For people outside the United Kingdom, Guy Fawkes is known as the man whose face was stylised and turned into a mask used by the protagonist in the 2005 film V for Vendetta. As good as the film—and the graphic novel on which it was based on—was, the movie mostly glosses over why November 5 and the burning of Guy Fawkes holds a special significance for the people of London, and the UK, in general.
The 5th of November, also known as the Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night, is a commemoration of the failure of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to blow up parliament. On this day, some people organise small gatherings around a small bonfire while firing off cheap fireworks.
Others join in with thousands of other onlookers around a larger pyre and watch as professionals execute large firework displays using rocket fireworks and other pyrotechnics. Traditionally, a straw effigy of Guy Fawkes is also created and thrown into the bonfire, in remembrance of The Gunpowder Plot.
The Gunpowder Plot
The story goes that Guy Fawkes, who was a devout Catholic, had conspired with 12 other men to blow up parliament, kill the reigning monarch King James I, and restore an English Catholic monarch to the throne. The conspiracy was started by a certain Robert Catesby, who had gathered 12 people to plan the treasonous ploy.
Guy Fawkes, a former soldier who had fought for Catholic Spain in the Eight Years’ War, was sought after by Catesby because of his experience in explosives. Naturally, Fawkes was tasked to be the one to source and ignite the 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar directly beneath Parliament.
However, after 18 months of careful planning, Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed at midnight of November 4 as he was leaving the undercroft where the gunpowder was hidden. He was then tortured until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators. On January 31, 1606, Fawkes and three others were hanged, drawn and quartered.
Despite the tradition of burning a Guy Fawkes effigy in a large pyre, the man himself didn’t actually get burned to death. While climbing up the scaffold where he was to be hanged, he jumped to his death and avoided being quartered while he was still alive.
The Significance of Fireworks
While bonfire night has been celebrated since the 16th century, the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies started only in the 19th century. The tradition lives on today in many parts of the country.
However, aside from the burning of Guy Fawkes’ effigy, the celebration includes a large display of the best fireworks in the UK in accordance to his failure to ignite the explosives that were supposed to usher Catholicism back into England.
Bonfire Night Today
The Bonfire Night, as celebrated today, is no longer treated as the celebration of English throne’s victory over Catholicism. While bonfires are still erected, and fireworks shops are still emptied for a spectacular show, Guy Fawkes’ effigy is no longer just the lone figure to be burned.
In fact, in 2016, organisers from the town of Lewes burned several political leaders in effigy, including more than one version of US President Donald Trump, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, and even UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
Despite losing its sectarian roots, the Bonfire Night today is still celebrated, albeit with different connotations in mind. Aside from expressing dissent and political dissatisfaction, Bonfire Night is now also used to remember several salient points in the country’s history, both good and bad, as well as a way to enjoy a spectacular fireworks display in the process.
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