On November 5th, people across the UK celebrate Guy Fawkes Night with bonfires and fireworks. Centuries after his failed attempt to blow up the British Parliament, Fawkes’ image continues to dominate popular culture thanks to films such as this V for Vendetta (2005). Here are 10 fiery facts about Fawkes and the holiday that inspired his treasonous attempts.
1. Guy Fawkes was a secret Catholic.
Guy (also known as Guido) Fawkes was born in Yorkshire, England in 1570. He was raised by a Protestant family but secretly converted to Catholicism as a young man. At the age of 21 he fought with the Spanish Catholics in Flanders. During the fighting he became an expert in explosives. This, along with his fanatical Catholicism, has led him to join the gunpowder conspiracy.
2. Guy Fawkes played a key role in the gunpowder conspiracy.
England became a Protestant country after the Reformation. As such, Catholics were persecuted and forced to practice their religion in secret. A wealthy Catholic named Robert Catesby decided that the only solution to this discrimination was to overthrow King James I and his government. He recruited a number of other Catholics, including Fawkes, and together they planned to plant and blow up gunpowder under the British Parliament buildings.
The conspirators rented a cellar under the parliament buildings. Disguised as a servant named John Johnson, Fawkes began filling him with barrels of gunpowder. Once the explosives were in place and it was confirmed that Parliament would convene to make sure the House of Commons was full of MPs, the detonation date was set: November 5, 1
3. An anonymous letter foiled the gunpowder conspiracy.
Everything went according to plan until one of the conspirators decided to write an anonymous letter to a Catholic MP, Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from the Parliament buildings on the night of November 5th. Sensing the danger, Monteagle showed the letter to the king, who ordered the area to be searched immediately. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of firewood in a storage room under the House of Lords. Fawkes, who was found at the scene while armed with long detonators and dressed for his escape, was arrested.
4. Guy Fawkes was sentenced to death for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.
After his capture, Fawkes was sent to the infamous Tower of London, where he was tortured until he confessed and gave the names of his co-conspirators. Soon after, soldiers were sent to Staffordshire to arrest Catesby, the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Catesby and his two compatriots died in an exchange of fire while attempting to fight the approaching soldiers.
Fawkes has since been sentenced to death. Treason bore the severest punishment, and he was to be hung, dragged, and quartered. On the day of his execution – January 31, 1606 – Fawkes managed to break free of the soldiers guarding him and jump (or fall) from the gallows, fatally breaking his neck. The executioners did not let him escape his full punishment: they cut his dead body into quarters and then placed the remains in the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to others.
5. The first Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated on November 5, 1606.
The day of the ill-fated gunpowder conspiracy was declared a feast day – after the attack was prevented, people lit bonfires to toast the king’s safety. November 5th was declared Thanksgiving Day, and the first official celebration took place exactly one year after the failed gunpowder plot on November 5th, 1606. People across Britain gathered around bonfires and burned images of Fawkes.
The celebrations developed over the years. It was common for children to make a life-size Fawkes doll which they carried around their neighborhood in a wheelbarrow while asking for a “penny for the guy” to raise money to buy fireworks. Huge bonfires were built in every village and town, and a Fawkes doll was placed on them and lit. The traditional colorful fireworks represent the explosives that were supposed to ignite under the parliament buildings.
6. Children recite rhymes about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.
Various songs and rhymes have been created to help school children remember the story of the gunpowder plot, including this one from the 18th century:
Remember, remember November 5th
Gunpowder betrayal and conspiracy
We don’t see a reason
Why gunpowder treason?
Should ever be forgotten …
7. People are still partying Guy Fawkes Night.
Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night) is still honored across the UK and parts of the former British Empire on November 5th. Some people celebrate with friends in their gardens, while others gather in their village square, parks and other public spaces. Bonfires are lit and effigies of Fawkes (or more commonly modern political leaders or social bad guys) are burned while fireworks burst in the sky. Traditionally, people eat baked potatoes and toffee apples.
One of the most famous celebrations takes place in Lewes, East Sussex, where a number of bonfire parties, each with their own particular traditions, have festivities across town. Before the fires are lit, images of political figures are shown through the city and the streets are full of people.
8. Guy Fawkes’ unmistakable look inspired the mask V for Vendetta.
Numerous pictures and engravings were produced from the dramatic moment in which Fawkes was arrested. His big black floppy hat, his leather riding boots and his well-groomed mustache and beard became icons. Centuries after the foiled gunpowder plot, Fawkes’ picture is still easy to spot.
The main character in the comic V for Vendetta (and the 2005 film of the same name) wears a mask off Fawkes’ face to keep his identity a secret while battling a dystopian authoritarian government. As a result, the Guy Fawkes mask has become synonymous with rebellion and is often worn by anti-establishment protesters.
9. You can see Guy Fawkes’ lantern.
When Guy Fawkes was captured, he was believed to be holding an iron lantern to navigate the dark cellars. Peter Heywood, who helped search the Houses of Parliament on the night of the failed gunpowder plot, kept the beacon as a souvenir. When he died, the lantern went to his brother Robert, who worked at Oxford University. Robert gave the iron lantern to his workplace in 1641. It was exhibited in the Bodleian Library Picture Gallery and later moved to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where you can still find it today.
10. The parliament buildings are still being searched for hidden weapons.
Although the failed gunpowder conspiracy took place more than 400 years ago, it is still a tradition for the guard’s yeomen to search the basements of parliament buildings each year before the state opened. The original spot where Fawkes hid his gunpowder burned down in a fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1834, but officials are still searching the existing basements just to be sure. However, the search is conducted according to tradition and ritual rather than security.