The celebration is named after the eponymous villain Guy ‘Guido’ Fawkes, who in 1605 plotted with a group of conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill King James I and his ministers. Unfortunately for Guy Fawkes, while he waited to light the barrels of gunpowder hidden in the cellar of the House of Lords, he was discovered, arrested and later executed along with his fellow cohorts. To celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, the day was made a national day of thanksgiving. The popular rhyme about the foiling of Guy Fawkes – ‘remember, remember, the fifth of November/Gunpowder, treason and plot’ – is still recited today. Effigies of Fawkes were created using straw, paper or old clothes and were then thrown onto a huge bonfire to begin the festivities.
It is still traditional to make a straw dummy to be put on top of the bonfire – sometimes in competitions, with prizes for the most creative or elaborate. Prior to the day itself children sometimes put their ‘guy’ in a wheelbarrow to push around town asking for a ‘penny for the guy’, which they use to buy fireworks. Today it has not only become custom to see guys on the bonfire, but also modern political figures as a contemporary satirical twist. Other parts of the celebrations include firework displays, sparklers or torches and traditional Bonfire Night food such as hot dogs, potatoes or Parkin cake (a type of gingerbread cake). Each year the Houses of Parliament are customarily searched by the Yeomen of the Guard, but this is less about the potential threat of treason and more as a ceremonial way of taking part in the tradition.
Despite the fact that the original event took place hundreds of years ago, Bonfire Night is a much anticipated date on the British calendar. The day has become associated with revelry, riotousness and magic and is especially popular among small children. If you want to celebrate in London, head to the Southwark Park Fireworks, which boasts a dazzling firework show, a funfair, a bonfire and hot food stalls amongst other activities. Outside London, the Fireworks Spectacular at Leeds Castle in Kent is not to be missed – offering attractions like fire-juggling and fire-breathing, fairground rides and live music. With the tradition of Bonfire Night still going strong 500 years on, it is indeed fair to say that ‘we see no reason that gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.’