Why we celebrate Bonfire Night by setting off fireworks

Bonfire Night is a celebration based on the calendar year.

Shortly after Halloween, we ditch the pumpkins and spooky decorations for sparklers and a warm pair of gloves to witness our local fireworks.

This year promises to be particularly spectacular after the November 5 2020 events have been canceled across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Bonfire Night has been celebrated since 1605, after a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament was foiled.

But what happened on November 5th all those centuries ago, and who was Guy Fawkes?

What was the gunpowder plot?

In 1603, Elizabeth I was dying after 45 years on the throne of England.

English Catholics had suffered severe persecution of their faith for decades during Elizabeth’s reign and hoped her succession would bring about a change.

She was replaced by Protestant James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was rumored to be more relaxed towards Catholics than the dying queen.

Yet shortly after his accession as James I of England (VI of Scotland), the king denounced Catholicism and reintroduced Elizabeth’s heavy fines for recusers.

A group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries grew increasingly angry with their persecution.

Their leader, Robert Catesby, hatched a plan to kill the King by blowing up Parliament when it opened on November 5 – and that’s how the gunpowder plot was born.

Who was Guy Fawkes?

Catesby, a devout Catholic, originally conspired with his friends Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright and Thomas Percy – and a fifth person, Guy “Guido” Fawkes.

Born in York, Fawkes, 35, converted to Catholicism after his father’s death and had served in the Spanish army against Dutch Protestants.

Fawkes had a crucial role to play in the gunpowder plot.

The group of conspirators, which gradually grew to ten, rented a house in the heart of Westminster in 1605, near Parliament. Fawkes was appointed custodian of the property under the name John Johnson.

This house allowed the group to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a downstairs cellar they had rented – and it was directly below the House of Lords.

Fawkes, an explosives expert, was to light the fuse and flee to Europe to gain foreign support for the group’s case.

The sheer amount of gunpowder meant that, if ignited, the explosion would have destroyed an area 1,320 feet wide.

How was the gunpowder plot foiled?

The group’s plans were thwarted by an anonymous letter handed to Lord Monteagle, warning him to avoid the opening of Parliament.

The letter was forwarded to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, who decided to wait until the last minute to foil the plan.

A search of Westminster in the early hours of November 5, 1605 caught Fawkes red-handed in the cellars, waiting to light the fuse.

After Fawkes’ capture, he was tortured until he renounced the names of his co-conspirators.

All died resisting capture or were tried for high treason, convicted and, traditionally, hanged, dragged and quartered.

This excruciating punishment involved a prisoner being hanged until he was nearly dead, before being cut to have his intestines torn out, his genitals cut and beheaded.

Guy Fawkes managed to avoid this horrible fate. As he waited for his punishment on the gallows, he leaped to his death and died of a broken neck.

His body was still quartered and his remains were being distributed throughout the kingdom as a warning to others.

How is the Night of the Bonfire celebrated?

The very night the gunpowder plot was foiled, bonfires were lit to celebrate the King’s survival.

Every year since, November 5th has been celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night.

Fireworks are set off to represent explosives that were never set off, and it is a tradition to burn plush effigies of Guy Fawkes on the bonfire.

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