Today is November 5th. It’s Bonfire Night in Britain. Elsewhere in the world, it’s just a normal day.
I haven’t been in Britain for Bonfire Night in many years but when you’ve grown up in a culture that holds a certain day special it can be a little strange when the celebratory fireworks are not there. It also surprises me how few people know about Bonfire Night elsewhere in the world.
Whenever the subject of Bonfire Night comes up when I’m talking to people in other countries, they’ve never heard of Guy Fawkes or his foiled attempt to blow up the houses of parliament. But why would they? Bonfire Night is a British thing.
It occurs to me many people may hear someone mention Bonfire night and wonder what it is and why British people celebrate it so I thought I would write a blog post to explain. I’m aware most of my blog readers are not in Britain so many regular Travel Write readers will have the opportunity to learn something new.
The History of Bonfire Night in Britain: A Brief Explanation
Bonfire night would not exist if it was not for a man named Guy Fawkes.
Who was Guy Fawkes? He was the lead conspirator in a plan to blow op the British Houses of Parliament on November 5th, 1604.
Guy Fawkes was born in York. The house he was born is still standing but it’s no longer a place of residence, it’s a bar. I’ve been there. It’s a nice place. The name may not surprise you. It’s called the Guy Fawkes Inn [WEBSITE].
When he grew up, Guy Fawkes went to Europe to fight in the Eighty Years War, joining the Spanish in their fight against the Dutch. His military training allowed him to become proficient in the use of explosives. This is knowledge he eventually tried to put to use when he returned to the UK.
Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators placed barrels of gunpowder in a cellar below the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes had the job of lighting the fuse so, on the big night, he stayed in the cellar alone. He didn’t get the chance to put his plan into action. The authorities captured him before he could ignite the fuse.
What Happened to Guy Fawkes?
As was the way in Britain back then, Guy Fawkes was interrogated and tortured until he gave up the names of his fellow conspirators. The rest of the gang were soon captured and tried for their crimes. Their punishment was as extreme as it was brutal, though not unusual at that time. They were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
Being hung, drawn, and quartered was a terrible way to die but it was the normal reward for men who were convicted of treason.
The convicted individual was fastened to a piece of wood and drawn through the town by a horse. From then on in, things got considerably worse.
When they reached the place of execution, the condemned were hanged but not in the way you’d expect. It was a special slow type of hanging that almost killed them but not quite. This type of hanging resulted in choking instead of a broken neck.
While they were hanging there, the executioners got to work removing the condemned men’s sexual organs. They disembowelled them as well. Crowds used to gather to watch these events and, through all or most of the process, the condemned men were usually still alive.
This barbaric ritual that masqueraded as British justice had an equally unpleasant finale. The men were beheaded and chopped into four pieces (quartered). When this was over, the remains were not even laid to rest. They were displayed at prominent places, such as London Bridge, instead. It was the British government’s way of showing people the reward for treason. Women had it somewhat easier than men. Instead of being hung drawn and quartered, they were burned at the stake. [Further Reading]
Although his fellow plotters were successfully hung, drawn, and quartered Guy Fawkes managed to escape the worst of the ordeal. His body was there but his spirit was not. Perhaps the rope was not set correctly, or it could be that he managed to climb too high and jump. One way or another though, Guy Fawkes was able to break his neck. The date was January 31, 1606. His body was quartered and put on display at the “four corners of the kingdom”.
The event is remembered in an old, English nursery rhyme. There are several versions.
Here’s one from 1870:
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
How People Celebrate Bonfire Night in Britain (Then and Now)
Bonfires and Fireworks.
Bonfire Night is Britain is celebrated in a few ways. Letting off fireworks is probably the biggest part of the celebration though. Building bonfires is another.
When I was a child, we used to build a bonfire in the back garden and set it alight during the evening, after it got dark. So did a lot of other people and many still do. After the fire was nicely ablaze it was time to start the back garden firework display and play with a few sparklers.
Some people used to wrap potatoes in tinfoil and bake them in the fire. The people I knew as a kid never got it right. Instead of baked potatoes all I remember is burned potatoes that were so black they resembled pieces of coal.
These days its increasingly common for people in Britain to forgo the backyard firework display and go to organized firework displays instead. The councils in most large towns organize such events.
Penny for the Guy!
There also used to be a tradition where children made Guy Fawkes effigies from old clothes stuffed with paper or straw. It’s very similar to making a scarecrow. Normally the “Guy” was constructed a few days before Bonfire Night. Then the children put it in a wheelbarrow or cart and went around knocking on doors and asking people they meet in the street, “Penny for the Guy?” The idea was to collect money to spend on fireworks. Then, when Bonfire Night came around, the Guy was placed on the fire so everyone could watch it burn.
I only remember making a Guy once when I was a child. That was over 40 years ago and even then the idea was dying out. There may be a few areas in Britain where children still make Guys, but I spent nearly 30 years of my adult life living there and never once had a child ask me, “Penny for the Guy?”
Well, that’s it. You’ve reached the end of my Bonfire Night blog post. Sorry, it got a bit gruesome in places, but that’s how it was. You may want to think back to this story the next to visit Britain and Walk over London Bridge. Fortunately these days, the most eye-catching red object you are likely to see is a double-decker bus.
|The pictures in this blog post are not mine so I need to give credit where credit is due.
The first picture is of a bonfire at Battersea Park in Wandsworth, London. It was taken on November the 5th, 2011 by Aurelien Guichard. He kindly shared it via his Flickr page.
The second picture is by Richard Croft. He took it in 2017, at Harby, Nottinghamshire.
I’m using both pictures under this Creative Commons Licence.
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