Most days named after a person are meant to bring celebration and honor to them – but this particular event is quite the opposite! This evening, one that is observed mostly in the UK, is a time that is set aside not to celebrate someone at all. It’s an event that is named after a person who is generally loathed by the British population.
So now it’s time to learn more about and observe Guy Fawkes Night!
History of Guy Fawkes Night
Sometimes also called Guy Fawkes Day, this event has been around since just a few months after the Gunpowder Plot took place, on November 5, 1605. Also known as Guido Fawkes because of his history fighting for the Spanish, Guy Fawkes was involved with a large conspiracy to kill King James I of England only two years after he took the throne, as the plotters were angry because of the king’s lack of acceptance of the Roman Catholic faith.
The hope of the conspirators is that this violent activity would spawn a revolt and uprising that would allow Catholics to practice their faith in their home in England. With the imagination that the Catholics would be able to take over the country if the king was murdered, this group of conspirators set out to do just that. For more than two years, the plot was underway to blow up Parliament (with around 1.5 tons of gunpowder!) and then kidnap the king’s children, Elizabeth and Charles.
Unfortunately for the plotters, someone within the conspiracy tipped off one of the Lords of Parliament in a letter informing him about the coming events. Due to the letter of warning, the place was searched, the conspirators were stopped and the king’s life was saved!
When the news of the foiled plot to kill the king spread throughout England, the townspeople built bonfires as a celebration that the king didn’t die. A few months later, Guy Fawkes was convicted of treason and sentenced to death, and Parliament declared that a celebration of Thanksgiving for the sparing of the king’s life would take place each year on this day.
Though the Act of Parliament requiring this date to be celebrated was repealed around 250 years later, in 1859, local communities were accustomed to the traditions and continued celebrating each year anyway. Over several centuries, the basics of Guy Fawkes Night have not changed much as the celebrations still typically include bonfires, fireworks, food and loads of community activity.
Guy Fawkes Night Timeline
King James I takes the throne
After the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth, this son of Mary, Queen of Scots, ascends to the throne.
November 5, 1605
Gunpowder Plot takes place
Guy Fawkes is arrested while guarding explosives in a plot to assassinate King James I.
Guy Fawkes is put to death
After being tortured and then tried for high treason, Guy Fawkes is sentenced to a brutal death.
Guy Fawkes Day is mandated
In the Thanksgiving Act, British Parliament mandates November 5 as a celebration to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.
“Remember, Remember” rhyme becomes popular
“Remember, remember the fifth of November” is recited by children as they carry effigies of Fawkes through the streets for burning.
How to Observe Guy Fawkes Night
In the UK and a few of the Commonwealth countries, Guy Fawkes Night has a number of different traditions that go along with this observance. Check out some of these interesting ideas to get the celebration started:
Attend a Bonfire Night
An important part of November 5 is the bonfire that is built in many communities all throughout England, Scotland and Wales. This bonfire is representative of the bonfires that were originally built more than 400 years ago when people were so relieved that the king was still alive. Today, bonfire events sometimes include the creation of a large effigy of Guy Fawkes and throwing it on the fire, or sometimes children will carry smaller versions that are later thrown on the fire.
At some point in history, the idea of Fawkes being an enemy gradually changed in some people’s minds to provide a more sympathetic view – and some even considered him a hero. This may have had to do with the novel released in 1841 by Harrison Ainsworth, called The Gunpowder Treason.
Today’s version of the bonfire has evolved as, for safety and convenience, these bonfires are now usually located on the outskirts of town, built by experts and fenced in for the protection of the crowd. There continues to be a carnival atmosphere with food trucks, drinks, fireworks and a general celebratory mood.
Learn More About Guy Fawkes Night
In honor of this day, consider learning a bit more about the situation and the history surrounding Guy Fawkes Night. Get started with some of these bits of trivia – and don’t forget to share some facts with friends and family too!
While Guy Fawkes was born to Protestant parents, his father died while he was still young and his stepfather was a Catholic who sent him to Catholic school, and Fawkes eventually converted to Catholicism. But, during this time, being a practicing Catholic was essentially illegal.
Although James I was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, a devout Catholic, he continued in the tradition of his English predecessor Elizabeth I and made life very difficult for Catholics.
Although it is called Guy Fawkes Night, the man was just one of several conspirators, including four other main men: Robert Catesby (the leader of the plot), Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy and John Wright. There were also eight others who died in the midst of the plot.
When Guy Fawkes was arrested, he told them that his name was “John Johnson” and the lantern he was carrying at the time remains today in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, England.
Chant the Guy Fawkes Nursery Rhyme
Those who have spent their lives in the UK probably know it already, but Guy Fawkes Night is a perfect time to learn it or brush up on it, just for fun. This little poem likely has roots dating back to the 18th century when children would make small Guy Fawkes effigies and carry them through the town while chanting the rhyme. They might have even seen an opportunity and tried to sell the effigies for a few pence!
Check out the first parts of the rhyme here:
And of course, the rhyme ends with: God save the King!
Guy Fawkes Night FAQs
Who is Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, which was a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England for his lack of religious tolerance toward Catholics.
When did the Gunpowder Plot happen?
The Gunpowder Plot conspiracy took place on November 5, 1605.
How did Guy Fawkes die?
Guy Fawkes was sentenced to a brutal hanging death, but he died when he broke his neck after either falling or jumping from the gallows ladder.
Did Guy Fawkes blow up Parliament?
No. He and his conspirators tried to blow up Parliament, but they were caught and stopped.
Why do we burn Guy Fawkes?
In celebration of the failed plot against Parliament, people in the UK often burn an effigy of the conspirator on Guy Fawkes Night.