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Today is November 5th and for readers in the British Isles and the UK ... we know tonight as 'Bonfire Night'.

On this night, traditionally we bundle up against the cold, light huge bonfires and enjoy fireworks displays and have a fun celebration with warming drinks and food!

Now if you're not from a British background or heritage you might be wondering why we do this on this day in particular.

Is is a religious festival? No - although it does usually coincide with the five-day festival of Diwali which also features lights and fireworks and which is one of the major religious festivals celebrated by HindusJainsSikhs and some BuddhistsNewar Buddhists.

Bonfire Night is also known as 'Guy Fawkes Night' and it actually marks a day in 1605 which involved a chap called Guy Fawkes  and which is all about insurrection and plots to bring the King of England. And although it's not a religious festival, there are religious links in the origins of the day.

Fawkes was part of the Gunpowder Plot which was a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Roman Catholics to assassinate King James I of England, who was also King James VI of Scotland - who was a Protestant. They wanted to replace James with a Catholic monarch.

The plotters were actually led a man called Robert Catesby - one of the leading Catholics who wanted to restore the Catholic monarchy from the Church of England after decades of intolerance against Catholics. After 45 years of hounding and persecution under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, people like Catesby had hopes of securing greater religious tolerance from King James but when things did not improve under James, drastic action was required. Catesby gathered like-minded people around him. They were Guy Fawkes, Robert KeyesThomas Bates, Ambrose Rookwood, John and Christopher WrightRobert and Thomas WintourThomas Percy,  John Grant, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby.

Catesby and his fellow conspirations planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament in London on 5 November 1605. This would be followed by a popular revolt in the Midlands region of England, and James's nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, would be installed as the Catholic head of state.

And it was Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in the failed suppression of the Dutch Revolt, who was to be in charge of the explosives. 

The plotters rented a house near to the Houses of Parliament and managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder - around 2.5 tons - into a cellar under the palace ready to blow it up. However, the authorities got to hear about the plot in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle. That was on 26th October 1605 and on the eve of the State Opening of Parliament, during the evening of November 4th 1605, the authorities moved in and did a search, and found Fawkes guarding those 36 barrels of gunpowder. If the plot had worked, the House of Lords would have been reduced to rubble.

Guy Fawkes was arrested. Most of his co-conspirators fled from London but the idea of insurrection was still with them. They tried to enlist support along the way but were being chased down including by the Sheriff of Worcester and his men. Some of the rebels met the Sheriff and his men at  at Holbeche House and Catesby was one of those shot and killed in that battle.

The remaining conspirators were put on trial (but not before a period of torture) and on 27th  January 1606, eight of the survivors, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. A few days later - on 31st  January 1606 - he and the others were executed. Fawkes was 35.

So - I know what you're all thinking - how do we go from a plot to kill a king and blow up a parliament to a night where we burn bonfires and enjoy fireworks?

Well, immediately after the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the rebels, the King's Council allowed and encouraged the public to celebrate the monarch's survival with bonfires - so long as they were "without any danger or disorder". So it was that the first celebrations of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot was actually in 1605.   

In January 1606, just days before Fawkes and his fellow surviving conspirators were executed, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, which was commonly known as the "Thanksgiving Act". This meant November 5th was free as a day of thanksgiving and church going, even having its own form of service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, for use on that date. 

Although there's not much history on the earliest celebrations we know that in places like Carlisle, Nottingham and Norwich people celebrated with music and military parades. In the town of Canterbury in Kent, November 5th 1607 was celebrated with 106 pounds (48 kg) of gunpowder and 14 pounds (6.4 kg) of match -  that's slow-burning cord or twine fuse. Three years later food and drink was provided for local dignitaries, as well as music, explosions, and a parade by local militiamen.

Across the country bonfire celebrations became more and more popular down the years and and later people started setting off fireworks representing the gunpowder used in the plot.

And another thing - even today day the cellars under the Houses of Parliament are ceremonially searched before the annual State Opening.

There's even a poem which was written in the year 1626 by the poet John Milton, who was born just three years after the Gunpowder Plot.

The poem has become part of English folklore and it ensured that the date when the king was saved from death was not forgotten. And in some sense, it may also have ensured that Fawkes has gone down in history as a folk hero, or anti-hero - someone willing to stand up for his beliefs and was martyred for it.  

Remember Remember Nov 5thRemember, remember, the Fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring

Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!

Bonfires and fireworks became increasingly popular on November 5th and it's now fixed in the British calendar.

There are certain 'traditions' associated with the night as well ... often, a 'Guy' (a stuffed dummy or effigy) was put on the top of the bonfire and burnt. Back in the day I remember kids taking the dummy around the neighbourhood (sometimes in a baby's pram or a cart) asking for 'a penny for the guy'... money was then spent on fireworks. People had bonfires and fireworks at home, although because of health and safety, these days most people attend big centrally organised bonfires, with many of the events now raising money for charity.

So, whatever you're doing tonight, or over the weekend, stay safe - and have a brilliant Guy Fawkes Night.

And while you're enjoying those fireworks ... maybe just take a moment to remember why we have this day!

 

 

 

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