Why do the British celebrate Guy Fawkes on 5 November?

Tonight, 5 November, Britons everywhere celebrate Guy Fawkes night with bonfires and fireworks.

Guy Fawkes night celebrates the foiled attempt to burn down the House of Parliament

Guy Fawkes night celebrates the foiled attempt to burn down the House of Parliament Image by The grim atheist / CC BY 2.0

The annual Bonfire Night held across the UK commemorates the death of Guy Fawkes, an explosives expert who was executed after being discovered plotting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

When James I came to power after years of Queen Elizabeth's reign, Roman Catholics across England hoped this would mean the end of their persecution. But this was not the case. Angered by this, a group of conspirators got together and formed the Gunpowder Plot, a plan to kill the king and his ministers by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the state opening of Parliament.

The conspirators rented rooms not far from parliament and succeeded in smuggling 36 barrels of gunpowder,  1,500 kg, into a cellar below the Houses of Parliament, enough to blow up Westminister and the whole surrounding area.

But the plot was foiled when the Baron Monteagle received a note telling him to make sure he didn't miss Parliament that day. Guards were sent around Houses of Parliament and finally down to the cellars, where they found Guy Fawkes,  who was an expert in explosives, waiting with the barrels as his job  was to light the switch.

Effigy of Fifa's Sepp Blatter to go up in flames for Guy Fawkes night

Effigy of Fifa's Sepp Blatter to go up in flames for Guy Fawkes night Image by Edenbridge Bonfire Society

Guy Fawkes was tortured until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators and all who were involved in the Gunpowder Plot ended up being executed or arrested. At the time it was normal for traitors of the state to drawn and quartered. This involved being hung almost to the point of death, then emasculated, disembowled, and dismembered. It's believed that in order to avoid this horrible end, Guy Fawkes jumped off the scaffolding and died of a broken neck.

But ever since, Britain and ex-colonial countries have celebrated  Guy Fawkes night with bonfires to symbolise the gunpowder that was never used. Often the bonfires will have a straw figure known as a 'guy' thrown onto them, and in fact the word 'guy' comes from Guy Fawkes. Often effigies representing other political figures are thrown onto the bonfires, including some of Fifa's Sepp Blatter and David Cameron this year.

In recent years the hacktivist group Anonymous have adopted what is known as the 'Guy Fawkes mask' to retain their anonymity when they hold the annual worldwide Million Mask March on 5 November. The anti-capitalist protests, which often involve clashes with the police, also use the Guy Fawkes as a symbol of state resistance and a mascot.

Anonymous wearing a Guy Fawkes mask

Anonymous wearing a Guy Fawkes mask Image by Hernan Pinera / CC BY 2.0

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