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Where does Guy Fawkes night come from? 26, November 2007

Posted by babychaos in General Wittering.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Yesterday I was asked by Kat – who is Australian – what in the name of Pete Guy Fawks day is? So… here’s a Kat special! An explanation for all those of you who read about Fireworks Night and think.


Guy Fawks was part of a group of Roman Catholic dissenters who decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament along with the King (James 1) a large chunk of the Royal Family and all the MPs therein. (And there’s me thinking terrorism is a relatively new idea.) The idea on this occasion being that they’d wipe out the protestant nobility of the UK at a stroke leaving the way clear for a Catholic uprising. In order to make sure everyone in Parliament would be there, they decided to do this on the day of the state opening of Parliament, which happens every year and which, in 1605 when the plot was hatched, was set to take place on November 5th.

As usual with these things, the key is to do with religion. Ever since Henry VIII had divorced his wife and started the Church of England, Roman Catholics at home and abroad had got a bit chippy about it. We Brits weren’t very nice to each other in those days and we enjoyed nothing more than a spot of ethnic cleansing so before long Roman Catholics and members of the new, upstart, Church of England were slaying each other left right and centre. To ensure it flared up frequently until well… when did the Troubles end? A couple of years ago? – Catholics and Protestants continued to be as chippy as each other for hundreds of years about all sorts of historical bollocks they would have done better in their own and everyone else’s interest to forget.

That said, though simmering constantly, Britain’s religious differences were usually kept in abeyance ie, reasonably well below Kosovo levels, unless a particularly zealous monarch – of one denomination or the other – happened to accede to the throne and declare open season on the other one.

Naturally Roman Catholic nations abroad, who, like Britain, were in headlong pursuit of empire and wealth, used this schism as a lever to try and destabilise our government – nothing like civil war to keep the Brits occupied within their own home, leaving explorers from Spain, France et al free to claim and plunder the rest of the world unmolested… However, interestingly, the plot is most likely to have happened when the dissenters realised that were they to start a revolution, the great Catholic nations outside Britain were too skint to give them the military aid they would require. Left with no option but to take the matter into their own hands, the gunpowder plot is what they came up with.

Although not the leader of the group Guy Fawkes was put in charge of the gunpowder bit because of his military/explosives experience gained in the Spanish army (probably). Though British it was unlikely he would have many career options at home, being a catholic he would hardly be able to obtain any position of trust or of note in government, so he spent a lot of time in places like Flanders or Spain where – the state religion being Catholicism rather than Protestantism or Church of England (not actually the same thing any more) – his religion wouldn’t hold him back.

To carry out his act of terror, Guy Fawkes duly filled the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder 36 of them, to be precise and made ready to set the whole lot off. However a fellow plotter, worried that some Catholics would be killed, too, wrote to warn one of them. Unknown to Fawkes and his colleagues the letter was passed to the Secretary of State. The barrels were found but left so the perpetrators could be captured and the gang broken.

The group heard about the letter but having checked the barrels and found them untouched, Guy Fawkes recommended that the plot proceed. However at the last minute he was caught red handed as he was about to put, candle or flint or whatever it was Jacobites used – ah yes, torch – to blue touch paper and – as revolutionaries tended to be in those days – he was executed along with his fellow gang members, in a most grisly way, by being hung, drawn and quartered (think the end of that film with Mel Gibson in, you know where he paints his face blue and leads the Scottish against the English, dammit all I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called no hang on, Braveheart, yeh, that’s the one well what happened to him at the end, that’s hanging drawing and quartering).

So, subsequently, to celebrate the fact Parliament was not blown up and Britain was not plunged into civil war for 40 years or so and even then about a different, altogether more secular issue, an effegy of Guy Fawkes was burned on a bonfire every November 5th and everyone got a bit pissed and generally celebrated Britian’s narrow escape from er “anarchy”. Fireworks were set off, ostensively, to recreate the explosion that was so narrowly averted but actually because it was a bit of a lark and in a bread and circuses kind of way, it kept everyone happy and gave them something to look forward to.

I believe it is celebrated in Canada and New Zealand and was also celebrated in Australia – but in June on the Queen’s birthday rather than in November – until the late 80s… I should imagine it could have been dropped because the Guy Fawkes bit was forgotten and the Queen’s Birthday thing was felt to have a slightly awkward colonial feel to it which nobody liked.

Er… so there you go.

I’m not sure when Bonfire night started to be celebrated in earnest, I can’t imagine Cromwell, who closed the theatres, banned music and generally put a damper on most things, often in ways that would make the current regime in Burmah seem benevolent, would have condoned something quite so frivolous although he was a republican and it was all about preserving Parliament… so you never know…

Anyway, this smashing song/poem, of which nobody can remember more than the first two lines, tends to be recited a lot in the run up to November 5th by people like my Mum.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

A second, splendidly offensive verse, almost as good as the forgotten verse in the National Anthem which talks about confounding the politics and undoing the knavish tricks of the Scots (sorry most of my family and other Scottish people) has since fallen out of use but can be found on Wikepedia here.

“Penny for the Guy” comes from pre health and safety days when gangs of small boys who would make an effegy of Guy Fawkes, a Guy, build a bonfire somewhere and then take the Guy round the neighbourhood collecting money from people to spend on the prerequisite fireworks to go with the bonfire.

Er… that’s about it.



1. Kat - 27, November 2007

Thanks, BC. That’s a rather grisly reason for a bit of fireworks! We certainly celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, but I’ve never heard it associated with Guy Fawkes. Ah, religion. Always good for a day off, some fireworks, and the odd terrorist plot.

2. RubyShooZ - 27, November 2007

Thank you thank you. This has been very enlightening to me – a dumb American.

I did see the movie V for vendetta (or vengence) I can’t remember but man, I really liked the movie and now after having your explanation I really should see the movie again. It was actually one of my favorites of late. I’d recommend seeing it, really.

I hope you’re having a lovely day my friend and that things are going along as they should be. Much peace and always love to you. (I know I haven’t been around but I’ve not been at all well and been taking the time for me that I’ve needed so I’m trying to come back and play a bit of catch-up here.)

~ RS ~

3. babychaos - 27, November 2007

Kat, I’m delighted to have been of service and nice to think religion has always been used and abused to justify the actions of people who really ought to know better!

Rube I’m delighted you enjoyed it and seeing as I was a bit dumb about Thanksgiving I think that makes us quits no? Sorry to hear you’ve been under the weather, no worries about catching up, this is for your entertainment, it’s not a duty!



4. Bill Howdle - 29, November 2007

This was all so interesting to read, thank you for sharing it. We don’t celebrate it here in Canada. Instead we celebrate Victoria Day, in honor of the birthday.

5. babychaos - 30, November 2007

Hey Bill, I’m glad you enjoyed reading! And thanks for putting me right about Canada’s celebration!



6. Rua MacTírean - 3, December 2007

I didn’t read that post because I had a much more pressing issue to discuss. Have you seen ‘V for Vendetta’-its super savage with bells on!! It contains many references to Guy Fawlkes and broad political sentiments that everyone can enjoy!

7. babychaos - 4, December 2007

So I keep hearing and um… no… sorry! Hadn’t even heard of it… (cringes in a very embarrassed and god I’m knocking on now all right kind of way.



8. Rua MacTírean - 5, December 2007

……well….go see it, its Guy Fawkes super hero inspired-ness is worthy of much love and adulation

9. AJH-1995 - 1, May 2008


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