Bonfire Night


bonfire_fireworkPhoto Credit: Marianne bonfire

While many communities hold their celebrations on the weekend before or after (for logistical purposes); the 5th of November (today) is Bonfire Night in the UK.  Remember, remember the 5th of November… [By the way that rhyme works for any day during the month or November – or September, October, and December for that matter.]  And it is the celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

English Catholics hoped that the coronation of James I as king would bring them better treatment by the crown compared to the persecution they suffered under Elizabeth I.  However, the persecution (including fines for those who did not attend Anglican Church services) continued.  As a result a group of English Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, developed a plan to blow up British Parliament on opening day, when King James I would be in attendance (I think he throws out the first pitch or something 😉 )

To achieve their goal the group leased a basement beneath the House of Lords to store their 36 barrels of gunpowder.  This assassination of James I would invariably cause the death of most members of Parliament, including Catholics not involved in the conspiracy.  As the plan developed those in the know grew increasingly concerned about this collateral damage.  In that atmosphere an anonymous letter was sent to the Baron Monteagle, advising him to stay away from Parliament.  When knowledge of this letter reached the King, his Privy Council ordered a search of Parliament.  Guy Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft, on the evening of the November 4th, with a pocket watch and matches to set off the gunpowder.  The gunpowder barrels were concealed beneath piles of firewood and coal.

Knowledge of the foiled plot spread quickly through London.  The Privy Council allowed the people to light bonfires on November 5th in celebration of the King’s survival.  The following January, Parliament passed: Observance of the 5th of November Act, or ‘Thanksgiving Act.’

Within a few days the conspirators were rounded up; interrogated (likely tortured), and eventually executed following trials.  Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot, died while being apprehended.  His body was later dug up, beheaded, and put on a pike by angry Britons.

As for those bonfires, they didn’t burn out in 1605; they were the start of a strong British tradition, which was even exported to some of the colonies.  As the Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy of a small number of English Catholics, subsequent celebrations took on an anti-Catholic flair.  With church leaders (particularly Puritans ones) delivering anti-Catholic sermons on the day.

Also known as Guy Fawkes Day/Night, Fireworks Night, and Pope’s Day.  Poorer children would construct an effigy (scarecrow like thing) of Guy Fawkes, and go door to door asking for ‘a penny for the Guy,’ who would later be burned on the bonfire.  In colonial North America in the city of Boston, local gangs would fight for control of an effigy of the Pope before burning him.  Street violence by the colonists leading up to the American Revolution (we considered it protest) eclipsed celebrations of Bonfire Night.  But you can see where we took some of inspiration from to burn effigies of tax collectors

Today there is a tradition of building the bonfire out of old furniture.  With some auction houses even auctioning off decrepit furniture for the purpose of constructing bonfires.  Fireworks (mimicking the explosion of Parliament that didn’t occur) are also set off.  Setting off fireworks in the fall and winter makes a lot more sense than the American tradition of using them in the summer, as the display can start as early as 5pm when it is dark outside.

Last night at dinner with Brits, I learned that the evening of November 4th (yesterday – and the night that Guy Fawkes was discovered) is ‘Mischief Night.’  Not necessarily something to be condoned, but a night when youth play ‘tricks’ (letting the farmers cows out of the pasture) and engage in petty vandalism (graffiti & smashing windows).  Though the pervasive use of CCT monitoring in UK cities and towns has dramatically diminished these activities.

Modern-day celebrations have lost their religious overtones.  With the focus now on community togetherness; with the saving of government secondary.  Though school children are still taught this poem, written during the Victorian Era.

Works Referenced

About Leslie@myfoodhistorytravelblog

Hey! I'm an American living in the UK with a passion for food, history, and travel. You can follow my experiences at (not a creative title - but you know what you'll be getting).
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