November the 5th – a date cherished by all Brits. Anybody born or bred in the UK will have fond childhood memories of the whole family decanting into the back garden as soon as it was dark, muffled up to the eyebrows against the cold, the youngsters excited beyond belief, someone carrying a colorful box of mixed fireworks. Or perhaps they’ll remember joining a community gathering in the local park to “ooh” and “aah” at a professional fireworks display, and to cheer as the bonfire crackled away, finally consuming the stuffed figure perched on the top – the guy.
They will probably also recall the hot sausage rolls and other delicacies that made the occasion special, to say nothing of the fireworks streaming across the sky, some making weird noises as they went before exploding in a cascade of color. Others will recall the domestic fireworks that Dad would let off (“light the blue touch paper and retire”) – the Catherine wheels that were nailed to a nearby tree and whirled round and round in a circle of exploding light, the sparklers that even the small children were allowed to hold in their gloved hands, the Roman candles, the fountains, the rockets.
Known variously as fireworks night, bonfire night and Guy Fawkes night, these occasions have taken place year after year across Britain – with the exception of the two world wars – for more than four centuries. Comparable, perhaps, to Israel’s Lag Ba’omer on account of the bonfires, they commemorate an event that occurred way back in 1605.
On November 5 in that year King James was due to preside over the opening of Parliament. Seated in the House of Lords he would be surrounded by members of the royal family, most of the aristocracy, the senior judges and bishops, and all the Members of Parliament.
England at that time was riven by religious conflict. Although the country had renounced Catholicism, the new Protestant Church of England was far from firmly established. A zealous Catholic, Robert Catesby, conceived the idea of assassinating the new monarch and the entire English establishment, placing the king’s young daughter on the throne and returning the country to “the true faith.”
He rented a property adjacent to Parliament whose cellar ran under the House of Lords. He and a bunch of co-conspirators packed the cellar with 36 barrels of gunpowder, which, if they had exploded, would certainly have achieved his objective. On the night before the parliamentary occasion, one of the gang members, Guy Fawkes, was dispatched to the cellar to keep watch over the cache of gunpowder.
As Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, once wrote: “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.” Catesby’s plot failed because one of the conspirators let his kind heart rule his cool head. In an effort to save his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, from certain death, Francis Tresham sent him an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5. Monteagle’s suspicions were aroused. He alerted the authorities, and in the middle of the night, just a few hours before the attack was due to take place, the explosives were discovered, along with Guy Fawkes.
It goes without saying that Fawkes, Catesby and the other men involved in the plot were tried and executed in the peculiarly horrible method reserved for traitors. As the plaque that now adorns the house Guy Fawkes once occupied proclaims, he was “hung, drawn and quartered”. What that involved is not for the squeamish.
And this is why, every November 5, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by burning Fawkes in effigy. They place a stuffed replica of the man, tall hat and all, on the top of the highest bonfire they can construct, and merrily burn the lot.
It is not, perhaps, a very 21st-century thing to do, and doubtless voices will be raised in objection, supporting Leo Winkley, the head of Guy Fawkes’s old school in York. In 2015 he said he viewed the November 5 tradition as an outdated expression of religious intolerance, and suggested people should stop burning Fawkes’s effigy. “It is time to move on and let the poor soul rest,” he said.
The verse commemorating the event is still recited by schoolchildren up and down the land:
“Remember, remember the Fifth of NovemberGunpowder, treason and plot.I see no reasonWhy gunpowder treasonShould ever be forgot.”
Some of the old customs may be on the way out. Once upon a time children would stuff an effigy of Guy Fawkes into an old baby carriage (pram in British English), and go door to door seeking money to buy fireworks. The cry was “Penny for the Guy?” It was the British equivalent of the American “Trick or Treat” on Halloween, but the practice – too much like begging – has become less common.
Whatever variations in custom may have crept in over the years, one thing is certain. This evening Britain will be resounding to the bang of exploding fireworks, and the night sky will be tinged red with the flames of countless bonfires. A 400-year-old tradition is not easily discarded.