According to market research Company Mintel, in 2018 UK consumers spent £316m celebrating the event variously called, `Bonfire Night’, ‘Fireworks Night’ or `Guy Fawkes Night’. The majority of that money literally went up in smoke, having been spent on fireworks and bonfires. Fireworks displays were recorded as the most popular way of marking the night, with up to 38% of the population attending some form of event.
The Gunpowder Plot
This peculiarly British annual entertainment can be traced directly to the aftermath of a 17th Century religious and political event. The Gunpowder Plot was a failed conspiracy by a group of English Catholics. Led by Robert Catesby, they planned to blow up the Protestant King James, and his government, at the State Opening of Parliament on November 6th 1605. (Catesby had been involved in a previously failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth from which he extricated himself only at the cost in today’s money of £6 million.)
This was to be the prelude to a revolt that would replace James with a Catholic head of state. Ending the persecution suffered by many Catholics following the split with the Roman Church over half a century previously.
Though we now principally associate the name of Guy Fawkes with the plot, he was a minor player in the conspiracy. He was, however, literally left holding ‘the baby’ or in this case 36 barrels of gunpowder when, following an anonymous tip-off, the authorities searched the cellars of the Palace of Westminster and discovered the explosive cache.
This ‘search’ continues today before every State Opening of Parliament, albeit ceremonially, with the searchers, the Yeoman of the Guard, being rewarded with a glass of port.
Like most great plans, this one was hatched in a pub – the Duck and Drake. Fawkes was a mercenary soldier, unknown to the authorities, recruited to ‘light the blue touch paper’. The conspirators leased a cellar under the Houses of Lords and packed it with gunpowder. Forced to postpone their explosion twice, the plot was discovered, and Catesby was shot and killed while resisting arrest. The other plotters were rounded up, tortured, tried and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Fawkes actually escaped this full punishment as he fell and broke his neck whilst being led up to the scaffold to be hanged.
As news of the plot’s failure broke, spontaneous street celebrations were said to have broken out and bonfires lit in celebration all over London. A subsequent Act of Parliament decreed that the event would be commemorated annually by church services of thanksgiving. The Act was repealed in 1859.
Within a few years ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’ was being celebrated with strong anti-Catholic overtones; effigies of the Pope often topping bonfires. As religious tolerance grew, the annual celebration became more general and raucous, with bonfires being topped with crudely dressed straw-stuffed figures named generically ‘guys’ after Guy Fawkes. We still use the word “guy” today as a gender-neutral form of address, a far cry from its original meaning of a strange or grotesquely dressed man.
In the 19th Century children were said to beg for money around the streets in the days running up to the 5th using homemade effigies of Guy Fawkes to the cry ‘A penny for the Guy’. They often spent this money on fireworks.
Later the 5th November was re-labelled “fireworks night” by manufacturers promoting their products. The idea caught on, and domestic bonfires and firework parties became hugely popular in the 20th Century.
Health and Safety concerns have led to the continued rise of organised displays, sometimes very elaborate ones, such as at Lewes in Sussex. There, the tradition of topping large bonfires with (un) popular prominent figures of the day, often politicians or media celebrities, continues.
Though it has now totally lost connection with its religious and political origins, ‘Guy Fawkes’ or should we call it ‘Robert Catesby‘ night still burns brightly in the cultural consciousness of the UK.
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By John Bailie