Bonfire Night, Celebrate the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed assassination attempt by a group of provincial English Catholics against King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland). The plot intended to kill the king, his family and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening on 5 November 1605.
The plot was overseen from May 1604 by Robert Catesby, with the conspirators coming from either wealthy Catholic or highly influential gentry families. Catesby is reported to devised the plot when hopes of greater tolerance of Roman Catholicism under King James I faded, leaving many Catholics disappointed. The plot was intended to begin a rebellion, during which James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth, could be installed as a Catholic head of state.
The plotters' original idea was to dig under the foundations of the Houses of Parliament and to lay the gunpowder there. The main idea was to kill King James, but many other important targets were to be present, including the majority of the Protestant nobility and senior bishops of the Church of England. Guy Fawkes, posing as as "John Johnson", was put in charge of this venture, where he posed as one of the plotter's servants, while Catesby's house in Lambeth was used to store the gunpowder with the picks and tools for mining.
However, when the Black Plague came back to London in the summer of 1604, the opening of Parliament was suspended to 1605. By Christmas Eve, the miners had still not reached the buildings of Parliament, and just as they recommenced work early in 1605, they learned that the opening of Parliament had been further postponed to October. The plotters then took the opportunity to row the gunpowder up the river Thames from Catesby's house in Lambeth, to conceal it in their new rented house close to parliament: they had discovered that a coal merchant had just vacated cellar directly beneath the House of Lords. The plotters managed to secure the lease on the cellar.
Fawkes,an experienced military explosives expert, assisted in filling the cellar with gunpowder, which was concealed beneath a wood store under the Parliament, in the cellar leased from John Whynniard. By March 1605, they had filled it with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Had all 36 barrels been detonated, the explosion could have destroyed most of the Old Palace of Westminster complex and would have blown out windows in the surrounding areas of Westminster, Lambeth, Soho, Waterloo and possibly as far as Southwark and Mayfair.
A tip-off led the Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, to order a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords, including the plotters cellar, during the night of 4 November. At midnight on 5 November, a Justice of the Peace, Thomas Knyvet and a party of armed men discovered Fawkes guarding a pile of wood, not far from about twenty barrels of gunpowder, posing as Mr. Johnson. A watch, slow matches and touch paper were found in his possession, and Fawkes was arrested. Fawkes stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament and maintained his false identity, continuing to insist that he was acting alone. Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated and later tortured about his accomplices. The plotters were tried for trason and executed in 1606.
The 5th of November is called Fireworks Night, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. An Act of Parliament was passed to appoint 5 November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance", and it remained in force until 1859. On 5 November 1605, it is said that the 'populace of London celebrated the defeat of the plot with fires and street festivities'. Similar celebrations must have taken place on the anniversary and, over the years, it became a tradition.
It is now a custom in Britain, on November 5th, to let off fireworks. Traditionally, in the weeks running up to the 5th, children make 'guys' — effigies of Fawkes — usually formed from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, and equipped with a grotesque mask, to be burnt on the a bonfire. These effigies would be exhibited in the street, to collect money for fireworks, although this practice is becoming less common.
Please take care with fireworks, please follow the Fireworks Safety Guide on this page.