Remember, remember the 5th of November – Bonfire Night

Bonfire night - British traditions

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“Remember, remember the 5th of November” so the children’s nursery rhyme goes.

The line is ominous and foreboding but what happens on the 5th of November? Who was Guy Fawkes? And what do the celebrations mean?

Bonfire Night in England

Imagine this.  An entire village makes their way to an open field, faces lit up with torches and lanterns, their breath visible in the cold night air.

They gather around a huge bonfire to watch it spark and burn. Older children run around happily in the fire’s glow while the little ones clutch their parents gloved hands.

This was the scene that greeted me when I visited a friend at her town in Cumbria on Bonfire Night many years ago. The atmosphere was festive and fun as we watched the fire build and burn while feasting on proper British bangers (sausages) and pork roast rolls.

There is nothing like a huge roaring fire to bring people together. Neighbours chatted and laughed, faces glowing from the heat of the fire. Later in the evening a colourful display of fireworks burst overhead to the oohs and ahs of the crowd.

Bonfire night - children gather around the bonfire

This is the scene at many a Bonfire Night across Great Britain. It is a 400 year old tradition that is quintessentially British.

Guy Fawkes and the origins of Bonfire Night

Bonfire Night celebrations commemorate the foiled plot to overthrow and kill King James I at the opening of Parliament in November 1605.

James was the son of Mary Queen of Scots and King of Scotland. His ascension to the throne formed the union of the English, Irish and Scottish thrones and his Catholic subjects hoped for an end to the persecution they suffered in the Protestant Tudor era. They were quickly disappointed however and plotted a more violent resolution.

In the dark of night on the 5th of November, one of the plotters, explosives expert Guy (Guido) Fawkes was discovered with 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster.

The plot unravelled and Fawkes was tortured until he revealed the names of his co-conspirators. They were later executed and quartered, their remains sent to the four corners of the country as a deterrent to would be uprisings.

Fawkes arrest2
The arrest of Guy Fawkes

Every 5th of November across Britain, communities light bonfires and let off fireworks in a 40o year old tradition remembering that the gunpowder plot was foiled.

Often the bonfire is topped with a home made “guy” or effigy of a man supposed to represent Guy Fawkes. The fireworks represent the explosives that were never ignited.

Facts about Bonfire Night

Join a tour of the Houses of Parliament in London and your guide will tell you tales about the Gunpowder plot. There are so many interesting facts about this unique moment in history – here are my favourites:

✪ Bonfire Night celebrations were enacted into Parliament by James I via the Observance of the 5th November Act. British subjects were required to observe a day of thanksgiving that the plot was overturned until 1859.

✪ Every year before the state opening of Parliament the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeoman of the Guard looking for conspirators

✪ Guy Fawkes is often celebrated as an anti-establishment hero in modern times. This is best seen in the V for Vendetta movie based on the graphic novel of the same name

If you are in Britain on Bonfire Night enjoy this annual event unique to British culture. 

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
– Guy Fawkes nursery rhyme

Discover more posts on British history and culture

Day trips from London – Hampton Court Palace   |  A day out on the trail of Jane Austen| English Christmas traditions

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