The Story Behind Guy Fawkes Night
The history of Guy Fawkes Night began on the 5th of November, 1605 after the arrest of Guy Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot. He was arrested while guarding a supply of explosives placed beneath the House of Lords. The conspiracy was brought to light through a mysterious letter received by Lord Monteagle, a brother-in-law of Tresham, on October 26, urging him not to attend Parliament on the opening day.
Guy Fawkes (1570 – 1606), English conspirator in the gunpowder plot to destroy the Houses of Parliament, circa 1606. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Monteagle took steps leading to the discovery of the materials and the arrest of Fawkes as he entered the cellar. Other conspirators, overtaken in flight or seized afterward, were killed outright, imprisoned, or executed. The mission was plotted by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby, with the aim of sweeping away the then-British government by assassinating the Protestant King James I of England to restore Catholic monarchy in Britain. These plotters were enraged at the king for his refusal to grant superior religious tolerance to Catholics. If the conspiracy had not failed, the explosion would have blown up the House of Lords, causing the death of King James I and many other London residents.
The Annual Bonfire Celebration
There was much jubilation in London when the news of Guy Fawkes arrest spread. People lit bonfires around London in celebration of the safety of the king and all the people. Following the arrest, Guy Fawkes and other surviving conspirators faced trial and were subsequently executed either by hanging, drawing, and quartering. However, in January the following year, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, commonly known as the “Thanksgiving Act” to mark November 5th as an annual British public holiday of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure.
UNITED KINGDOM – JANUARY 01: Guy Fawkes Day, Getting Ready For The Big Bang At Aldersbrook In the United Kingdom On 1937 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Known as Guy Fawkes Day, Guy Fawkes Night, Gunpowder Treason Day, Bonfire Night or Firework Night, November 5th is now celebrated annually in the United Kingdom. Some other countries, including countries that were once a part of the British Empire commemorate Guy Fawkes Day with bonfires, fireworks, parades, and food.
Remember, Remember the 5th of November
The phrase “Remember, remember the 5th November” is the first verse of John Milton’s poem in Quintum Novembris (On the Fifth of November), which he composed in 1626 at Cambridge. The traditional poem alluded to the happenings of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, is often recited during the anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day, when straw effigies of Fawkes are tossed in the bonfire.
LONDON – MARCH 08: Actors in character costume arrive at the UK Premiere of ‘V For Vendetta’ at the Empire Leicester Square on March 8, 2006, in London, England. The film is based on the Alan Moore book set in the and is written and co-produced by The Matrix duo Andy and Larry Wachowski. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
This habitual verse exists in several variations to add flavor to the poem. The line from the poem is mainly known in the U.S. for its use in the first trailers of the film V for Vendetta. The protagonist V in the film was also seen wearing a Guy Fawkes mask.
Bon Fire Songs and the Guys
Noticeably, the Victorians moved the commemoration of Guy Fawkes Night away from community centers to their outskirts. It became increasingly popular to see working-class children going to wealthier neighborhoods to beg for combustible materials, money, food, and drinks with the aid of songs.
LEWES, UNITED KINGDOM – NOVEMBER 4: Participants parade with torches through the town of Lewes, East Sussex, England. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Traditionally, the children often recited the famous “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot” along the streets a day before Guy Fawkes Day or any other rhymes associated with the event. They usually carried effigies of Guy Fawkes called Guys, and requested passersby for “a penny for the guy.” Today the word “guy” is synonymous to man but was originally a term for a “repulsive and ugly person,” about Guy Fawkes’ treason.
The Significance of Fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night
Fireworks are a significant part of today’s celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. It represents the explosives that would have been used by the conspirators. Since November 1928, The Yeomen of the Guard perform a ceremonial search of the Houses of Parliament with lanterns before the state opening, to check if no prospective arsonists are hiding in the cellars.
Bonfire Night, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, England, Wednesday 5th November 1997. (Photo by Teesside Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
There were several attempts to ban the use of fireworks during the celebration. King James II first banned fireworks in 1685, but it was not successful in toning down the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. The use of fireworks was revived in the 18th century.
The Makeover of Guy Fawkes
Today’s Guy Fawkes has somewhat undergone a makeover. Nowadays, some depict the once known traitor as a revolutionary hero. This is primarily as a result of the influence and popularity of the 80s graphic novel V for Vendetta and the 2005 film of the same name, which featured a protagonist wearing a Guy Fawkes mask while fighting a future anti-democratic government in Britain.
MILAN, ITALY – FEBRUARY 25: Members of Anonymous for the Voiceless wearing Guy Fawkes masks perform ‘The Cube of Truth’, a static protest which consists in holding laptops broadcasting footage of slaughterhouses and abuse on animals on February 25, 2018, in Piazza del Duomo, Milan, Italy. Anonymous for the Voiceless is an animal rights organization fighting against animal exploitation and promoting a vegan lifestyle. (Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images
Many protesters were also seen wearing Guy Fawkes masks at Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City and other parts.
Diverse Interpretation of Guy Fawkes Day Over The Years
Initially, the Observance of 5th November Act was passed for the annual celebration of the failed conspiracy against King James I, the British government and the people. However, in the 17th century Protestants honored the day as a celebration of God’s deliverance of Great Britain from the perilous rule of the Roman Catholic.
BRIDGWATER, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 05: The ‘Gremlins’ club exhibit a ‘Day of the dead’ themed cart during the annual Bridgewater Carnival on Bonfire night on November 5, 2016, in Bridgwater, England. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
It soon became a ceremony tainted with Protestant religious undertones and anti-Catholic sentiments. These anti-Catholic sentiments did not tone down until the 1850s. Over time, Guy Fawkes Day became a social celebration.
What Guy Fawkes Night Represents Today
Today’s Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated at large events run by charity organizations with bonfires and extravagant firework displays. Increase in the popularity of the Halloween celebration, however, poses as a threat to the continued celebration of Guy Fawkes Day celebration. Still, the day has been symbolically used by groups that detest suppressive actions by their governments. Supporters of the “Occupy Movement” often wear the mask of Guy Fawkes.
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – 2017/11/05: A protester seen wearing a Guy Fawkes mask during the march. (Photo by Brais G Rouco/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The movement protests against the increasing corruption, greed, and lack of accountability in financial and political spheres. People have different opinions with regards to the meaning of the mask. To some, it is a symbol of “active terrorism.” Such a view is pegged on the acts of the intended killings in 1605. However, to others, the masks are a demonstration of unity against corporate and political greed. The Guy Fawkes Day celebrated today has a greater meaning than anyone present in the 16th century could imagine. A more noble meaning than the person it was named after intended.