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  • Writer's pictureBath Insider Tours

Remember, Remember, The 5th of November! England's Bonfire Night

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

When I travel I like to learn about local customs and cultural events and I have been known to participate in the odd one or two! Throwing tomatoes in the world's biggest tomato food fight at the La Tomatina Festival in Spain ranks among my favourites! In England we have a number of unique events too. One of the most famous events in the English calendar takes place on the 5th November - Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night). On the weekend around the 5th November bonfires are lit across the country and many cities and towns host firework displays. In 2017 £155 million was spent on fireworks to celebrate the date! There are a number of public displays in Bath - some free, some ticketed. This year the most famous ones include the display at the Bath Racecourse on the 3rd November and The Bath Rotary Club display at the Bath Rec on Saturday 4th November.

Some families in England have small firework displays in their own garden. Below is a video of my family's fireworks on Bonfire Night!:

I got to see some incredible fireworks this year at England's largest bonfire night celebration, they were the best I have ever seen! You can see photos on my Instagram: @bathinsider. I have also created a video of some of the processions at this festival - please click here to see this.

The origin of Bonfire Night dates all the way back to the early 1600s. During that time England was under the Protestant rule of King James I. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants were rife and many Catholics practised their religion out of the public eye in their homes. In 1604 a group of devout Catholics met at a pub near the Strand in London and created a secret plot to blow up the King and his Parliament. Once achieved they would lead a Catholic uprising and return the country to being a Catholic country. Over time 13 people became involved in the plot (an unlucky number one might say!), many of whom were members of the English gentry. The plot centred around blowing up the Palace of Westminster on November 5th (in 1605) during the opening of Parliament when the King and his heir would be present. 36 barrels of gunpowder were hidden among lots of firewood in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament and a soldier, Guido (Guy) Fawkes, was given the task of lighting the fuse.

About a week before the fuse was due to be lit, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic sympathiser who was going to attend the opening of the Parliament on the 5th November, received an anonymous letter advising him not to attend the event. It said those who did would receive a terrible blow - implying death. The letter may have been written by his brother-in-law who was one of the plotters. The author asked him to burn the letter after he had read it - but he didn't and gave it instead to the King's right-hand man, the Earl of Salisbury, who informed the King. In the early hours of the 5th November, during a second search of the Palace's cellars, the gunpowder was found under the firewood along with Guy Fawkes who was found in possession of fuses. After days of torture Guy Fawkes confessed and the authorities moved to arrest the other plotters. Those who were not killed in the attempt to arrest them were found guilty and sentenced to a traitor's death: this involved being hung and then before this killed them they were taken down and castrated, dismembered and beheaded. Their bodies were then cut into quarters and put on public display to remind people of the consequences of such actions. It was a grisly time back then!

In January 1606 Parliament passed the following Act: "An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November" which made it mandatory for every church in England to hold a special service on the 5th November - attendance was compulsory! This heralded the start of our 5th of November tradition. In the following decades this service was accompanied with bellringing, bonfires and fireworks. Between 1673 and the end of the 1700s some towns would parade an effigy of the Pope which was burned on the bonfire. Around 1800, possibly as a result of better relations between Catholics and Protestants, this effigy of the Pope was replaced with an effigy of Guy Fawkes. When I was a child we would make a man out of old clothes stuffed with newspapers which we then placed on top of the bonfire - the man was known as the Guy! Back then I had no idea on the connotations of this! Nowadays it is not as common to see people burning a Guy on top of the bonfire but in the town of Lewes which has the largest Bonfire Night celebrations in the country they still burn effigies based on topical figures in the news that year! Today there are no longer church services to celebrate the 5th November but people still set off fireworks, some people have bonfires at their homes and towns and cities will often have public bonfires and firework displays. When I was young it was traditional to eat a Toffee Apple whilst watching the bonfire (apples covered in melted toffee) but like the Guy this is not as widespread today - sadly for me and my sweet tooth!

Here are some interesting Bonfire Night facts for you:

- Until 1959 it was illegal NOT to celebrate Bonfire Night in Britain! During the 1st and 2nd World War people were expected to celebrate indoors with indoor fireworks! Bonfire Night though is not a public holiday.

- England's first firework display took place in 1486 at the wedding of King Henry VII. Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed fireworks and created an honorary title for the person who created the best fireworks: the "Fire Master of England"!

- There is special Bonfire Night poem:

"Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!"

Happy Bonfire Night!

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