Why Does the UK Celebrate Guy Fawkes Night?

Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night is a British tradition involving bonfires, fireworks and effigies, but how did it become such a popular event?

Nov 4, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

why uk celebrate guy fawkes night


Also known as ‘Bonfire Night,’ Guy Fawkes Night is an annual celebration predominantly in the United Kingdom which takes place on the 5th of November. Lest we forget the date, the opening lines of John Milton’s 1626 poem, On the 5th of November, have been etched into the minds of many since childhood: ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder, treason and plot…” The winter festival involves gathering around bonfires and letting off firework displays on a freezing dark night, in memory of a thwarted ‘Gunpowder Plot’ to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament, led by a band of rogues including Guy Fawkes in 1605. But why has it become such a popular event? We delve into the history of the notorious foiled plot to find out more.


The Terrifying Gunpowder Plot

Guy Fawkes portrait painting. Source: Historic Royal Palaces, London
Guy Fawkes portrait painting. Source: Historic Royal Palaces, London


The motivation for destroying the prominent Houses of Parliament came about following decades of religious war between Catholic and Protestant groups going back into the previous century. A group of plotters gathered together with a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London on the 5th of November 1605, an event now known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot,” in a bid to spark a Catholic uprising. Guido (or Guy) Fawkes, a radicalized former soldier was recruited by the group’s leader Robert Catesby to dig a mine going underneath the parliament building in 1604 which would become an entry point for large amounts of explosives.


The group then secured a coal cellar underneath the House of Lords, where they stored 36 barrels of gunpowder. Their plan would not only have decimated the London landmark, but also killed innocent bystanders including the Protestant King James I and his heir Prince Henry, as well as inciting greater religious warfare.


The Plan Failed

The conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. Source: Anglotopia.
The conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot. Source: Anglotopia.


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Francis Tresham, a member of the Catholic group of plotters, began having second thoughts not long before the event was due to take place. It was he who anonymously warned his brother-in-law, the Catholic Lord Monteagle via a letter. Tresham asked Monteagle to burn the letter, but instead he took it to the authorities. In the early hours on the 5th of November, the gunpowder stash beneath Westminster was discovered, along with a man who called himself ‘John Johnson’, whose pockets were lined with fuses.


conspirator guy fawkes execution gunpowder plot
Etching of Guy Fawkes and conspirator executions in Old Palace Yard by Claes Jansz Visscher, 1606, via National Portrait Gallery, London


Eventually, following days of torture in the Tower of London, ‘Johnson’ revealed his true name as Guy Fawkes, and admitted the full extent of their plan. Police tracked down and arrested the remaining members of Catesby’s gang, who were later executed for treason. Fawkes was only one member of the larger group, and he wasn’t even the leader, but because he was discovered with the gunpowder and arrested first, his name has become synonymous with the failed event.


Guy Fawkes Night Is a Moment of Gratitude

Burning effigy of Guy Fawkes. Source: The Guardian.
Burning effigy of Guy Fawkes. Source: The Guardian.


The main reason we came to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night today is because the Gunpowder Plot was unsuccessful, making the event a moment of thanks and gratitude that so many lives were spared. In fact, the English protestants believed the plan never came to fruition because they were protected by God, which bolstered England’s Anti-Catholic stance.


In 1606, the British government passed a law marking the 5th of November as Gunpowder Treason Day, during which it was mandatory for every church in England to hold a compulsory service of remembrance. Over time the event later evolved into Guy Fawkes Night, involving bonfires, bell ringing and fireworks. From the 17th to the 19th century crowds hung an effigy of the Pope above their bonfires demonstrating the continuing prejudice against Catholicism.



However, by the 19th century, as religious affiliations in the UK continued to evolve, the festival became a secular event centered around Guy Fawkes. Some began wearing Guy Fawkes masks or carrying around an effigy made to look like the doomed terrorist. During the 1980s, Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s famed V for Vendetta series brought the character of Guy Fawkes to public attention, by dressing the central character in a Guy Fawkes mask. Since then, Fawkes has, for better or worse, become a widespread symbol for anti-establishment protest, even although he was never the true leader of the Gunpowder Plot.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.