“Remember, remember the fifth of November” is an old English saying, but what exactly are people across the UK remembering with their annual Bonfire Night celebrations?
The Gunpowder Plot
In 1605, a group of men attempted to blow up the British parliament at Westminster in London.
One of the key figures in the plot was a man called Guy Fawkes.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Born in York in 1570, Guy Fawkes was raised as a Catholic. This was a time in history when the divisions between Catholics and Protestants ran deep across Europe.
In 1591, Fawkes travelled to the continent and fought for Catholic Spain in their war against the Protestant Dutch.
On his return to England, Fawkes became part of a rebel movement that sought to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne.
What happened on 5 November?
In the lead-up to their attack, the rebels had leased a storage space beneath the House of Lords at Westminster. They stockpiled gunpowder there, and Fawkes was placed in charge of securing it.
During a search of the palace in the early hours of 5 November 1605, the authorities found Fawkes guarding the explosives. He was tortured until he confessed that he was part of a plan to kill the King. Fawkes was executed soon after.
Why are bonfires and fireworks lit for Guy Fawkes?
To celebrate the King’s escape from assassination, an Act of Parliament declared that 5 November would be recognised as a day of thanksgiving.
Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. In the decades that followed, fireworks also became associated with the celebrations.
How is Guy Fawkes night celebrated today?
Although it’s no longer an official holiday, Bonfire Night is still enthusiastically celebrated across the UK. Communities come together to create bonfires on which they burn effigies of public figures – politicians are usually the most popular choice.
Fireworks are widely available in the UK. Throughout the night, fireworks are set off in the street and the parks, creating a cacophony of sound and light.
Is Guy Fawkes an anti-hero?
In the centuries since his death, Guy Fawkes has been adopted as a symbol of resistance and rebellion.
In the Wachowski’s film, V for Vendetta (2005) – the main character of the freedom fighter wore a mask that represented Guy Fawkes. That mask has been adopted by anti-authoritarian movements around the world, most notably the hacking collective known as Anonymous.
How queer is Guy Fawkes?
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to claim Guy Fawkes as a queer icon.
We know that he was a man of action – a mercenary, fighting in wars to support the causes he believed in. He was also subversive and unwilling to accept the restrictions of his time.
Bonfire Night began as a celebration of order maintained, of change being successfully prevented. But the flash and bang of fireworks is inherently unsettling and exciting – a reminder that anything is possible, that the future is unpredictable.
Fighting for who we are and what we believe in is something that all queer people can identify with. This Bonfire Night, let’s break out the fireworks.