For my friends across the Pond
November 5th is known as “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Night.” All over Britain, people shoot off fireworks, light bonfires, and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. Guido Fawkes was an Englishman who, in popular legend, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. He was caught, imprisoned, tortured on the rack, and finally executed.
History of Guy Fawkes
Over 400 years ago, Guy Fawkes was a co-conspirator in England’s “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605. He and his cohorts planned to blow up both of the Houses of Parliament in London and kill King James I (of the King James Bible fame) upon the inaugural opening of the Parliament that year during what we now call “The King’s Speech” and smuggled several barrels of gunpowder into the basement of the Parliament for that purpose.
Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot
This “Gunpowder Plot” occurred two years after King James I ascended to the throne.
A group of English Catholics, of which Guido Fawkes was a member, determined to kill the King because they felt the King had reneged on his promises to stop the persecution of Catholics.
To this day, it is the law in Britain that a Roman Catholic cannot hold the office of the monarch in Britain. And the King is still the Supreme Head of the Church of England (Anglican).
Legacy of Guy Fawkes
The plot was foiled at the eleventh hour; some plotters escaped, some turned King’s Evidence, and others reported on the rest. The unlucky Fawkes was taken in chains to the Tower of London.
He was hanged, drawn, and quartered. After Guy was hanged, he was torn asunder and dragged behind a horse cart through the streets of London.
The charge was treason, though some people in England prefer to remember Guy as
“the only man ever to enter Parliament with honourable intentions.“
Modern-Day Guy Fawkes Celebrations
To this day, one of the ceremonies that accompany the opening of a new session of Parliament is the searching of the basement by a bunch of men in funny hats.
When I toured the Parliament building in London years ago, I asked if the search was still done before the Queen’s Speech ahead of the opening of Parliament – I was assured it was. Parliament somehow made political capital out of the close call, and poor Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy every November 5th on bonfires all over Britain.
They sell a lot of fireworks, too, and children beg for money on the streets to buy them. The children usually exhibit the “guy” or dummy that will be put on the fire.
“Penny for the guy, mister?”
…is a common refrain at this time of year.
Guy Fawkes Night and Halloween
In the last couple of decades, however, with the pervasiveness of American television and culture in England, the custom of celebrating Halloween is in the ascendancy, and many children are now going for the double treat: candy on October 31, money for November 5.
Oh, and yes, the main character “V” in the movie V for Vendetta wears a mask that is a caricature of Guy Fawkes. This visage is becoming an anarchist icon both in the UK and elsewhere. Americans may know this folk verse about Guy Fawkes from that movie:
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian