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Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day: what is the story behind this British observance?

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Originally written on November 5, 2019. Updated 2023

Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night, is a British observance, celebrated on this day, November 5, commemorating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
But what is its real origin?

Seething after years of persecution over their religion, a group of 13 English Catholics decided to take action. Yes. But with an extreme action.
Under the leadership of an outspoken critic of the Crown, Robert Catesby, they planned to set off a massive explosion during the Opening of Parliament ceremony, killing King James I and as many members of the legislature as possible, in order to clear the way to reestablishing Catholic rule in England.
Thus they collected together 36 barrels of gunpowder and, over a period, stored them in a cellar under the House of Lords.
However, as the day of the planned assassination drew near, some of the plotters began to have second thoughts, concerned that innocent people, including fellow Catholics, would be hurt or killed.
One of them sent a letter to his friend, Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from Parliament on November 5. The same letter was shown to King James who ordered a search of the building’s cellars and there, in the early hours of 5th November, one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was arrested. And, behind him, the barrels of gunpowder were found hidden under piles of firewood and coal.

Guy Fawkes, whose job was to light the fuse, was tortured for two days before confessing and naming the other plotters. After they had been found guilty of high treason, the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, announced that each of the condemned would be dragged towards his death by a horse. In details, they were to be literally “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both”. In addition, their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. Then they would be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become prey for the fowls of the air.
However, It was a fate that Fawkes himself managed to avoid. As he waited on the gallows for the creepy punishment to begin he managed to break loose and leapt to his death, dying of a broken neck. Nevertheless, his body was cut into quarters and his remains were sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to others.

On the night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled bonfires were lit to celebrate the King’s escape and since then November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night.
The first celebration of it took place in 1606, and since then It is celebrated every year across the United Kingdom and in a number of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, with parades, fireworks, bonfires, and food.
Straw effigies of Guy Fawkes are tossed on the bonfire, as are in more recent years in some places those of contemporary political figures. Traditionally, children carried these effigies, called “Guys,” through the streets in the days leading up to Guy Fawkes Day and asked passersby for “a penny for the guy,” often reciting rhymes associated with the occasion, the best known of which dates from the 18th century:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot….

Fireworks, a major component of most Guy Fawkes Day celebrations, represent the explosives that were never used by the plotters.
Moreover, before the annual State Opening of Parliament, guards perform an annual search of the building to check for potential arsonists, even if it is a tradition rather than a serious precaution….

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