Why do we celebrate Bonfire Night? Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament explained - and why we set off fireworks

Bonfire Night will be a bit different in 2020 with many fireworks displays cancelled this year

Guy Fawkes effigies are traditionally lit on Bonfire Night to celebrate the foiled Gunpowder Plot (Shutterstock)
Guy Fawkes effigies are traditionally lit on Bonfire Night to celebrate the foiled Gunpowder Plot (Shutterstock)

Bonfire Night is a staple celebration in the calendar year.

Soon after Halloween, we ditch the pumpkins and spooky decorations for sparklers and a warm pair of gloves to attend our local fireworks displays.

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At least, that would be the case in normal times as this year’s 5 November events have been cancelled across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of 2020 celebrations doesn’t detract from the infamous history of the night, however.

Bonfire Night has been celebrated since 1605, after a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was foiled.

But what happened on 5 November all those centuries ago, and who was Guy Fawkes?

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

Back in 1603, Elizabeth I was dying after 45 years on the English throne.

English Catholics had suffered severe persecution of their faith for decades under Elizabeth’s rule and were hopeful her succession would lead to change.

She was succeeded by Protestant James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who was rumoured to be more relaxed towards Catholics than the dying Queen.

Yet, soon after his accession as James I of England (VI of Scotland), the king denounced Catholicism and reintroduced Elizabeth’s steep fines for recusants.

A group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries were growing increasingly angry about their persecution.

Their leader, Robert Catesby, came up with a plan to kill the king by blowing up Parliament House during its opening on 5 November - and so the Gunpowder Plot was born.

Who was Guy Fawkes?

Catesby, a devout Catholic, originally plotted with his friends Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright and Thomas Percy - and a fifth person, Guy “Guido” Fawkes.

Born in York, 35-year-old Fawkes converted to Catholicism after the death of his father and had served in the Spanish Army against the Protestant Dutch.

Fawkes had a crucial part to play in the Gunpowder Plot.

The group of conspirators, which gradually increased to ten, leased a house in the heart of Westminster in 1605, close to Parliament House. Fawkes was made caretaker of the property under the name of John Johnson.

This house enabled the group to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a ground-floor cellar which they had leased - and it lay directly underneath the House of Lords.

Fawkes, an explosives expert, was to light the fuse and escape to Europe to garner foreign support for the group’s case.

The sheer amount of gunpowder meant, if ignited, the blast would have destroyed an area 1,320 feet wide.

How was the Gunpowder Plot foiled?

The group’s plans were thwarted by an anonymous letter delivered to Lord Monteagle, warning him to avoid the opening of Parliament.

The letter was passed on to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, who decided to wait until the last minute to foil the plan.

A search of Westminster in the early hours of 5 November 1605 caught Fawkes red-handed in the cellars, waiting to light the fuse.

After Fawkes’ capture, he was tortured until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators.

All of them died either resisting capture or were put to trial for high treason, found guilty and, in traditional fashion, hanged, drawn and quartered.

This excruciating punishment involved a prisoner being hanged until they were nearly dead, before being cut down to have their intestines pulled out, their genitals cut off, and beheaded.

Guy Fawkes managed to avoid this gruesome fate. While he awaited his punishment on the gallows, he leapt to his death and died from a broken neck.

His body was still quartered and his remains were distributed around the kingdom as a warning to others.

How is Bonfire Night celebrated?

On the very night the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, bonfires were lit to celebrate the king’s survival.

Every year since, 5 November has been celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night.

Fireworks are set off to represent the explosives that were never set off, and it’s traditional to burn stuffed effigies of Guy Fawkes on the bonfire.