Bonfire Night Sparklers

Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and VI of Scotland and replace him with a Catholic head of state.

Catholicism in England was heavily repressed under Queen Elizabeth I, particularly after the pope excommunicated her in 1570.

Dozens of priests were put to death while Catholics were not allowed to celebrate their religion. When King James took to the throne in 1603 it was hoped this would change, but in 1604 he publicly condemned Catholicism, calling it a superstition, and called for priests to leave the country.

In May 1604 a handful of Catholic dissidents—Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Tom Wintour, Jack Wright and Thomas Percy—met at the Duck and Drake inn in London. Here, Catesby proposed a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder, which they all supported with an oath.

Other conspirators later joined what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. Although Catesby was the ringleader, Fawkes has been the one who gained the most publicity, mainly after spending around ten years fighting for Spain against Protestant rebels in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands. He also asked the King of Spain to help with an English rebellion against James. By 1605 Fawkes was calling himself Guido rather than Guy.

Also, by using the alias John Johnson, he served as the caretaker of a cellar below the House of Lords. This was where the plotters stockpiled gunpowder.

The plan was that Fawkes would light a fuse on November 5, 1605, during the opening of a new session of Parliament. This would result in the death of James and his eldest son – meanwhile, fellow conspirators would kidnap James’ daughter Elizabeth and install her as a puppet queen who would be married off to a Catholic to restore the monarchy in their faith.

However, there was an anonymous tip-off and a search party found Fawkes in the cellar late on November 4, next to 36 barrels of gunpowder – and some matches.

He was tortured in the Tower of London by order of King James.

Fawkes and his surviving co-conspirators were all found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death in January 1606 by hanging.

Soon after the plot was revealed, Londoners celebrated with bonfires and the Parliament designated November 5 as a day of thanksgiving.

This has now become a time to set off fireworks, light bonfires and burn effigies. The demands for ‘penny for the Guy’ come from Fawkes’ first name.

Little is known about the earliest celebrations however in areas such as Carlisle, Norwich, and Nottingham, local councils provided music and artillery salutes. Canterbury celebrated 5 November 1607 with 106 pounds of gunpowder and 14 pounds of match, and three years later food and drink were provided for local dignitaries, as well as music, explosions, and a parade by the local militia.

While the annual rituals are more festive and fun than religious and monarchical, it is ironic that the history and perception of Guy Fawkes himself has taken on new meaning.

Rather than being seen as a religious extremist and terrorist he has become known as something of a populist hero. His life has been romanticised in tradition and culture and celebrated globally.

Yet had the plot been a success, it would have killed everyone in Parliament, with the neighbouring area being destroyed.

Ultimately, Guy Fawkes would have been complicit in one of the biggest terrorist acts in British history.

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