What is the Story Behind Guy Fawkes Day?

(Last Updated On: June 1, 2018)

Guy Fawkes Day
Do you “remember, remember the fifth of November?”

Each year in early November, you’ll find people commemorating a historical event that took place over 400 years ago. November 5th — also known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day — is a traditional celebration in the United Kingdom.

Across Britain, there will be drinking, parades, and most importantly, they’ll be bonfires and lots of fireworks. While this all sounds fun and merry, it actually isn’t a day celebrating a happy occasion. In fact, the date marks a rather dark event in England’s history.

Here is a short history of Guy Fawkes Day.

England 1500-1600

Under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign during the 16th century, Catholicism in England could not be practiced and was heavily repressed. Queen Elizabeth was greatly against Catholicism after she was excommunicated by the pope in 1570. When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, James I became king. Many individuals in England were excited and hoped the feelings and beliefs toward Catholics would change under the new leadership. However, this was not the case and things quickly went from bad to worse.

In 1604, King James condemned Catholicism and established more measures to prevent the number of Catholics from growing and to halt Catholics from practicing their faith. Of course, these drastic measures made many individuals — particularly Catholic dissidents — upset and various plans to kill the king began to pop up.

The Gunpowder Plot

One such plot came in May 1604, when a group of Catholic dissidents met in London. The leader of the group, Robert Catesby, proposed a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder. Eventually, more conspirators would join Catesby, forming what became known as the Gunpowder Plot.

The plan was fairly simple. A man named Guy Fawkes was tasked with acquiring barrels of gunpowder. He was to then store them in a small, rented space beneath the House of the Lords. On November 5, 1605, he was to light the fuse – blowing Parliament, along with King James and his eldest son, sky-high.

Afterwards, Fawkes was to escape by boat across the River Thames, while his fellow conspirators would start an uprising outside of the city.

The Plan Fails

While the plan itself may have been straightforward, actually getting to November 5th proved to be a challenge. Fawkes was ultimately discovered in the cellar below the House of Lords around midnight on November 4th – with 36 barrels of gunpowder stacked next to him. He was taken captive and tortured, as were many of his co-conspirators shortly after.

Fawkes was ultimately found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering.

Bonfire Night

In January, 1606, an act of Parliament established November 5th as a day of thanksgiving in celebration that the plot had failed. Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires to commemorate the occasion. Eventually, Guy Fawkes Day spread to the American colonies, where it was known as Pope Day.

Yes, unfortunately the original holiday featured a very anti-Catholic theme. It was common for effigies of the Pope to be burned on the day. However, as sentiments towards Catholics began to shift in the 19th century, anti-Catholic displays became less popular in Britain. Over time, the holiday gradually died out in the United States.

Thankfully today, the holiday is much more secular. In Britain, Guy Fawkes Day is a time to party with friends, attend parades, and of course light bonfires. Children will carry around effigies of Fawkes, while asking citizens for a “penny for the Guy” (similar to trick-or-treating).

Meanwhile, opinions of Guy Fawkes have shifted over the years. Though considered a traitor for many years, some see him more as a heroic revolutionary today. He was popularized in the 1980s graphic novel V for Vendetta (and the 2005 movie of the same name), where the main protagonist dons a Guy Fawkes mask while taking on a fictional fascist government.

So whether you are celebrating a failed plot to kill the king, or honoring an attempt to do away with government, make an effigy of your favorite (or most disliked) politician, pour yourself some mulled wine, and enjoy the fire in the sky.

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.