Guy Fawkes Day / Bonfire Night: A Bizarre British Holiday

The British remember, remember the 5th of November. But who exactly was Guy Fawkes — and why do kids burn his effigy?

Bonfire Night can be a bit scary — a time when Brits burn effigies and, apparently, even crosses

To the outsider, November 5, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day, can seem horrifying. I mean, who wouldn’t be creeped out by children creating effigies of Fawkes as well as the Pope — and then throwing them atop bonfires and cheering as they burn?

Here’s the story behind this bizarre British holiday.

The authorities had quite the execution planned for the traitor. They were going to lop off his testicles and cut his stomach open so he could watch his own guts spill out.


It goes back to the British struggle between Catholics and Protestants.

King James I, despite having a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who was executed, continued the persecution of Catholics begun by his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I. In 1604, he condemned Catholicism as superstition and ordered all priests to leave the country. The next year, 13 young men decided to take violent action in protest.

Guy (who preferred to be called Guido) Fawkes and his cohorts in the Gunpowder Plot. There were two Wrights involved, though hopefully they weren’t related to me

Guy Fawkes wasn’t the leader of the terrorists.

A man named Robert Catesby led the group, devising the plan: blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the king — and hopefully throw in the next in line, the Prince of Wales and some members of Parliament.

“In the meantime, as Fawkes escaped by boat across the River Thames, his fellow conspirators would start an uprising in the English Midlands, kidnap James’ daughter Elizabeth, install her as a puppet queen and eventually marry her off to a Catholic, thereby restoring the Catholic monarchy,” the History channel reports.


The plot involved 36 barrels of gunpowder — which, it turns out, wouldn’t have done much.

The gunpowder was placed in the cellar below the House of Lords. In theory, it could have blown Parliament to bits. But some experts think it had decayed to such a state it might not have fully ignited, according to The Telegraph.


And he wasn’t even born Catholic.

While his maternal grandparents were Catholic, Fawkes’ parents were Protestant. But after his dad died, his mom remarried a Catholic when Fawkes was 8. He converted to the faith when he was a teenager.

An effigy of Guy Fawkes before it’s burned on Bonfire Night in England

One member of the group seems to have betrayed the plot.

Some of the rebels started to realize that innocents — and even those sympathetic to their cause — would be what we today call “collateral damage” and began having second thoughts. There’s a theory that someone in the gang sent a letter detailing what would become known as the Gunfire Plot to Lord Monteagle.

The letter eventually found its way to the king.


Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed.

The reason Fawkes is the best-known British traitor is that the poor sucker was in the cellar when the king’s forces raided. He must’ve drawn the short straw, for it was his job to light the explosives.

Incidentally, that cellar no longer exists. It was part of the 1834 fire that destroyed much of the medieval structure.

Every year at the opening of session, the yeoman of the guard checks to make sure there aren’t any conspirators plotting in the cellars. “This has become more of a tradition than a serious anti-terrorist precaution,” The Telegraph writes.

Bonfire Night celebrations take place in front of Windsor Castle in this illustration from 1776

The tradition of lighting a bonfire began that very night.

The people celebrated the king’s escape by lighting bonfires. Nowadays, the tradition continues, along with setting off fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and sometimes politicians (Trump, anyone?) and celebrities.

“In 1677, an elaborate Pope effigy was burned with live cats in its stomach, so their cries would symbolize the sound of the devil whispering in the Pope’s ear,” according to Vox.


Fawkes wasn't actually executed.

The authorities had quite the execution planned for the traitor. They were going to lop off his testicles and cut his stomach open so he could watch his own guts spill out before his eyes, The Telegraph reports.

But Fawkes foiled them. He leapt to his death, dying from a broken neck.


That didn’t stop them from chopping him into pieces.

One of the favorite ways of disposing of the bodies of those who were executed was a practice known as drawn and quartering. It’s a bit like it sounds: The body was divided into four parts. Fawkes’ mutilated corpse was sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” — to teach would-be traitors a lesson, one would imagine.


King James admired Fawkes.

Before his suicide, Fawkes was tortured for two days straight, refusing to admit his part in the Gunpowder Plot. At one point, he was asked why they had so much gunpowder and he replied, “To blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.”

He eventually caved, but lasted long enough to have the monarch say he was impressed by his “Roman resolution.”


Guy preferred to be called Guido.

He felt the Italian variant of his name better suited a Catholic. In fact, when he was forced to sign a document admitting his role in the Gunpowder Plot, he signed it Guido Fawkes.

This is one of the more horrific effigies created for Guy Fawkes Day

Children wheeled around their effigy, begging for “a penny for the Guy.”

As they went along, they’d sing this song, which dates back to around 19870:


The Fifth of November

Remember, remember! 
The fifth of November, 
The Gunpowder treason and plot; 
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive, 
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive. 
Threescore barrels, laid below, 
To prove old England’s overthrow. 
But, by God’s providence, him they catch, 
With a dark lantern, lighting a match! 
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake! 

If you won’t give me one, 
I’ll take two, 
The better for me, 
And the worse for you. 
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, 
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him, 
A pint of beer to wash it down, 
And a jolly good fire to burn him. 

Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! 
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! 
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

A scene from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta graphic novel

Guy Fawkes masks have swept the world, as seen in this group in Vienna, Austria

Popular culture has referenced Fawkes.

The masks in the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta feature Guy Fawkes. The masks have become the go-to for the hacker group Anonymous.

Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes, from an exhibit on The Making of Harry Potter

And in the Harry Potter books, Headmaster Dumbledore’s phoenix is named Fawkes for its propensity to spontaneously combust. (Don’t worry — phoenixes always rise from the ashes.) –Wally