I do wonder if the firework displays in November have been overshadowed a little by the ones at New Year.

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on September 28, 2018:

Wow! That's so cool! I've heard of this holiday but never knew the reason. Thanks for sharing.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 28, 2018:

The bonfire night sounds like so much fun in Sussex. I enjoyed reading a bit of English hisotry that was new to me, and I think the toffee is a good idea also! Thanks for writing an interesting article.