An Explosive History – the story of Bonfire Night

What is Bonfire Night?
by Ellis Thomas

Bonfire Night celebrates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by a gang of Roman Catholic activists. Led by Robert Catesby, they attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament on November 5th 1605.

Why did they want to blow up Parliament?

When Protestant King James I took the throne, English Catholics had hoped that the persecution they had suffered for 45 years under Queen Elizabeth I would end. When it didn’t, a group of conspirators plotted to assassinate the King and his ministers by destroying the Palace of Westminster during the state opening of Parliament.

What happened?

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators rented a house close to Parliament and managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar under the House of Lords – enough to destroy the building. Physicists have since calculated that the 2,500kg of gunpowder would have obliterated an area 500 meters from the centre of the explosion.

However, the scheme began to unravel when an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, which warned him to avoid the House of Lords. The letter was made public and this led to a search of Westminster Palace in the early hours of November 5th.

Explosive expert Fawkes, who had been left in the cellar to light the fuse, was caught when a group of guards discovered him at the last moment.

Fawkes was arrested, sent to the Tower of London and tortured until he gave the names of his fellow plotters.

What happened to Guy Fawkes?

The conspirators were all either killed resisting capture or, like Fawkes, were tried, convicted and executed.

The traditional death for 17th Century traitors in England was to be hung, drawn and quartered in public. But this was not the 35 year old Fawkes’ fate.

As he awaited his punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt off the platform to avoid having his manhood severed, stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes. Mercifully for him he died from a broken neck. But his body was subsequently quartered and sent to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning.

What happened after?

Following this plot, Parliament declared November 5th a national day of thanksgiving and the first celebrations took place in 1606.

Because of this assassination attempt, the Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeoman Guard before the state opening. This is to ensure no modern day Guy Fawkes is hiding in the cellar with a bomb. However, this is more ceremonial than serious as it is done in traditional dress, including lanterns.



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