Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November

Paula reminisces about Bonfire Night.

This week marks a tradition in Britain that goes back to 1605. A group of Catholic conspirators, angry that James I had reneged on his promise to end the persecution of Catholics, decided on a drastic solution. They planned to kill the King, and enthrone a Catholic king instead. The plot involved blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5th, when not only the king would be present, but also the Protestant Lords and Bishops.

However, the  plot was revealed to the authorities and during a search at about midnight on November 4th, one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was discovered, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow up the whole of Parliament as well as a lot of the surrounding area.

The other conspirators fled from London, but they were pursued and caught. The leader of the conspiracy, Robert Catesby, was shot and killed, and the others were captured and, along with Guy Fawkes, they were hung, drawn, and quartered.

The following January, Parliament passed the ‘Observance of 5th November’ Act, which called for a public, annual thanksgiving for the failure of the Plot. This began the tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and the burning of bonfires. Fireworks were a later addition to the celebrations.

In the days leading up to Bonfire Night, it was customary for children to make ‘guys’ – effigies of Guy Fawkes – out of old clothes stuffed with newspaper, with a grotesque mask for a face. The guys were pushed around the street on an old pram or wooden cart and children asked for a ‘Penny for the Guy’ and chanting the rhyme:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

The guy was later thrown onto the bonfire, amid loud cheers. In fact, poor old Guy Fawkes was the "fall-guy" in all this, but his is the name that is remembered. During the 19th century, the word 'guy' came to mean an oddly dressed person, but gradually came to refer to any male person.

I remember making guys when I was a child but this custom has largely died out now (presumably in favour of trick or treating at Hallowe’en instead, once the American tradition started to increase over here).

Although some people still have private bonfire parties, the modern celebrations are generally organised by local charities or other organisations, and include spectacular firework displays. These are usually held during the weekend nearest to the 5th. My daughters used to love going to the community bonfire at a local park on the Saturday before or after the 5th. However, it is still quite common for families to let off some fireworks in their back gardens on the actual night, and children still enjoy making patterns in the air with ‘sparklers’. As I write this blog, on the evening of November 5th, I can see fireworks going off at a nearby house (with the accompanying whizzes and bangs, of course, which make me jump every time they go off!).

Some foods are also connected with Bonfire Night. When I was a child, we had a bonfire in the field at the back of our houses (organised by the local dads – with us kids all collecting whatever wood we could find for the fire). We cooked sausages by holding them with a fork over the bonfire (and jumped back when the dripping fat sizzled in the flames). We also had Bonfire Toffee stuffed into our pockets (homemade treacle toffee, smashed into bite size pieces and wrapped in greaseproof paper), and a kind of ginger and treacle cake known as Parkin (which I actually never liked).
Photos from Wikimedia Commons, either public domain or licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


  1. I'm so glad you posted this. I was wondering what the significance of the holiday was. But does it have anything to do with Guy Fawkes Day? Or are they the same?

  2. It's the same, Jen, but it's more usually called Bonfire Night now.

  3. Oh, okay. I've always heard it referred to the other way. Now I know!

  4. Maybe different parts of Britain call it different names, but here in the north west it's always been Bonfire Night (at least in my time!)

  5. Wow....this is a great history lesson. So interesting to know how the word 'guy' started.

    I have to confess, I use 'guys' to refer to my students a lot...both the boys and the girls.

  6. American English used the words 'guys' far more than in Britain at one time, Debra. I remember thinking it very odd the first time I heard it being used to refer to girls (in America), but now it is being used more over here.
    My hero in 'Irish Inheritance' is called Guy - but he dresses quite normally!!

  7. Thank you! I love when you teach me about your customs, scenery, history and now a new holiday for me! I must say I like Bon fires much more than fireworks.

  8. I prefer bonfires to fireworks, too, Jo. Although the big firework displays can be spectacular, I often think the money spent on them could be better spent in many other ways.

  9. Super history lesson. But for a little revolution, we'd celebrate Guy Fawkes Day in earnest.

  10. Thanks, Ana. Evidently the 'colonies' did continue to celebrate Nov. 5th until your little revolution!
    I have a sneaking feeling that a lot of people these days would consider Fawkes and his fellow-conspirators as heroes! There's a tremendous amount of cynicism about our Members of Parliament (maybe not dissimilar to American cynicism about your Congress members!)

  11. A great overview Paula - we were just discussing it at the writing group this week! I used to love the fireworks and bonfires when a child.

  12. Thanks, Rosemary. I liked the pretty fireworks (such as Snowstorm and Silver Fountain) but didn't like the bangers!