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Bonfire Night

Authored by Rex Cleaver
Published on 5th November, 2023 3 min read

Bonfire Night

On this day (05/11/1605) Guy Fawkes was arrested whilst guarding explosives that were hidden under the House of Lords. This was part of the so-called “Gunpowder Plot”, a failed attempt at regicide against King James VI & I.

Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic. He became part of a group, led by Robert Catesby, that tried to assassinate the Protestant James. The thirteen conspirators planned to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament. They would then install James’ daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic monarch.

The plot was discovered after an anonymous letter tipped-off William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle. It advised him to stay away from parliament on 5 November. James was informed and an extensive search of the cellars was carried out. Fawkes was caught red-handed — he had a match and thirty-six barrels of gunpowder lying in wait.

Fawkes was tortured in the Tower of London and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. By the time of his confession, four of the conspirators had died in a gunfight with English troops, whilst those who remained had been captured. Following their trial in 1606, the men were publicly hung, drawn, and quartered. Weakened by torture, Fawkes managed to avoid the latter part of the brutal execution, either by jumping to his death from the scaffold or breaking his neck by climbing too high so the rope was set incorrectly — the exact details are lost to history.

In London people lit bonfires celebrating the survival of the king and the continued supremacy of Protestantism. In the following months, the Observance of the 5th November Act introduced an annual public day of thanksgiving — to be known as Gunpowder Treason Day — to celebrate the plot's failure. Initially, effigies of the pope were burnt on the bonfires. During the eighteenth century, however, Guy Fawkes began to replace the pope atop the bonfires. Celebrations became more elaborate, and the commemoration began to lose its political and religious connotations. In 1859 the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed.

Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night) continues to be marked by bonfires, fireworks displays, and the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies, acts which celebrate (so some would say) the triumph of the rule of law over subversive plots (although the argument could be made that the tradition of Bonfire Night is still essentially sectarian). Inversely, Guy Fawkes is now widely celebrated as a symbol of resistance and political dissent. Popularised by Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta (1982), and its subsequent film adaptation, the stylised Guy Fawkes mask is a common sight during any sort of protest, political demonstration, or civil uprising. The anonymity provided by the mask allows individuals to demonstrate without fear of reprisal or persecution, emphasising the idea of collective unity and resistance against authoritarianism. 

Similarly, many Bonfire Night celebrations have chosen to embrace the political significance of the original event, whilst updating it for the modern age. The famous bonfire celebrations in the town of Lewes, East Sussex, feature elaborate processions, huge bonfires, and effigy-burning. In addition to the frequently incinerated Guy, however, contemporary figures who are particularly worthy of public disdain now commonly adorn the handmade floats and pyres. Recent celebrations have featured the immolation of individuals such as Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, and Vladimir Putin.

Bonfire nights such as the one held in Lewes, with its unique amalgamation of historical commemoration and contemporary political satire, illustrate the enduring influence of the “Gunpowder Plot”.

Authored by Rex Cleaver

Rex Cleaver

Rex is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives

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Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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