Guy Fawkes’ Day in Britain

On November 5, 1605, English authorities discovered a man named Guy Fawkes preparing to blow up the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder. The explosion was meant to kill King James I and his most powerful Protestant noblemen. Fawkes and several other Catholic conspirators were tortured, convicted, tortured some more, and then killed.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was one of many attempts by British Catholics in the late 1500s and early 1600s to restore what they saw as the true church. However, it stood out from other conspiracies because it was aimed at Parliament as well as the monarch. As Parliament became more important in the British government after 1688, the Gunpowder Plot seemed even more dastardly.

In the early 1700s, after firmly choosing Protestantism over Catholicism, the British nation began to celebrate the anniversary of the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot. In England this holiday became known as Guy Fawkes’ Day, and was celebrated by burning Fawkes in effigy. Later, fireworks were added to the festivities.

Children made human figures out of straw and sticks, and begged coins from passersby by asking, “Penny for the Guy?” They chanted rhymes like these:

“Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.”
A few old Fawkes’ Night rhymes were aimed at the far-off leader of the Catholic Church:
“A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.”

Image source: Photograph by Allan Brown.

Text copyright © 2007 by J. L. Bell and The Bostonian Society.