For many people Guy Fawkes night, or as it is more commonly known, Bonfire Night, marks the day from which it is acceptable to start preparing for Christmas. Being on the 5th November, it bridges the gap between Halloween and Christmas and is traditionally marked with fireworks, bonfires, honeycomb and toffee apples. However, for an increasing number of Britons, the origins of the celebration are unknown.


The official religion in 16th century England was dependent of the particular beliefs of the reigning monarch, vascilating between Catholicism and Protestantism. With each change of religious direction, there was an inevitable clampdown on the religion it replaced. When James 1 came to the throne of England in 1603, the Catholics who had been repressed for years under Elizabeth 1, were hoping he would be tolerant of their religious beliefs and their right to worship. However, despite having both a Catholic mother and a wife who had converted to Catholicism, James was unsympathetic to the Catholic cause. His dislike of Catholicism was increased when in the very year he came to the throne, he learned of two Catholic led conspiracies to oust him.  The Bye Plot was a conspiracy by both Catholic priests and Puritans to kidnap the new King in an effort to force religious tolerance. It in turn, was part of a larger conspiracy known as The Main Plot, an alleged plan by Catholic nobles to replace James as monarch with his cousin, the Catholic Arabella Stuart. 


These events prompted James in 1604 to publicly denounce Catholicism and order all Catholic priests to leave England, thus dashing Catholic hopes that James would be a tolerant king - his actions had shown him to be the complete opposite. Catholics in Britain were desperate and in May 1604 a group led by Robert Catesby met in the Duck and Drake inn to discuss plans to get rid of the new King. Amongst the group of plotters, was the now infamous Guy Fawkes.


Together they hatched a plan to blow up Parliament using gunpowder. A date of 5 November was set, selected as that was when the King, Queen and heir would all be present for the State Opening of Parliament. This ill-fated plan has gone down in history as the Gunpowder Plot. 


Since Fawkes had knowledge of gunpowder from his days in the military, he was chosen to light the fuse. The conspirators were confident of success. However, a few days before the State Opening, an anonymous letter had been delivered to Lord Monteagle warning him of danger and advising him not to be present at the Houses of Parliament on the 5th November. Lord Monteagle sensing foul play, alerted the authorities to the note. They searched the Parliament building and discovered Fawkes hiding in the basement with 36 barrels of gunpowder and carrying fuses on his person. Fawkes was arrested and tortured in to revealing the identities of his fellow plotters, after which he was gruesomely hung, drawn and quartered. 


You may be wondering why we celebrate such a bloody tale.  Surprisingly, the answer is that it is actually a legal requirement for us to do so.  Shocked by the audacity of the plotters and delighted that they had failed, Parliament passed the "Observance of 5 November Act 1605" to ensure that the failure of the Gunpowder Plot would be immortalised in history. Each year the date was to be commemorated with special church services at which the congregation would give thanks for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. In modern multi-cultural Britain we no longer mark the occasion in church, preferring to celebrate with fireworks and bonfires on to which an effigy of Guy Fawkes is tossed. It really is a wonderful celebration of a remarkable failure.