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Festivities in Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby, c. 1776
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Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night, is an annual commemoration observed on 5 November primarily in Great Britain, involving bonfires and firework displays. Its history begins with the events of 5 November 1605, when Guy FawkesMember of the group of English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605., a member of the Gunpowder PlotAttempt in 1605 to assassinate King James I and re-establish a Catholic monarchy by blowing up the House of Lords. , was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. The Catholic plotters had intended to assassinate the Protestant King James I and his parliament. Celebrating that the King had survived, people lit bonfires around London; months later, the Observance of 5th November Act mandated an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure.

Within a few decades Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was known, became the predominant English state commemoration. As it carried strong Protestant religious overtones it also became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. Puritans delivered sermons regarding the perceived dangers of popery, while during increasingly raucous celebrations common folk burnt effigies of popular hate-figures, such as the Pope. Towards the end of the 18th century reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes and 5 November gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day. Towns such as Lewes and Guildford were in the 19th century scenes of increasingly violent class-based confrontations, fostering traditions those towns celebrate still, albeit peaceably. In the 1850s changing attitudes resulted in the toning down of much of the day’s anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed in 1859. Eventually the violence was dealt with, and by the 20th century Guy Fawkes Day had become an enjoyable social commemoration, although lacking much of its original focus. The present-day Bonfire Night is often celebrated at large organised events.

Origins and history

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An effigy of Guy Fawkes, burned on 5 November 2010 at Billericay
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Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and VI of Scotland and replace him with a Catholic head of state. In the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Guy Fawkes on 5 November 1605, caught guarding a cache of explosives placed beneath the House of Lords, James’s Council allowed the public to celebrate the King’s survival with bonfires, so long as they were “without any danger or disorder”.[1]

The following January, days before the surviving conspirators were executed, Parliament, at the initiation of James I,[2] passed the Observance of 5th November Act, commonly known as the Thanksgiving Act. It was proposed by a Puritan Member of Parliament, Edward Montagu, who suggested that the King’s apparent deliverance by divine intervention deserved some measure of official recognition, and kept 5 November free as a day of thanksgiving while in theory making attendance at Church mandatory.[3] Little is known about the earliest celebrations. In settlements such as Carlisle, Norwich, and Nottingham, corporations (town governments) provided music and artillery salutes. Canterbury celebrated 5 November 1607 with 106 pounds (48 kg) of gunpowder and 14 pounds (6.4 kg) of match, and three years later food and drink was provided for local dignitaries, as well as music, explosions, and a parade by the local militia. Even less is known of how the occasion was first commemorated by the general public, although records indicate that in the Protestant stronghold of Dorchester a sermon was read, the church bells rung, and bonfires and fireworks lit.[4]

Early significance

According to the historian and author Antonia Fraser, a study of the earliest sermons preached demonstrates an anti-Catholic concentration “mystical in its fervour”.[5] Delivering one of five 5 November sermons printed in A Mappe of Rome in 1612, Thomas Taylor spoke of the “generality of his [a papist’s] cruelty”, which had been “almost without bounds”.[6] Such messages were also spread in printed works such as Francis Herring’s Pietas Pontifica (republished in 1610 as Popish Piety), and John Rhode’s A Brief Summe of the Treason intended against the King & State, which in 1606 sought to educate “the simple and ignorant … that they be not seduced any longer by papists”.[7] By the 1620s the 5th was honoured in market towns and villages across the country, although it was some years before it was commemorated throughout England. Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was then known, became the predominant English state commemoration. Some parishes made the day a festive occasion, with public drinking and solemn processions. But concerned about James’s pro-Spanish foreign policy, the decline of international Protestantism, and Catholicism in general, Protestant clergymen who recognised the day’s significance called for more dignified and profound thanksgivings each 5 November.[8][9]

What unity English Protestants had shared in the plot’s immediate aftermath began to fade when in 1625 James’s son, the future Charles I, married the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France. Puritans reacted to the marriage by issuing a new prayer to warn against rebellion and Catholicism, and on 5 November that year effigies of the pope and the Devil were burned, the earliest such report of this practice and the beginning of centuries of tradition.[10][a]Nationally, effigies of Fawkes were subsequently joined by those of contemporary hate figures such as the pope, the sultan of Turkey, the tsar of Russia and the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1899 an effigy of the South African Republic leader Paul Kruger was burnt at Ticehurst, and during the 20th century effigies of militant suffragists, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and John Major were similarly burned.[11][12] In 2014, following Russian aggression against Ukraine, effigies of Vladimir Putin were burned.[13] During Charles’s reign Gunpowder Treason Day became increasingly partisan. Between 1629 and 1640 he ruled without Parliament, and seemed to support Arminianism, regarded by Puritans such as Henry Burton as a step toward Catholicism. By 1636, under the leadership of the Arminian Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, the English Church was trying to use 5 November to denounce all seditious practices, not only popery.[14] Puritans went on the defensive, some pressing for further reformation of the Church.[8]

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Revellers in Lewes in East Sussex, 5 November 2010
Wikimedia Commons

Bonfire Night, as it was occasionally known,[15] assumed a new fervour during the events leading up to the English Interregnum. Although Royalists disputed their interpretations, Parliamentarians began to uncover or fear new Catholic plots. Preaching before the House of Commons on 5 November 1644, Charles Herle claimed that Papists were tunnelling “from Oxford, Rome, Hell, to Westminster, and there to blow up, if possible, the better foundations of your houses, their liberties and privileges”.[16] A display in 1647 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields commemorated “God’s great mercy in delivering this kingdom from the hellish plots of papists”, and included fireballs burning in the water – symbolising a Catholic association with “infernal spirits” – and fireboxes, their many rockets suggestive of “popish spirits coming from below” to enact plots against the king. Effigies of Fawkes and the pope were present, the latter represented by Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld.[17]

Following Charles I’s execution in 1649, the country’s new republican regime remained undecided on how to treat 5 November. Unlike the old system of religious feasts and state anniversaries, it survived, but as a celebration of parliamentary government and Protestantism, not of monarchy.[15] Commonly the day was still marked by bonfires and miniature explosives, but formal celebrations resumed only with the Restoration, when Charles II became king. Courtiers, High Anglicans and Tories followed the official line, that the event marked God’s preservation of the English throne, but generally the celebrations became more diverse. By 1670 London apprentices had turned 5 November into a fire festival, attacking not only popery but also “sobriety and good order”,[18] demanding money from coach occupants for alcohol and bonfires. The burning of effigies, largely unknown to the Jacobeans,[19] continued in 1673 when Charles’s brother, the Duke of York, converted to Catholicism. In response, accompanied by a procession of about a thousand people, the apprentices fired an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, bedecked with a range of papal symbols.[20][21] Similar scenes occurred over the following few years. On 17 November 1677, anti-Catholic fervour saw the Accession Day marked by the burning of a large effigy of the pope – his belly filled with live cats “who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire” – and two effigies of devils “whispering in his ear”. Two years later, as the exclusion crisis reached its zenith, an observer noted that “the 5th at night, being gunpowder treason, there were many bonfires and burning of popes as has ever been seen”. Violent scenes in 1682 forced London’s militia into action, and to prevent any repetition the following year a proclamation was issued, banning bonfires and fireworks.[22]

Fireworks were also banned under James II (previously the Duke of York), who became king in 1685. But attempts by the government to tone down Gunpowder Treason Day celebrations were largely unsuccessful, and some reacted to a ban on bonfires in London by placing candles in their windows, “as a witness against Catholicism”.[23] When James was deposed in 1688 by William of Orange – who landed in England on 5 November – the day’s events turned also to the celebration of freedom and religion, with elements of anti-Jacobitism. Although the earlier ban on bonfires was politically motivated, a ban on fireworks was maintained for safety reasons, “much mischief having been done by squibs”.[15]

Fireworks and bonfires were also been banned during periods of war, such as by the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act, preventing them from being used to send signals to the enemy.[24]


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Spectators gathered around a bonfire at Himley Hall near Dudley, on 6 November 2010
Wikimedia Commons

The Observance of 5th November Act was repealed in March 1859, replaced by the Anniversary Days Observance Act, and the thanksgiving prayer of 5 November which had been added to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was removed.[25][26]

Several times during the 19th century The Times reported that the tradition of Guy Fawkes Day was in decline, being “of late years almost forgotten”, but in the opinion of historian David Cressy, such reports reflected “other Victorian trends”, including a lessening of Protestant religious zeal – not general observance of the Fifth.[27] Civil unrest brought about by the union of the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 resulted in Parliament passing the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which afforded Catholics greater civil rights, continuing the process of Catholic Emancipation in the two kingdoms.[28] The traditional denunciations of Catholicism had been in decline since the early 18th century,[29] and were thought by many, including Queen Victoria, to be outdated.[30]

One notable aspect of the commemoration of Guy Fawkes Day during the Victorian era was its shift from the centres of communities to their margins. Gathering wood for the bonfire increasingly became the province of working-class children, who solicited combustible materials, money, food and drink from their wealthier neighbours, often with the aid of songs. Most opened with the familiar “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot”.[31]

Organised entertainments became popular in the late 19th century, and 20th-century pyrotechnic manufacturers renamed Guy Fawkes Day as Fireworks Night. For many families, Fireworks Night became a domestic celebration, and children often congregated on street corners, accompanied by their effigies of Guy Fawkes.[32] They was sometimes ornately dressed, and sometimes a barely recognisable bundle of rags stuffed with whatever filling was available. A 1981 survey found that about 23 per cent of Sheffield schoolchildren made Guys, sometimes weeks before the event. Collecting money was a popular reason for their creation, the children taking their effigy from door to door, or displaying it on street corners. But mainly, they were built to go on the bonfire, itself sometimes comprising wood stolen from other pyres – “an acceptable convention” that helped bolster another November tradition, Mischief Night.[33] Rival gangs competed to see who could build the largest, sometimes even burning the wood collected by their opponents; in 1954 the Yorkshire Post reported on fires late in September, a situation that forced the authorities to remove collected piles of wood for safety reasons.[34]

The custom of begging for a “penny for the Guy” has almost completely disappeared,[32] but some older customs survive. In Ottery St Mary residents run through the streets carrying flaming tar barrels,[35] and since 1679 Lewes has been the setting of some of England’s most extravagant 5 November celebrations, the Lewes Bonfire.[36]


a Nationally, effigies of Fawkes were subsequently joined by those of contemporary hate figures such as the pope, the sultan of Turkey, the tsar of Russia and the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1899 an effigy of the South African Republic leader Paul Kruger was burnt at Ticehurst, and during the 20th century effigies of militant suffragists, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher and John Major were similarly burned.[11][12] In 2014, following Russian aggression against Ukraine, effigies of Vladimir Putin were burned.[13]