Megan Harding answers your burning questions about the history of Bonfire Night
Remember, Remember, the 5th of November…
Considering Guy Fawkes planned and failed to execute the Gunpowder plot in 1605, it is monumental that we still commemorate the day in 2022.
The 5th of November is mostly referred to as ‘Bonfire Night’, though the noun dates to 1486 when it was used to describe any night that bonfires were lit in celebration. The Oxford English Dictionary states that the compound ‘bonfire’ was formed in English by combining ‘bone’ and ‘fire’ resembling the fact that people once practice the ritual of throwing bones into a fire. Despite this, it is argued that this is a folk etymology, and the true history is linked to ‘balefire’ which was first used in the 1400s, in Old English poetry, to mean a fatal or evil fire.
…gunpowder, treason, and plot…
On the 20th of May 1605, a group of gentry Catholic men gathered at the Dog and Duck pub in London to collude and conspire a plan to disrupt parliament. Amongst them was Guy Fawkes, who demanded a radical Catholic uprising, and by October 1605 there was a group of 13 plotters who planted 36 barrels of gunpowder in the Palace of Westminster to kill King James I and parliament members. Thankfully, 13 did prove to be unlucky for some, as John Johnson (Guy Fawkes) was found in parliament with fuses in his pockets before he had a chance to execute the plan.
What sparked the unravelling of the plot?
Guy Fawkes was confident in the preparation they had organised when he checked on the gunpowder on the 30th of October, but what he didn’t know was that a few days before, the plan was already going up in smoke. A previous Catholic parliament member, Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter advising him to “shift [his] attendance at this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time”. This innominate letter encouraged King James to order a search of Westminster which subsequently led to Guy Fawkes being caught red handed.
…I see no reason, why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot
In January 1606, parliament decided to make attending church mandatory on the 5th of November as it was widely believed that the uncovering of the plot was another symbol that proved God favoured the English. Over time the religious connotations of Bonfire Night have diminished into embers. In 1660 Samuel Pepys stated that, “the 5th of November is observed exceedingly well in the city; and at night great bonefires and fireworks” illustrating how celebrations have shifted from a church service to a dazzling night of festivity. Before the 19th century, an effigy of the Pope would be paraded in the streets while being devoured by the bonfire flames, but from the 1800s Guy Fawkes became the figure and anti-hero of the night.
Still, today firework displays and bonfires engulf the country as families celebrate bonfire night wrapped up in thick coats while holding a sparkler and a hot chocolate. However, it could be said that the fact we still commemorate the downfall of Guy Fawkes by using the materials that he planned to kill the King with is an unusual concept. Should we reconsider how we acknowledge the 5th of November?
What would Bonfire Night be without the big bangs?
Despite the excitement and wonder that Bonfire Night brings, it is important to contemplate the negative impacts that fireworks and bonfires have on the environment, animals, and the safety of people. It is estimated that air pollution quadruples around the 5th of November and fireworks and bonfires account for 5-14% of the overall dioxin emissions in the UK. We are gradually taking measures to prevent the speed of climate change, so is it time to address the effects that fireworks and bonfires have on the environment? Dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, and guinea pigs are just a few animals that are affected by the loud bangs of fireworks. Many households will dread the 5th of November as the night will not involve gazing up at a glittering spectacle, but instead will see them attempting to comfort and reassure petrified pets who are confused and fearful. This could lead to animals running away or injuring themselves, just so people can observe an illumination show or gape upon an ignited cluster of wood.
Every year there are reports of children and adults getting severely hurt from using fireworks and sparklers that can be purchased readily from supermarkets. Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, the Co-op, and M&S have all refused to sell fireworks this year, but four companies is a small fraction of the market, proving not enough is being done! It could be said the focus of the shops that still stock fireworks is solely profit related, or is it that there is still a large demand as customers want to buy them?
With modern technology it would be simple to use projections, drones, and music to construct a mesmerising and special production to commemorate Bonfire Night. Obviously, the type of equipment needed would be a big investment, but it could be worth the costs if it benefits the environment and keeps animals and people safe.
So, this year when you celebrate Guy Fawkes night, remember, remember to celebrate safely and take a moment to think about the history and significance of the 5th of November.
Written by Megan Harding