I was born and came of age in London. So I have vivid, if somewhat mixed, memories of the 5th of November. We kids variously called it Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night. We’d spend our pocket money (allowance) that week on fireworks rather than sweets (candy). We’d set off our fireworks and huddle around bonfires on the evening of the 5th. Naughtier kids would post (mail) fireworks in their neighbors’ letterboxes (mail boxes) and empty milk bottles.
Now that I live in the US I still have difficulty in explaining this strange and uniquely British celebration to Americans. So, here’s another attempt. Though I’ve since given up trying to explain the once common refrain — “Penny for the Guy!”– heard from children on street corners during the week leading up to the 5th of November [you will need to figure this out for yourself].
We celebrate it because Guy Fawkes once tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Oops, wrong! We celebrate it because on this day in 1605 the Gunpowder Plot planned by Mr.Fawkes and his Roman Catholic co-conspirators was successfully foiled. Correct!
From the Telegraph:
What is Bonfire Night?
Bonfire Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605 by a gang of Roman Catholic activists led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby.
When Protestant King James I began his reign, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution felt for over 45 years under his predecessor Queen Elizabeth would finally end, but this didn’t transpire so the Gunpowder Plot conspirators resolved to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.
Guy (Guido) Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, having rented out a house closed to the Houses of Parliament, managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords – enough to completely destroy the building. (Physicists from the Institute of Physics later calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder beneath Parliament would have obliterated an area 500 metres from the centre of the explosion).
The plot began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to the William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him not to avoid the House of Lords.
The letter (which could well have been sent by Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law Francis Tresham), was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5.
Explosive expert Fawkes, who had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse, was subsequently caught when a group of guards checked the cellars at the last moment.
Fawkes was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow plotters and Lord Monteagle was rewarded with 500 pounds and 200 pounds worth of lands, for his service in protecting the crown.
Read the entire article here.
Image: A contemporary engraving of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Fawkes is third from the right. Public Domain.