Bonfire Night (5th November)

Remember, remember the Fifth of November…

Fireworks photo by flickr/bayasaa

In 1605 Guy Fawkes was part of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plot failed.

By some strange quirk of history that failure is still celebrated hundreds of years later by burning an effigy of Mr Fawkes on a big outdoor fire. On or around 5th November every year firework displays light up the sky as Bonfire Night is celebrated all around Britain and in places as far away as Newfoundland in Canada, and even New Zealand. On this page, you can find out about local events – and the history of Bonfire Night.

Local events

Photo of a  bonfire by Sandy Zeiba

If you would like to get into the spirit of the Bonfire Night celebrations, there are local events that you can attend. Of course, you can buy your own fireworks and organise a party with your friends, or find student parties to join – just remember that fireworks can be dangerous when not handled carefully and correctly.

Alternatively, you could turn up at pre-arranged professional fireworks displays arranged throughout South Wales. In 2015 Bonfire Night falls on a Thursday, so many events will be taking place on the days just after.

Thursday 5th November

Friday 6th November

Saturday 7th November

The history of Bonfire Night

When King James I came to power, Catholics across Britain were hopeful that he would bring about changes, reduce persecution, and be sympathetic to their cause. He disappointed those expectations.

This disappointment was one of the factors leading a small group of influential Catholics to decide to take matters into their own hands, and stage a full-scale revolution. Regime change was on their agenda – and what better way to wipe the slate clean than to kill the King and all of his Parliament in one dramatic attack? So began the Gunpowder Treason plot.

At the time, government was housed in a complex known as Parliament Palace – a group of buildings quite different from today’s iconic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. Following failed attempts to tunnel under the building and an outbreak of The Plague (which delayed Parliament for many months), among other problems, the aspiring revolutionaries got lucky – a large storage facility directly underneath Parliament became vacant, and they secured the contract for it immediately. All that was left for them to do was to smuggle the explosives in and wait for Parliament to start its session, scheduled for 5th November 1605…

An illustration of Guy Fawkes

The plotters were led by Robert Catesby. His co-conspirators were preparing to launch uprisings, kidnap the King’s young daughter (in order to place her on the throne as a puppet ruler), and deal with the aftermath of the regime change that they thought was imminent. However, they betrayed themselves in the run-up to November. Some confessed to priests, and one wrote anonymously to Lord Monteagle, a high-profile Catholic, warning him to stay away from the opening session of Parliament. Lord Monteagle was not inclined to be part of treason against the King, and brought the letter to the attention of other Lords.

Parliament was searched. A large amount of firewood was noticed underneath – this was where the conspirators had concealed 36 barrels of gunpowder. A second search was conducted, and Guy Fawkes was found and arrested. While his name has become synonymous with the plot, he was actually not the leader. His role would have been to guard and inspect the explosives, set them off at the right time, and then flee to Europe to gain support for the revolution from sympathetic leaders. He had been recruited to the plot for his military experience.

Of course, there was no happy end for Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators. Interrogation, torture, chases and gunfights ensued, eventually leading to the arrests, trials and executions of the conspirators (and at least one of the priests who had taken their confessions without passing information about the plot to the authorities – even though the priest advised them against going through with their plans). Guy and his fellow conspirators were not burned on bonfires, but sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes managed to avoid the more gruesome parts of the execution by leaping off the gallows, breaking his neck and dying immediately. Otherwise, he would have been hung until nearly dead, castrated while still alive, then disembowelled and dismembered while his genitalia would have been burnt in front of him.

Traditional rhyme

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Londoners, on hearing little more than that their King had been saved, lit bonfires to show their joy. As years progressed, the ritual became more elaborate, and legislation was passed to enforce the celebration of the day. By 1806, effigies of Guy Fawkes were placed on bonfires and fireworks were added to the celebration. The dummy of Guy Fawkes is often called “the Guy”. One old tradition which still continues today is for children to walk the streets, carrying the Guy and asking passers-by for “a penny for the Guy”. Money raised is used to buy fireworks, to be used during the celebrations. On the night itself, the Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight.

For more in-depth details about the history of Bonfire Night, and what happened to Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, visit the BBC British History website.

Safety First!

Professionaly organised bonfire events should be very safe but there is always some risk of personal injury where fire and explosives are used. If you have your own bonfire or firework display then make sure you understand the risks and the safety precautions you should take. It’s not just your own safety you’re responsible for but the well-being of those around you too.

The safe4autumn website has some good basic guidelines.