Britain’s Guy Fawkes Night Explained

“Remember, remember the fifth of November – the gunpowder,
treason and plot… I know of no reason the gunpowder treason should
ever be forgot…”

If you find yourself in the UK in early November, chances are
the smacks and pops of fireworks will be heard in the background of
whatever you’re doing each evening. This is because of Guy Fawkes
Night on 5 November, which sees bonfires lit up across the land.

Beyond the UK, Guy Fawkes is best known as the inspiration
behind the face mask of V in V for Vendetta. Or he may evoke hazy
recollections of history lessons if British politics is your bag.
But in Britain, Guy Fawkes offers an opportunity to bundle up, go
outside and drink the mulled booze of your choice while remembering
England’s most infamous anarchist. The country goes pagan and town
squares, village greens and city parks across the land are studded
with bonfires with a burning effigy of Guy Fawkes sat atop.

Fawkes was one of thirteen who planned the Gunpowder Plot in
1605 to assassinate King James I by blowing up London’s House of
Lords during the state opening of parliament. The other twelve
conspirators have fallen out of public consciousness, but Fawkes
remains a folk hero or traitor (depending on your political
leanings) and frequently appears on lists of the 100 greatest

Guy Fawkes – or Guido, as he later called himself – was born in
York in 1570. Despite growing up under the Church of England, which
rejected Catholicism, Fawkes grew up to become a mercenary fighting
for Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years War. As he made his name
overseas, in England disgruntled Catholic troublemaker Robert
Catesby started gathering accomplices to kill the newly crowned
King James, who had failed to ignite hopes of a more tolerant
attitude towards Catholics.

Upon his return to London, Fawkes became embroiled in Catesby’s
plot to kill the king. With parliament destroyed, and its king and
key politicians dead, the monarch’s young daughter could be
kidnapped and a revolt raised to reinstate Catholicism in the

Fawkes was the man charged with shuttling explosives to a cellar
under the House of Lords and guarding them until the day of the
state opening arrived. All went to plan, until the plotters were
betrayed by a letter to the Baron of Monteagle, warning him not to
attend the state opening. A midnight search of parliament was
launched. In its underbelly Fawkes was found with 36 barrels of
gunpowder – enough to blow up the House of Lords and beyond.

Guy was arrested and tortured in the Tower of London until he
gave up the names of his co-conspirators. As members of the
thirteen began to flee London, eight were captured and sentenced to
be hung, drawn and quartered. Dragged through the city streets to
meet his fate in Westminster, Fawkes escaped hanging by leaping off
the gallows, breaking his neck and meeting his death in the

5 November was quickly enshrined in law as a national day of
thanksgiving for the King’s escape from assassination, and stayed
that way until 1859. Today, it’s still a national night of
festivity. Part of the appeal of Guy Fawke’s night is its make-do
vibe: there is high potential for damp squibs of fireworks,
un-cooperative bonfires and puttering sparklers. But there is also
the air of danger that arises from a nation embracing pyromania for
the night. In Devon, in the tiny village of Ottery St Mary, men
hoist flaming barrels streaked with tar on their backs and run
though the narrow streets. The tradition predates Fawkes and it’s a
miracle it’s still allowed to continue, flying as it does in the
face of all common sense and safety.

Guy Fawkes night, like many festivals that have stood the test
of time, rings in a season. In this case its autumn, and seasonal
apples are a key part of the celebrations, whether you’re bobbing
for them in a bucket or crunching though a toffee apple. Other
bonfire night stalwarts are sparklers and parkin, a sticky,
ginger-and-treacle laced cake. Creating your own version of this
centuries-old, uniquely British bacchanalia is simple: get outside,
eat sweet things, make fire. Oh, and be safe!