Fireworks, Bonfires and Guys – celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night

By , November 6, 2009 2:53 am

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Guy Fawkes and his group of Catholic fellow-conspirators did their best to blow up Parliament on the 5th November 1605, on the day of the State Opening of Parliament.

Their conspiracy, and the 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed in a cellar under the House of Lords, was discovered hours before the explosion was due.

The “gunpowder plot” and the rebellion that was supposed to follow failed, and James I kept his throne, and the Members of Parliament and Lords stayed alive.

For more about the history and aims of the gunpowder plot, see the previous post on this site.

The defeat of the plot – and the subsequent torture and execution of the plotters – is celebrated annually with great enthusiasm to this day. This post is about the bangs, fires and whimpers of Bonfire Night / Firework Night  Guy Fawkes’ Night in England – fireworks, bonfires, burning effigies, and special grub.

The Times has an article about good public displays and events in 2009 here.

Family parties and public events

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Lots of people go to big public firework displays, held on commons, heaths and in parks all over the place.

These tend to be on the nearest Saturday to the 5th November, rather than on the actual day (if the 5th November isn’t a Saturday anyway).

Similarly, people often choose to have private parties in their own back gardens, more often on the actual day, whatever day of the week that happens to be.

That way they can also attend a grand display locally, should they choose to do so!


Fireworks are a big part of Guy Fawkes’ Night. It’s perfectly legal to buy fireworks (other than the really big kind) and set them off in your own back garden, and many families do. Mine always did as a child, and we loved it. Bangs and stars in the sky are therefore a common feature of the week or two around the 5th November. Newsagents, supermarkets and other shops usually sell boxes of a selection of fireworks and rockets, and also packets off sparklers, around the start of November.


Bonfires are a big part of the evening. It’s a handy time of year (lots of dead leaves and fallen branches) and helps to keep people warm as well, if it’s chilly. Public celebrations also often have them – in my parents’ village in Kent, they have an enormous bonfire lit on the village green before the fireworks start – it’s usually about 20 – 30 feet tall, and people are cheerfully invited to contribute suitable burning material.

Burning Guys, and “penny for the Guy!”

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

Traditionally, a figure is burned on the bonfire – a rough model of a man, often about or nearly life-size. This “guy” is supposed to represent Guy Fawkes himself, although in real life, Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, rather than burned.

Until the end of the 19th century, effigies of the Pope and Devil were often burned as well, but such overt anti-Catholicism is rather unfashionable, now.

Unpopular politicians and so forth can find themselves being modelled for bonfires to this day. This year, for example, the Bonfire Society in Edenbridge in Kent intends to burn a 30 foot guy modelled on Jordan, AKA Katie Price (a model).  The BBC has written about the plans here.

In my family, when I was a child, we made a guy every year from sacks or similar, and clothed him in ragged old jumpers unfit for anything else. A face was drawn on with pen, and chunks of wool for hair. Not great works of art, but fun to make.

Just before the bonfire is lit, the effigy is slung on the top, to burn with the fire.

It used to be much more common for children to make a guy, and trundle it round the streets in a pushchair or trolley, shouting, “penny for the guy” in order to collect funds for fireworks. The more impressively-created the guy, the more money could be expected. It happens less now, especially because children aren’t allowed to buy fireworks any more – a buyer has to be over 18. It’s still pretty common for a guy for a village event to be left out with a collecting tin, to gather funds for a firework display.


There are certain foods which are traditionally-eaten on Bonfire Night – some are traditional nationally, others only in one region or county.

Common across the country is a meal of sausages, jacket potatoes, and baked beans, or similar. The potatoes can be wrapped in foil and put at the edge of the bonfire to cook.

Treacle toffee (darker and much less sweet than normal toffee) and toffee apples are common.

“Parkin” is a common Bonfire Night all over the country, but the actual recipe for this varies hugely. Same name, rather different food! Mostly, it’s a type of soft, treacle-based cake, made with both oats and flour.

Famous Bonfire Night Celebrations

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

There are many local traditions and societies, so I’ll only mention a couple of the biggest and best-known.

Lewes, a town in East Sussex, has a particularly enthusiastic group of Bonfire Societies.

Each of the 7 main societies creates at least one elaborate effigy – Guy Fawkes predominates, local and national politicians often also feature.

There are also models of people’s heads on pikes (a type of spear), often modelled after unpopular members of the town council, or those who opposed the Lewes festivities.

Societies, each with mottos and caps, parade their effigies and heads through the streets, carrying fire torches and similar.

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Many people in the parades are dressed up – Zulus, smugglers and Elizabethans are particularly common.

The parades end in bonfires and firework displays. Lewes is a small town, but crowds of up to 80,000 are common, and roads, car parks etc are closed down for the evening.

You can find the Lewes Bonfire Council’s website here.

I’ve been to the Lewes event a couple of times – my uncle lives near by. It’s awe-inspiring, mad, and fantastic fun.

Ottery St Mary in Devon is a small town with a very odd Guy Fawkes tradition.  The first part of the Carnival consists of costume parades and fireworks (so far, so normal).

The second part is made up of men, women and children carrying tar barrels through the streets, while those barrels are on fire.

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

There are 17 barrels, all lovingly-coated with coal tar over some months, and then filled with hay or paper.

Each is lit outside a traditional pub, shop, or hotel, throughout the afternoon and evening, and then people take it in turns to run through the streets, carrying the flaming barrels.

It’s a family-based tradition – people in the same families tend to carry barrels from the same pubs down the years.

The Ottery St Mary tar barrel site is to be found here.

Guy Fawkes – Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

By , November 5, 2009 11:59 pm

What’s Guy Fawkes’ Night AKA Bonfire Night AKA Fireworks Night all about?

The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, from a contemporary drawing

The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, from a contemporary drawing

If you are anywhere in the UK tonight, you are probably either at a Bonfire Night party, a Guy Fawkes’ Night bash, or hearing the cracks and bangs and seeing the stars out of the window from other people’s celebrations.

The gunpowder plot, the failure of which is commemorated every 5th November, was an audacious plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605.

It was the day of the State Opening of Parliament, and the plotters hoped to kill pretty much everyone involved in the government in one fell swoop – King James I, Members of Parliament, and the Lords Spiritual and Temporal (the House of Lords mob).

And now, 400 and more years later, it’s a big, annual event here, still. So this post will tell you all about the history of the gunpowder plot, and how its failure turned into the celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Night. The next post on this blog will be about the celebration of Bonfire Night to this very day.

Guy Fawkes' signature after torture

Guy Fawkes' signature after torture

As a poet wrote (in slightly doggerel form) at the time of the gunpowder plot:

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why  gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

The Gunpowder Plot

Led by Robert Catesby, a group of disgruntled Catholics, who had hoped the accession of James I would lead to greater religious toleration, and had been disappointed in their expectations, had a big idea.

They decided to blow up the government, kill the King at the same time, dispose of most of his family, kidnap his 9 year old daughter, Elizabeth, lead a country-wide rebellion based in the Midlands, and then put Elizabeth on the throne as Queen of England and Scotland.

Elizabeth of Bohemia, intended (by the gunpowder plotters) to be the next Queen of England

Elizabeth of Bohemia, intended (by the gunpowder plotters) to be the next Queen of England

Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who had fought for the (Catholic) Spanish Empire for at least 10 years, known in Spain as Guido Fawkes. He had a lot of experience of blowing things up, and became the man in charge of the Gunpowder Plot attempt to blow up Parliament.

In May 1604, one of the plotters, Thomas Percy, rented rooms next to the House of Lords, intending to tunnel underneath the House and put gunpowder there. The plotters started their excavations, but a nasty outbreak of plague caused the State Opening of Parliament to be put back to 1605.

A cellar under the House of Lords became vacant, and Thomas Percy quickly grabbed the lease and rented it. Guy Fawkes then arranged for 36 barrels of gunpowder to be put in the cellar, covered with firewood (36 barrels of gunpowder blowing up in one go would cause a pretty impressive explosion, by all accounts).

By March 1605, the gunpowder was all in place, and the conspirators moved on to planning the rebellion.

How it all went wrong

As the State Opening drew closer, Guy Fawkes prepared to supervise the explosion, and the rest of the plotters made their way to the Midlands, to start the rebellion once Parliament had been blown to smithereens.

At least some of the plotters were worried about blowing up fellow-Catholics attending the event. At the end of October, an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a prominent Catholic, saying, retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for … they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament (retire yourself into your county, where you may expect the event in safety, for… they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament).

Lord Monteagle, being a public-spirited sort of chap, brought the letter to the attention of  Robert Cecil, Secretary of State and Earl of Salisbury, who showed it to the King. A search of the Parliament was ordered, and in the early hours of the morning of the 5th November, D-Day, as it were, Thomas Knyvet arrested Guy Fawkes leaving the gunpowder cellar.

The aftermath, torture, and executions

The execution of Guy Fawkes, from a 17th century print. Showing all sorts of cheerful hanging, drawing and quartering

The execution of Guy Fawkes, from a 17th century print. Showing all sorts of cheerful hanging, drawing and quartering

Guy Fawkes gave a false name (Johnson) and was held in the Tower of London. He claimed he had been acting alone, and later under torture gave the names only of plotters already caught.

Torture was only allowed by Royal Warrant or by the order of the Star Chamber, but James I cheerfully gave his written orders for torture to be carried out, writing

“The gentler tortures are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur” (“and thus by steps extended to greater ones, in English”), “and so God speed your good work.”

The Midlands rebellion was attempted, but fizzled out.

The plotters were tried in Westminster Hall, part of the House of Parliament to this day, in a grand public event, on 27th January 1606.

With a certain judicial swiftness, the men were found guilty in the one-day trial, and executed on 30th January in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London (4 men) and the rest, including Fawkes, were hanged drawn and quarted in Westminster on 31st January.

Fawkes managed to evade the really nasty bits of his punishment by jumping as he was hanged, so he wasn’t still alive to have his entrails removed and be chopped into bits.

James I gave a speech to Parliament a few days after the discovery of the plot, in which he described its failure as a miracle, and explained how it had confirmed his belief in the Divine Right of Kings.

It was that belief of the Stuart Kings which lead to all sorts of trouble later in the century, most notably, the regicide of King Charles II and the establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

And this torture, trial and execution is generally and cheerfully celebrated yearly in England!

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