With Guy Fawkes Night – or Fireworks Night or Bonfire Night – approaches on the 5th of November, the excitement of seeing a spectacular light show is beginning to build. As we know, the origins of the celebration are related to the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. However, beyond the general concept many people are unfamiliar with the details, particularly when compared to other seasonal holidays such as Christmas or Easter. So, how did these celebrations last over 400 years after the Gunpowder Plot?
The Early Celebrations
As with many historical traditions that originated in England and the rest of Britain, it began with Christianity. As you may well know, Guy Fawkes himself was a Catholic attempting to assassinate the Protestant King James I. Upon the foiling of the plot, the King’s Council gave permission to celebrate the capture of the conspirators. It was the following January of 1606 that Parliament introduced the Observance of 5th November Act that made the day an official day of thanksgiving.
After James I son, Charles I, ascended to the throne and married the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France, the Protestant celebration became more partisan among puritans. This was exacerbated by his rule without Parliament between 1629 and 1640, with effigies of the pope and the devil being burnt. After Charles I execution and the republican regime coming into power Guy Fawkes Night still survived. However, it’s significance shifted slightly to focus on parliamentary rule and Protestantism, not monarchy. It even survived as a quiet sense of rebellion under the rule of the Catholic king James II and became reignited when William of Orange took power.
A Shifting of Significance
When William III came to power his birthday celebrations on the 4th of November began to eclipse Guy Fawkes Night. This was the beginnings of the event becoming more sectarian, which would happen more completely in the 19th century due to birthdays of other significant figures taking precedence. Celebrations became less partisan and rowdy and were more about civilised entertainment. However, the lower classes still used it as a means of rebelling though disorder. It was around this time that the Guy Fawkes effigy became the focus of bonfires, rather than the pope.
There was some small resurgence of the anti-Catholic sentiment when the Catholics were given improved civil rights in 1829 and the pope was restored amongst English Catholic hierarchy in 1850. This resulted in many effigies of Catholic figureheads – such as the Archbishop of Westminster – being burnt on November 5th. However, this was fairly short lived. In 1859 the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed and a restriction of fireworks and a clamp down of authorities on extreme celebrations saw a decline of Guy Fawkes Night.
Modern Day Guy Fawkes Night
The Guy Fawkes Night that we now mostly recognise as Fireworks Night became what is during the 20th century. Any outbreaks of aggressive celebrations were negligible and it developed into a family event. There were lulls and suspensions during the First and Second World Wars due to availability of fireworks and the effects of the war itself, but the celebrations always returned. Children also continued the tradition of making Guy Fawkes effigies, albeit with more focus on history rather than politic or religion.
Since the arrival of the Firework Code in the late 20th Century the celebrations we now hold have been the predominant way of celebrating. Some more old-fashioned events remain – such as the Lewes Bonfire – but they are mostly focused on retaining historical traditions rather than anything deeper. There is some concern that Guy Fawkes Night will eventually be obsolete with the overshadowing of American Halloween customs just a few days earlier, but after so many centuries you would expect it to endure.