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Remember, remember...

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

This is a very familiar rhyme to most of us (even if the archaic wording is guaranteed to make a grammar pedant like me wince!) Whether you know it as Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night or Fireworks Night, the annual celebrations of 5th November are a uniquely British tradition that goes back more than 400 years.

Most people know why we celebrate the 5th of November; it’s the day when, in 1605, the infamous ‘Gunpowder Plot’ – which aimed to blow up Parliament and kill King James I and his ministers – was thwarted. But did you know that the tradition of lighting bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot began almost immediately? And that the significance of the day has changed over the centuries as it has been used as both a political and religious tool? There’s certainly much more to Bonfire Night than toffee apples and sparklers!

Immediately after the plot had been discovered in 1605, people began lighting bonfires around London to celebrate the King’s deliverance from the assassination attempt. Only a couple of months later, in January 1606, the Observance of 5th November Act - also known as the Thanksgiving Act - came into law. It set down arrangements for a public, annual thanksgiving to mark the failure of the plot, with churches required to hold special services to commemorate what was then known as ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’.

Within a few decades, 5th November had become the main English state commemoration. It remained divisive though, given it celebrated the failure of a Catholic plot against the Protestant King James. Events often became a focus for sometimes violent anti-Catholic feelings, and it’s at this time that ‘popish’ effigies were first burnt on bonfires. After Charles I came to throne in 1625, the simmering tension between England’s Catholics and Protestants increased and Bonfire Night became a highly-partisan affair.

Following Charles I's execution in 1649 the 5th of November was one of the very few religious feasts and state anniversaries to survive in the 11-year interregnum and the rule of Oliver Cromwell; although it was reframed as a celebration of Parliament’s strength and success rather than of the survival of the monarchy. Full celebrations resumed when Charles II was restored to the throne, although the day quickly descended into an excuse for troublemaking by some; leading bonfires and fireworks to be banned for a time.

When Charles II’s successor, his brother James, was deposed in 1688 by William of Orange - who landed in England on 5 November - the day's events became a celebration of freedom and religion. The ban on bonfires was lifted although the ban on fireworks was maintained.

It’s in the late 18th century that Gunpowder Treason Day began to morph into Guy Fawkes Day. In some ways, history has given Guy (or Guido as he was also known) the rough end of the deal. As the man given the responsibility of lighting the fuse on the gunpowder stashed beneath the Houses of Parliament, it was Fawkes who was caught red-handed at the scene of the almost-crime. It’s his name that has therefore become synonymous with the conspiracy but he wasn’t even close to being the ringleader. Robert Catesby was the man who led the plot, at the head of a 13-strong group of men determined to put a Catholic on the English throne.

Catesby managed to escape the horrific traitor’s punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered when he was killed during a battle with the armed men sent to capture the remaining plotters. Fawkes was tortured and sentenced to death, but as he climbed the ladder to the scaffold he fell – or jumped – before he reached the rope, breaking his neck and dying instantly. Of the two men, however, it would prove to be Fawkes that had the stronger hold on the public’s imagination.

During the Victorian era there were reports that the tradition was in decline as the divisions between Catholics and Protestants in England became less extreme. Organised displays and events re-emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as canny manufacturers boosted their sales by reframing the day as Fireworks Night. More than 400 years after the events of 5th November 1605 the commemorations for this most momentous day in English history are still going strong.

Although Bonfire Night isn’t as unruly as it was during previous centuries, any event that involves fire and explosives is always going to present the possibility for accidents. So, if you’re enjoying a celebration tonight be sure to follow this advice from South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue (


  • Build your bonfire well away from, and clear of, buildings, garden sheds, fences, hedges and overhanging branches. Keep it to a manageable size and evenly built, so that it collapses inwards as it burns. Do not include plastics, household items or rubber in your fire.

  • Never use flammable liquids, such as petrol or kerosene, to help start a bonfire. Always use firelighters.

  • Do not burn dangerous items such as aerosol cans, paint tins, foam furniture or batteries and do not throw anything in the fire.

  • Tell neighbours you are going to have a bonfire to avoid non-essential 999 calls.

  • Before lighting your bonfire, double check that the construction is still sound, that no children or wildlife are hiding inside, and that no hazardous items such as aerosols, sealed cans or fireworks have been thrown on to it.

  • Remember to never leave bonfires unattended; a bonfire should be supervised by an adult until it has burnt out. Once it’s finished, dampen it down fully with water making sure that the embers are extinguished and surroundings are made safe before leaving.

  • Keep a bucket of water or hosepipe nearby in case of an emergency.

  • If the bonfire becomes out of control and sets foliage or property alight – call 999 immediately.

  • If your clothes catch fire remember to STOP, DROP and ROLL and cool burns under running water for at least 20 minutes


  • Fireworks should be used safely, carefully and lawfully and only lit by someone over 18.

  • Ensure the firework is the correct way up and secure – light at arm’s length using a taper and stand well back.

  • Keep fireworks in a closed box away from the lighting location.

  • Only buy fireworks that are CE marked and follow the instructions.

  • Never go back to a firework that has been lit and don’t throw them or put them in your pocket.

  • Keep pets indoors and let your neighbours know you’re having a display.

  • Stick to the law. You can’t set off fireworks in public places and can’t set them off between 11pm and 7am, except for Bonfire Night when the cut off is midnight.


  • Supervise children with sparklers at all times.

  • Stick the end in a halved carrot to make it easier for little hands to hold.

  • Light one sparkler at a time and wear gloves.

  • Keep a bucket of water or sand nearby for used sparklers.

  • Let them fully cool before throwing them away.

With this advice in mind, I wish you all a happy and safe Bonfire Night. And while you’re enjoying the celebrations, remember remember the amazing history of the 5th of November!

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