Last week, when decorating a monthly bullet journal spread, and admiring the colourful hues of the Faber Castell pencils dancing across the pages of an A5 notebook, the iconic 'Remember, remember the 5th of November...' echoed in the back of my mind. Using a trusty black pen to add contrast to my fireworks night sketches in the dotted notebook, I began to realise that it wasn’t just about the art; the intrigue of bonfire night began to kindle a deeper curiosity. Why do we celebrate Bonfire Night? Who was Guy Fawkes, the real Guy Fawkes? Why has his legend burned so brightly through the ages?
If, like us, you’re interested in the Gunpowder Plot and want to uncover the fiery roots behind our celebration of the 5th of November you’ve come to the right place!
Grab one of your favourite pretty notebooks – it can be a B5 notebook, an A5 journal, a lined notebook or a dotted journal – and some journaling pens and get ready to note down 10 illuminating facts about Guy Fawkes. Prepare to be enlightened!
Fawkes, fireworks and forgotten facts - the Guy behind the gunpowder:
- Unravelling the Spark Behind the Gunpowder Plot
The protagonists behind the infamous Gunpowder Plot were a group of fervent Roman Catholics. They sought to overthrow the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with his young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as a puppet queen. English Catholics had hoped for more religious freedom under James, especially given his Catholic wife, Anne of Denmark.
Yet, by 1604, James denounced Catholicism and expelled its priests, pushing the conspirators to hatch their daring plot.
- Guido Fawkes – a Man, not the Mastermind
Guy Fawkes, or Guido Fawkes as he was known when fighting for the Spanish in the 80 Years War, may be the modern day ‘face’ of the plot, but the reality is rather different.
The mastermind behind the infamous event was actually Robert Catesby, a Warwickshire-born man who had already been mixed up in the ill-fated rebellion by the Earl of Essex against Elizabeth I in 1601. Catesby was considered so dangerous by the authorities that he was arrested on Elizabeth’s death, as a precaution.
Other leading co-conspirators included Thomas Percy, a cousin of the Earl of Northumberland, Catesby’s cousins, Thomas and Robert Winter and Francis Tresham.
- Guy Fawkes – the Gunpowder Guru
Fawkes was recruited in 1604 by the conspirators because of his skill with gunpowder – one he’d learnt during his time in the army.
Giving himself the pseudonym, John Johnson, and posing as Thomas Percy’s servant, his job in the plot was to guard the gunpowder placed in a basement underneath the House Of Lords and then light the fuse to set the House of Westminster ablaze.
- How the Plot was Discovered
The alarm was raised that a plot was afoot when catholic peer, Lord Monteagle - brother-in-law of plot conspirator, Francis Tresham - received an anonymous letter. It warned him against attending Parliament's opening.
Loyal to the king, Monteagle alerted James I's chief minister, Robert Cecil. Cecil then initiated the search that found the suspicious heap of firewood and the man claiming to be “John Johnson” in Parliament's vaults.
Recognising the firewood's claimed owner, Thomas Percy, as a Catholic agitator, a deeper search was initiated.
On 5 November, "Johnson", later identified as Guy Fawkes, was found equipped for sabotage and arrested; a whopping 36 barrels of gunpowder were also unearthed.
- Torture most Terrible
On the fateful evening of 5th November, in a shadowy cellar, Fawkes was moments away from igniting a fuse that would change history. But, as destiny would have it, a patrol of alert guards chanced upon him at the eleventh hour.
Before he could make his move, they apprehended him and led him to the imposing confines of the Tower of London.
King James I was quick to authorise the use of torture on Fawkes, in order to gain information about his fellow plotters.
Guy Fawkes signature – before and after the torture – are a visible testament to the terrible pain and suffering he endured at the hands of his captors.
Fawkes was then sentenced to the grisly death of hanging, drawing and quartering.
But the intrigue didn’t end there. There’s a good reason why people often ask, how did Guy Fawkes die.
He was so weak that he had to be helped to the scaffolding and then when the rope was around his neck he either fell or jumped. Either way, he broke his neck and thus avoided the full extent of his awful punishment.
- Catesby's Final Perch: A Grisly Rooftop Debut
Determined to avoid the usual death for Treason – hanging, drawing and quartering - Robert Catesby decided it was far preferable to fight it out with the authorities who came to arrest him. He died from a musket ball wound, despite the desperate efforts to save his life, so he could stand trial.
In the end, Catesby’s head was cut off and taken to London, to be stuck on the roof of the House of Commons, as a warning to others.
- The Pope: Bonfire Night’s Forgotten Effigy
In 1606, the Observance of 5th November Act marked an annual celebration of the Gunpowder Plot's failure, then dubbed Gunpowder Treason Day. But did you know that, surprisingly, Guy Fawkes wasn't the original bonfire effigy—it was the Pope!
For years, Pope effigies fuelled the flames, reflecting the era's anti-Catholic sentiment.
But, by the late 18th century, youngsters paraded Guy Fawkes replicas, chanting "a penny for the Guy". Fawkes eventually supplanted the Pope on the pyres, thus transforming the occasion into Guy Fawkes Day.
By 1859, as its religious and political fervour waned, the act was repealed.
- The Lone Bonfire Night Holdout
Out of respect for its former pupil, Guy Fawkes, St. Peters school in York is the only place in England that never celebrates Bonfire Night.
- Parliament Peek: Keeping Tradition (and Suspicion) Alive!
Before the annual State Opening of Parliament each November, the Yeomen of the Guard put on a theatrical spectacle, lanterns in hand, as they search the cellars of Westminster. This ceremonial ritual, more about tradition than genuine threat, harks back to the notorious Gunpowder Plot, ensuring history's echoes are felt even today.
- Current Quirky 5 November Celebrations
The biggest Bonfire Night celebrations in England are traditionally held in the town of Lewes, Sussex. However, the winner of the oddest celebration must go to Ottery St Mary in Devon. On 5 November every year its townspeople carry flaming barrels of tar through the streets. It attracts thousands of spectators annually. Whilst the reasons behind this tradition are lost in the mists of time, we can only imagine how incredible the sight of willing participants hoisting lit barrels of tar onto their shoulders must be!
As we wrap up our explosive look into history, it's always good to “remember-remember” the tales and traditions that light up our fireworks night. Whether you're sketching the vibrant hues of the evening with a pack of Faber Castell Polychromos or other colouring pencils…or simply enjoying the show, the legacy of November 5th continues to sparkle in modern times. So, as the skies burst into colour this year, why not give a thought to the stories, the plots, and the quirky traditions that have shaped this iconic night.