Every year on November 5, skies across England, Scotland and Wales are illuminated by fireworks as Brits head out into the night to enjoy Guy Fawkes Night celebrations.
Also called Fireworks Night or Bonfire Night, this autumn tradition has been a staple of the British calendar for the past 400 years.
Kids in English schools grew up reciting the nursery rhyme “Remember, remember / The fifth of November / Gunpowder, treason and plot.” But for those outside the UK, this rather unusual holiday’s rather unusual origin story may be a bit of a mystery.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
An illustration of Guy Fawkes and the other men behind the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Guy Fawkes, sometimes known as Guido Fawkes, was one of several men arrested for attempting to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament on November 5, 1605. Fawkes and company were Catholics and hoped this act of terrorism would spark a Catholic revolution in Protestant England.
England had been a Catholic country until Tudor King Henry VIII founded the Church of England. In the aftermath, Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret.
While Fawkes became the face of Bonfire Night, it was another plotter, Robert Catesby, who masterminded the idea. But Fawkes was an explosives expert, and he was the one who got caught under the Houses of Parliament next to the stash of gunpowder, hence his notoriety.
Catesby, Fawkes and their co-conspirators were imprisoned in the Tower of London and subsequently tortured and killed publicly.
Following the thwarted plot, Londoners lit bonfires in celebration, and then-King James I passed an act of law designating November 5 a day of national remembrance.
As the century rolled on, people started burning effigies of the pope on bonfires on November 5. In time, effigies of Fawkes replaced the pope.
From the late 19th century onward, the religious overtones of November 5 dampened, and the act of law designating it a day of remembrance was repealed.
Still, bonfires and celebrations continued. It became a common sight to see kids trawling English streets with their homemade Guy Fawkes effigy, knocking on doors and asking for a “penny for the guy,” a kind of Bonfire Night-themed trick-or-treat.