Category Archives: It’s a British Thing

What is Guy Fawkes Night?

We don’t have too many historical holidays in the UK. There aren’t any presidential birthdays to remember or independence days to celebrate. Even in England we don’t have any big celebrations on St George’s Day, and he is the patron saint of our country. So it is little surprise that when we do get a “holiday” – as the Americans put it, that we go all out. Guy Fawkes Night is that historical moment that allows us to set off some fireworks and warm ourselves by a huge bonfire, although most of the world, and maybe some Brits, probably don’t know why.

Quick history lesson (in case you have no idea about British history), after Queen Elizabeth I died a lot of Roman Catholic Britons hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of Catholic worship. He wasn’t. In 1605, in answer to the continued oppression 13 men, the most famous of these being one Guy Fawkes, decided that violence was the answer. The exact answer being the Great Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, where the King, Prince of Wales, and several politicians that they weren’t particularly fond of would be as well.

So these 13 men stored barrels of gunpowder under the House of Lords (one of the sections of Parliament). If you’re wondering how then there are several tunnels underneath Parliament, lots of lascivious rumours about politicians sneaking in prostitutes are often used as a reason for why the tunnels were built – but that’s another story in itself. Some of the men however began to worry about the innocent people who would be killed, and it is rumoured that one of the men sent a letter advising one of the Lords of the plot. Being a good Lord, he of course told the King, who promptly arranged for the men to be captured.

On the 5th of November Guy Fawkes, who was unfortunate enough to be in the cellar with the gunpowder, was caught when the cellar was stormed. He was sentenced to that most British of deaths for high treason – hung, drawn, and quartered. This involved being drawn by horse to the place where they were to be executed. Hung until almost dead. Then “emasculated” and disemboweled before being cut into quarters and distributed to the four corners of the kingdom – just like William Wallace (Mel Gibson in Braveheart). Guy Fawkes was smart though, and managed to break his neck by jumping from the gallows so he didn’t have to go through the rest of the execution.

So why the fireworks? They, along with the bonfires that are lit, are supposed to be a celebration that the plot to blow up the king failed. Effigies of Guy Fawkes were made and thrown onto the fire. Lots of kids still do this today and can be seen wheeling their “Guys” in shopping trolleys asking, “Penny for the Guy.” The money they get is normally spent on buying fireworks for that night, and then the Guy is thrown on the bonfire during the night’s festivities.

I like to think that it’s British humour, that we mark a plot to blow up the seat of government and their monarch by setting off fireworks and lighting huge fires. It tells people that we do not take ourselves too seriously and that centuries on, the man who got caught trying to blow up Parliament is still remembered. Every child in London, if not England, knows who Guy Fawkes is but probably couldn’t tell you who Sir Walter Raleigh was – and he’s responsible for bringing the potato to these shores! Guy Fawkes has become a symbol for every person that wants to stand up against what they believe to be a tyrannical system. Just think of V for Vendetta, who do you think that mask is modelled on? I think it only fitting that we mark the day he was caught by lighting up the skies over the city he left such a mark on.

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