The Fifth of November

In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President, an American friend commented to me that he’d seen fireworks on a news feed from Britain and was surprised that we Brits took the US Election so seriously.

Well the tradition fireworks in the UK in early November date back much farther than the election of Obama!

‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or ‘Firework Night’ is celebrated on November 5th in the United Kingdom and some countries of the Commonwealth. It commemorates the unsuccessful ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605 when a group of wealthy Catholics attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the state opening by  King James I. (He was King James VI of Scotland and became King James 1 of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth 1 – who died childless.)

The Catholic plotters had hoped for greater tolerance of Catholicism under James 1st, but were disappointed and decided to assassinate both the King and much of the Protestant aristocracy, and use the destruction of Parliament as an opportunity to start a rebellion and found a Catholic State in England under James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth..

The acknowledged leader of the plot was Robert Catesby, with other plotters including Thomas Winter, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates . The plot is remembered, however, for the explosives expert the plotters employed – one Guido Fawkes, who had gained his experience with explosives by fighting for the Spanish against the Dutch in the Spanish Netherlands.

The plot took place over several years, with delays to the opening of Parliament allowing for revisions to the plot; originally the plotters planned to tunnel under the Houses of Parliament from a nearby house, but when Thomas Percy leased a vault (or undercroft) under the palace in early 1605 they used this to store the explosives.

Some 36 barrels of explosive had been stored by the end of May 1605, and the conspirators moved far from London to the Midlands, from where they planned to start the rebellion. The conspiracy had grown, in part because the plotters needed further investment to fund the proposed rebellion, and it is thought that one of the newcomers warned the King and Parliament. Guido (or Guy) Fawkes was caught leaving the explosive filled undercroft and promptly arrested. He was taken to the Tower of London and confessed the names of the other plotters under torture.

Several rhymes exist commemorating the plot – the most common being :

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

the rhyme continues :

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s mercy he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holla boys, holla boys, God save the King!

When I was a child (not so very long ago) children would make effigies of Guy Fawkes and stand on the streets collecting money for fireworks with the cry “Penny for the Guy” but this has almost died out, not least because recent legislation prevents children from buying fireworks.

These days most people attend public firework displays, featuring a large bonfire, often with a ‘guy’ on the top. Refreshments often served include treacle toffee (known as bonfire toffee), jacket potatoes and gingerbread (also known as ‘parkin’).

The plot is referenced in the graphic novel (and subsequent movie) ‘V for Vendetta’ where the main protagonist wears a Guy Fawkes mask, and succeeds in blowing Parliament up.