Guy Fawkes: story of Gunpowder Plot, how did he die - and why do we celebrate Bonfire Night on 5 November?

Remember Remember the 5th of November is a rhyme that commemorates the night that Guy Fawkes and his comrades tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament

With its fireworks, sparklers and toffee apples, Bonfire Night has become a celebration that heralds in the cold, dark winter months.

But it has its origins in a dark period of British history, where religious persecution and political upheaval caused by the end of the Tudor dynasty nearly saw the nation tear itself apart.

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This led to a flashpoint in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and several accomplices - including an ancestor of Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington - attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

So who was Guy Fawkes, what exactly was the Gunpowder Plot - and why do we celebrate Bonfire Night.

Here’s what you need to know.

To this day, effigies of Guy Fawkes - and current political leaders - are burnt on bonfires around the UK (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Who was Guy Fawkes?

Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570.

His dad, Edward, was a church lawyer and prominent Protestant in the city, while his mum, Edith, was part of a family that included secret Catholics.

Catholics had to practice their form of Christianity in private at the time due to persecution during the reign of Elizabeth the First - the last Tudor to sit on the British throne.

This was because many plots against Queen Elizabeth had been led by Catholics, while Britain’s enemies at the time included the Catholic countries France and Spain.

When Fawkes was eight, his father died and his mother remarried - tying the knot with Dionysius Bainbridge.

Guy Fawkes was drawn into his stepfather’s religion and converted to Catholicism.

When he was 21, Fawkes travelled to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers who were in the midst of what is now known as the Eighty Years War.

After around a decade of fighting as a soldier, he met fellow Englishman Thomas Wintour in Spain.

At the time, Wintour was looking for people to join a group of Catholic conspirators based in England, led by his cousin Robert Catesby - an ancestor of the Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington.

It led to Fawkes returning to England in 1604, where the protestant Scottish king James I had been crowned king the previous year.

Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington is a descendant of Gunpowder Plot ringleader Robert Catesby, and played him in a TV series (image: Getty Images)

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

When he returned to the British Isles, Guy Fawkes became part of the Gunpowder Plot, which was led by Robert Catesby.

The plan was to blow up Parliament during its state opening on 5 November, when James I, the Queen and his heir would be in the same place.

James’ daughter Elizabeth would then be put on the throne to serve as a Catholic puppet queen.

There were 13 conspirators in all:

  • Guy Fawkes
  • Robert Catesby
  • Thomas Wintour
  • Robert Wintour (Thomas’ brother)
  • John Grant (brother-in-law to the Wintours)
  • Francis Tresham (Catesby’s second cousin)
  • Thomas Bates (Tresham’s servant)
  • Christopher Wright (Fawkes’ childhood friend)
  • John Wright (Christopher’s brother)
  • Thomas Percy (the brother-in-law of the Wrights)
  • Everard Digby
  • Ambrose Rookwood
  • Robert Keyes
The Gunpowder Plot conspirators wanted to install a Catholic monarch on the British throne (image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The plotters rented cellar space that extended below the Houses of Parliament.

Fawkes was the only member of the group who knew anything about gunpowder as he was an explosives expert during his military days.

It is believed this was the reason why he was left in the cellar to set off the fuse for the explosives.

But Fawkes was discovered before he could blow anything up.

A tip-off in an anonymous letter to the authorities led to a search of the spaces in, around and underneath Parliament and the discovery of Fawkes along with 36 barrels of gunpowder - although the number of barrels is disputed.

Fawkes was questioned and then locked up in the Tower of London where he was tortured.

After days of holding out, he named his co-conspirators and signed a confession.

Robert Catesby, the Wright brothers, and Thomas Percy were shot dead having fled to the Midlands, while the others were taken to the Tower of London.

There, they were tried and then sentenced to death for treason.

And on 31 January 1606, they were dragged behind a horse along the streets of London to Westminster Yard where they were hung, drawn and quartered.

Guy Fawkes masks are now worn as a symbol of rebellion in protests around the world, from the USA to Turkey and Hong Kong (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Guy Fawkes’ Legacy

Since his death, Guy Fawkes has lived on as a symbol of rebellion around the world.

In part, this has been down to 2005 film ‘V for Vendetta’, in which a protagonist wearing a mask of Guy Fawkes’ face attempts to bring down a fascist dictatorship in the UK.

Ever since the film’s release, protesters have taken to wearing Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities and make a political point.

The mask has also become synonymous with ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous.

Why do we celebrate Bonfire Night?

After the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, James I passed a thanksgiving act to celebrate its failure and his survival.

Called the Observance of 5 November Act 1605, it involved a special church service, bonfires and fireworks.

This Act remained in law until 1859.

Despite no longer being a legal requirement, celebrations have taken place ever since and often see effigies of Guy Fawkes - or contemporary political figures - burnt on the bonfire.

The event is also celebrated in countries which used to be part of the British Empire.

Another tradition stemming from the event that continues to this day occurs during the state opening of Parliament - an event which kicks off the Parliamentary year.

A ceremonial search for hidden explosives is still undertaken by the Yeomen of the Guard in the cellars below the Palace of Westminster.

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