Guy Fawkes’ Night is celebrated every year on November 5 in the U.K. On this day every year, people light bonfires and set off fireworks in memory or loathing of one man — Guy Fawkes. Today is the anniversary of the failed assassination attempt that happened over 400 years ago and although Guy Fawkes has become the singular name associated with the plot, he was part of a larger group of rebels. This annual ritual has lost its religious overtones and Guy Fawkes’ Night is more fun than fundamentalist. And thanks to popular culture, Fawkes has undergone a tremendous, almost mythical image revamp himself.
History of Guy Fawke's Night
In 1603, James I became King of England after Queen Elizabeth died. Elizabeth’s reign saw the systematic persecution of Catholics in the country. Following King James’ ascension to the throne, many Catholics hoped for a reprieve since he was the son of the late Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic. That hope was short-lived. Far from sympathetic, James continued the suppression of Catholicism in England.
Outraged by the injustice, a man known as Robert Catesby hatched a plan to kill the king and his establishment. Catesby hoped to create widespread chaos and restore a Catholic king to the English throne. Along with his cousin, Thomas Wintour, Catesby recruited other like-minded Catholics to the cause. The first part of the plan involved sneaking in multiple gunpowder barrels inside the Parliament building. Their objective was to blow up the building on the opening day of parliament with the king and his government inside it. First, they needed an expert to handle the explosives and they found the best person in a man named Guy Fawkes.
The conspirators snuck in 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath the House of
Lords. The group had leased a vault directly underneath the building. On November 4, Fawkes remained to guard the vault — but the plan fell apart that same night. Lord Monteagle — a Catholic loyal to the Crown received an anonymous letter warning him to avoid the opening day of parliament. The letter reached the king, who subsequently ordered a thorough search of the building. His troops discovered Fawkes and the gunpowder barrels a little after midnight. Fawkes was tortured at the Tower of London until he revealed who his co-conspirators were. By then, most had already been rounded up and arrested. King James, I sentenced Fawkes to death by hanging, but he avoided the noose by jumping from the gallows. He died of a broken neck soon after.
News about the failed plot broke out across London. People lit bonfires to celebrate that the king was still alive. These events led parliament to establish an annual public day – Gunpowder Treason Day – commemorating the plot’s failure. Guy Fawkes and his legacy have evolved. The popularity of “V for Vendetta” — a 1980s graphic novel, transformed his image from traitor to populist icon. Gunpowder Treason Day is now Guy Fawkes’ Night/Day worldwide.
Guy Fawke's Night timeline
The English Parliament passes the Supremacy Act, establishing the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Thomas Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Guy Fawkes, and Thomas Percy hatch a plan at The Duck and Drake inn.
Illustrator David Lloyd creates the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask for the graphic novel “V for Vendetta.”
Hacktivist group ‘Anonymous’ adopts the Guy Fawkes mask as its symbol.
Guy Fawke's Night FAQs
What happens on Guy Fawkes Day?
Many people attend firework festivities related to Guy Fawkes. Fireworks represent the explosives that conspirators never ended up using.
Was Guy Fawkes a good guy?
The English widely considered Guy Fawkes a villain for a long time. Fast forward to today, and his reputation for religious extremism has faded from collective memory.
Can you still burn Guy Fawkes effigies?
Burning effigies on Guy Fawkes’ Night is no longer a practice. People in the U.K. remember the occasion with fireworks and bonfires instead.
How to Observe Guy Fawke's Night
Watch a fireworks display
Fireworks are integral to Guy Fawkes celebrations. Attending a fireworks show with loved ones is an excellent way to celebrate.
Light a bonfire
Invite family or friends over for a bonfire night. This day is perfect for a fun evening of barbeque and music.
Learn more about the power of the mask
The Guy Fawkes mask has become an enduring symbol of popular protest. Read up on how protestors worldwide have used the mask — from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Arab Spring.
5 Facts About Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes was born a Protestant
He embraced Catholicism in his teens and went abroad to fight with Catholic Spain against Dutch Protestants.
He adopted a new name
Guy adopted the Italian name “Guido” in Spain to sound more Catholic and continental.
His alma mater remains loyal
To date, St. Peter’s School in York defies English tradition by refusing to burn Guy Fawkes effigies or celebrate the day.
He has an island to his name
There is an uninhabited island in the Galapagos named Guy Fawkes Island.
Fawkes body was drawn and quartered
Fawkes escaped hanging from the gallows. Per custom, his body was quartered and sent to different parts of England as a warning to other rebels.
Why Guy Fawke's Night is Important
The complexities of meaning
Villain to some and hero to others – Guy Fawkes is an emblem of evolving politics. Change is the only constant – the rest is subject to interpretation.
The fireworks and bonfires
Who doesn’t love fireworks or a bonfire on a chilly November night? The perfect setting for a cozy night with friends and family.
An inner fire rekindled
Whether a rebel or patriot, Guy Fawkes’ Night can be whatever anyone wants it to be. A historical event urges you to stay the course — whatever the individual cause.
Guy Fawke's Night dates