Remember, remember the fifth of November

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Bonfire Night has been observed on November 5 for more than 400 years following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when 13 conspirators planned to blow up Parliament and kill King James I in protest at the persecution of their Roman Catholic faith.

Guy “Guido” Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. People in London lit bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot, and an act of Parliament was passed to appoint the date as a day of thanksgiving for the “joyful deliverance of James I”. This act remained in force for 254 years, until 1859.

guy fawkes and company

Here are some facts about Guy Fawkes, gunpowder and fireworks:

Political protesters sometimes wear Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identity. You might recognise these masks if you’ve seen the film V for Vendetta, which is very loosely based on the story of Guy Fawkes.

The only place in the UK that does not celebrate Guy Fawkes Night 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.

Guy Fawkes wasn’t the main conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, but he had one of the most important roles. He guarded the gunpowder underneath the Houses of Parliament, and had he not been caught, he would have been charged with lighting it.

The Institute of Physics have calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder Fawkes hid would have wreaked damage almost 500 metres from the centre of the explosion.

Fireworks were invented when a Chinese cook accidentally discovered how to make explosive black powder – the early origin of gunpowder – during the 10th century. The cook accidentally mixed three common kitchen ingredients – potassium nitrate or saltpetre (a salt substitute used in the curing of meat), sulphur and charcoal and set light to the concoction. The result was colourful flames. The cook also noticed that if the mixture was burned when enclosed in the hollow of a bamboo shoot, there was a tremendous explosion.

Fireworks behind Big Ben London

Fireworks arrived in Europe in the 14th century and were first produced by the Italians. The first recorded display was in Florence. The first recorded fireworks in England were at the wedding of King Henry VII in 1486.

Dummies have been burned on bonfires since as long ago as the 13th century, initially to drive away evil spirits. Following the gunpowder plot of 1605, the focus of the sacrifices switched to Guy Fawkes’ treason.

It is said that the word ‘guy’ actually comes from the name Guy Fawkes. It originally meant “an ugly, repulsive person” but, throughout the years, simply became a synonym for “man”.

hung drawn and quartered

The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public – but this was not the 35-year-old Fawkes’ fate. As he awaited his punishment on the gallows, he leapt from the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, and broke his neck.

The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the state opening which has been held in November since 1928. The idea is to ensure no modern-day Guy Fawkes is concealed in the cellars.

Yeoman Guards at the State Opening of Parliament
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