On the 5th November every year, bonfires are lit in public parks and gardens around the country. Sparklers are ignited and the night skies are showered with the loud bangs and bright lights of firework displays. But what is the meaning behind this annual tradition which centres on fire and light? Well, Bonfire Night celebrates the anniversary of the failed attempt of Guido (Guy) Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The Gunpowder Plot
In 1605, Fawkes and his co-conspirators placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars directly under the Houses of Parliament. They were attempting to blow up the King and his ministers but wanted to spare the lives of any Catholic peers who may be caught up in the explosion.
This led to an anonymous letter being written to MP William Parker, who was Catholic, warning him to stay away from Westminster on 5th November. The plotters had rented cellars directly beneath the Houses of Parliament and filled them with enough explosives to damage buildings within a 1-mile radius.
How the plot was foiled
The contents of the letter were made public, which prompted a search of Westminster Palace by the King’s guards. In the early hours of 5th November, Fawkes was found guarding the explosives and was subsequently arrested. He was then sent to the Tower of London to be tortured, eventually giving up the names of his fellow conspirators.
Fawkes and the others involved in the Gunpowder Plot were tried on January 31st, 1606 and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered in the Old Palace Yard in Westminster. However, Guy escaped this fate by jumping from the scaffold where he was due to be hung and breaking his neck.
Why did Guy Fawkes want to blow up the Houses of Parliament? At the time, the country was divided between Catholicism and Protestantism. In 1605, England was a Protestant country led by King James I. However, the plotters were Catholic.
It was incredibly hard to worship as a Catholic, so devotees were driven underground to practice their faith. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators wanted England to return to the Catholic faith and hoped that their plot would be a means to achieve exactly that.
The tradition of Bonfire Night began the same year as the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. Following the thwarting of the plot, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination by lighting bonfires and this tradition continues today.