It’s an intriguing question with an interesting set of answers. The date is remembered because it's the anniversary of an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. But why we ‘celebrate’ it is another story…
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes (you’ve heard of “penny for the guy”, right?) was part of a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state. It failed – and Fawkes became the fall guy – because he was the one caught leaving the tower after guarding the explosives. He was subsequently arrested for treason and executed.
Why do we have bonfires 400 years later?
In 1606, the year after the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ was foiled, Parliament passed the ‘Observance of 5th November Act’, or ‘Thanksgiving Act’, which encouraged the nation to give thanks for the plot's failure. One of the more sinister parts of the festivities was the burning of effigies of the Pope – but that changed to dolls of Fawkes himself when laws against Catholic worship were removed in the late 1600s.
Nine facts about Guy Fawkes, the gunpowder plot and 5 November in the UK
- Physicists calculate that the 2,500kg of gunpowder Fawkes hid would have caused damage approximately 500 metres from the centre of the explosion.
- The Houses of Parliament are still searched each year before the state opening which has been held in November since 1928…the idea is to ensure no modern-day Guy Fawkes is hiding away in the bowels of the building!
- The only place in the UK that does not celebrate on 5 November is St Peter’s School in York; Guy Fawkes went there as a boy and they refuse to burn his image in respect for their former pupil. The city of York has always remained loyal to their native son and his notoriety provides a solid tourist trade. Today, Fawkes's name lives on in a pub (the Guy Fawkes Inn) located immediately opposite the church where he was baptised as a child.
- Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators rented a house close to the Houses of Parliament and managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder from there into a cellar at the House of Lords.
- Lord Monteagle, whose letter revealed the plot, was rewarded with £500 (plus £200 worth of land) for his service in protecting the crown.
- As Guy Fawkes awaited his grisly punishment on the gallows, he leapt to his death to avoid the horrors of having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes. He actually died from a broken neck.
- In the Galapagos Islands, two uninhabited pieces of land are named after Guy Fawkes: ‘Isla Guy Fawkes’ (Guy Fawkes Island).
- The cellar that the conspirators tried to blow up was destroyed in a fire in 1834; the blaze devastated the Houses of Parliament at the time.
- There were 13 conspirators in the plot, which was masterminded by Robert Catesby – a charismatic Catholic figure who had a reputation for speaking out against the English crown.
If you're fascinated by history, why not take a look at what history courses you could study at LJMU?