10 Explosive Facts About Guy Fawkes Night

Guy Fawkes is the reason we remember, remember, the 5th of November.
Guy Fawkes is the reason we remember, remember, the 5th of November. / Anonymus-ng, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

On November 5, people across Great Britain celebrate Guy Fawkes Night with bonfires and fireworks. Centuries after his failed attempt to blow up the British Parliament, Fawkes's image remains prevalent in popular culture, thanks to films like V for Vendetta (2005). Here are 10 fiery facts about Fawkes and the holiday his treasonous attempts inspired.

1. Guy Fawkes was a clandestine Catholic.

Why is Guy Fawkes important? Guy (also known as Guido) Fawkes was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1570. He was raised by a Protestant family, but secretly converted to Catholicism as a young man. When he was 21, he went to fight alongside the Spanish Catholics in Flanders. During the fighting, he became an expert on explosives. This, alongside his fanatic Catholicism, is what got him recruited to the Gunpowder Plot.

2. Guy Fawkes played a key role in the Gunpowder Plot.

England became a Protestant country after the Reformation. As such, Catholics were persecuted and forced to practice their religion in secret. A wealthy Catholic named Robert Catesby decided the only solution to this discrimination was to overthrow King James I and his government. He recruited a number of other Catholics, including Fawkes, and together they plotted to plant gunpowder under the British Houses of Parliament and blow it sky-high.

The conspirators rented a cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament. Disguised as a servant named John Johnson, Fawkes began filling it with barrels of gunpowder. Once the explosives were in place and Parliament was confirmed to be sitting, ensuring the House of Commons would be full of MPs, the date for ignition was set: November 5, 1605.

3. An anonymous letter foiled the Gunpowder Plot.

Everything was going according to plan, until one of the conspirators decided to write an anonymous letter to a Catholic member of Parliament, Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from the Houses of Parliament on the night of November 5. Monteagle, sensing danger, showed the letter to the King, who ordered the area to be immediately searched. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden beneath piles of firewood in a storeroom below the House of Lords. Fawkes, found at the scene while armed with long fuses and dressed for his escape, was arrested.

4. Guy Fawkes was sentenced to death for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

After his capture, Fawkes was sent to the infamous Tower of London, where he was tortured until he confessed and gave the names of his fellow conspirators. Soldiers were soon dispatched to Staffordshire to apprehend Catesby, the mastermind behind the plot. Catesby and his two compatriots died in a gunfight while attempting to combat the approaching soldiers.

Fawkes, meanwhile, was sentenced to death. Treason carried the harshest punishment, and he was to be hung, drawn, and quartered. On the day of his execution—January 31, 1606—Fawkes managed to wrestle free from the soldiers guarding him and jumped (or fell) from the gallows, fatally breaking his neck. The executioners were not going to let him escape his full punishment: They cut his dead body into quarters, then set the pieces of his corpse to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning to others.

5. The first Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated on November 5, 1606.

The day of the ill-fated Gunpowder Plot was decreed a day of celebration—after the attack was prevented, people lit bonfires to toast the King's safety. November 5 was declared a day of thanksgiving, and the first official celebration took place exactly a year after the failed Gunpowder Plot, on November 5, 1606. People across Britain gathered around bonfires and burned effigies of Fawkes.

The festivities developed over the years. It became customary for children to make a life-sized dummy of Fawkes, which they would take around their neighborhood in a wheelbarrow while asking for a “penny for the Guy” to collect money to buy fireworks. Huge bonfires were built in every village and town, and a Fawkes dummy would be placed on top and set alight. The traditional brightly colored firework displays represent the explosives that were meant to ignite under the Houses of Parliament.

6. Children recite rhymes about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.

Various songs and rhymes to help school children remember the story of the Gunpowder Plot were created, including this one from the 18th century:

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November Gunpowder treason and plot We see no reason Why Gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot …”

7. People still celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night) is still honored on November 5 across Britain and parts of the former British Empire. Some people celebrate with friends in their gardens, while others gather in their village green, parks, and other public spaces. Bonfires are lit and effigies of Fawkes (or more often, modern political leaders or societal villains) are burned while fireworks burst in the sky. Traditionally, people feast on baked potatoes and toffee apples.

One of the most famous celebrations takes place in Lewes in East Sussex, where a number of bonfire societies, each with their own special traditions, host festivities across the city. Before the fires are lit, effigies of political figures are paraded through the town and the streets throng with people.

8. Guy Fawkes’s distinct look inspired the mask in V for Vendetta.

Numerous pictures and engravings were produced of the dramatic moment Fawkes was apprehended. His big black floppy hat, leather riding boots, and manicured mustache and beard became iconic. Centuries after the thwarted Gunpowder Plot, Fawkes’s image is still easily recognizable.

The main character in the comic book V for Vendetta (and 2005 movie of the same name) wears a mask of Fawkes’s face to keep his identity a secret as he fights against a dystopian authoritarian government. As a result, the Guy Fawkes mask has become synonymous with rebellion, and is often worn by anti-establishment protestors.

9. You can view Guy Fawkes’s lantern.

When Guy Fawkes was captured, he was supposedly holding an iron lantern to light his way in the dark cellars. Peter Heywood, who helped carry out the search of the Houses of Parliament on the night of the failed Gunpowder Plot, kept the beacon as a souvenir. When he died, the lantern went to his brother Robert, who worked at the University of Oxford. Robert gifted the iron lantern to his workplace in 1641. It was put on display at the Bodleian Library’s picture gallery, then later transferred to the Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, where you can still find it today.

10. The Houses of Parliament are still searched for concealed weapons.

Though the failed Gunpowder Plot occurred more than 400 years ago, it's still tradition for the Yeomen of the Guard to search the cellars of the Houses of Parliament before the State Opening each year. The original spot where Fawkes hid his gunpowder burned down during a fire at the Palace of Westminster in 1834, but officials still scour the existing cellars, just to be sure. However, the searches are performed more for tradition and ritual rather than security.

This story originally ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.