Bonfire Night


Bonfire night was celebrated when I was young in Scotland. As it took place on the 5th November the weather was not always conducive to burning wood, which at that time of year was often damp, if not wet. Therefore it entailed planning. On a suitable open space, and there were many when I was young, the ‘bones’ of the bonfire were set. Nearer the time, twigs were collected as kindling. Old clothing was also needed, and either straw or newspaper.

In those days we could also explode fireworks.

fireworks on bonfire night

There were sparklers, and penny rockets – which would be launched from empty pint glass milk bottles. Catherine wheels might be nailed to a fence, if there was one nearby. Then there were the ‘bangers.’ I think the only people who liked ‘bangers’ were the people who lit them, dropped them on the ground and watched people jump in shock.

Bonfire night was a community affair, although if your ‘community’ did not build a bonfire, you could still have your own family celebration with fireworks.

So, what is Bonfire Night

There are a number of ‘bonfire night’ celebrations or commemorations, but the one I remember as a child was also called Guy Fawkes Night. The clothes were ‘stuffed’ and someone made a ‘head’ to make an effigy called ‘the guy.’

There’s a ‘ditty’ we used to chant…

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

After that there are different verses that may be included. One goes:

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!

But Guy Fawkes was only one of the thirteen conspirators, and depending upon which account you read, Guy (or Guido) Fawkes was a mercenary they hired to set off the explosion.

Why did they want to blow up the British parliament?

Well, they were Roman Catholics and James 1 (or James IV of Scotland) was on the throne, a Protestant king.

The plot was centred around a group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries furious at the persecution of their faith in England.

(Lots of history and information here

In short, they had hoped for better treatment from the new monarch James I after 45 years of hounding under the reign of Elizabeth I, and decided on drastic measures when things did not improve under his reign.

Warwickshire-born Catholic Robert Catesby and his friends planned kill the King, his ministers and scores of nobles by blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605.

The plotters rented a house nearby and managed to smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder – around 2.5 tons – into a cellar under the palace ready to blow it sky high.

The explosives were discovered with hours to spare after an anonymous tip-off warning one peer to stay away.

To this day the cellars under the Houses of Parliament are ceremonially searched before the annual State Opening.

Crispijn van de Passe the Elder [Public domain]

Although some would say Guy Fawkes was the ‘fall guy’ for the group, he is the one who is (or was) burnt in effigy on bonfires throughout Britain on the 5th November.

That is the Bonfire Night tradition I remember.

Execution of the plotters…

Had nothing to do with bonfires, or burning at the stake. The sentence was that they be hung, drawn and quartered. (Penalty for high treason in those days.)

“To be hanged, drawn and quartered was a punishment in England used for men found guilty of high treason. The full punishment was made up of the following – the victim was: Dragged, usually by a horse, on a wooden frame to the place where he was to be publicly put to death. This is one possible meaning of drawn.”,_drawn_and_quartered


Well, tradition very rarely is truth. Sometimes there is a kernel of truth somewhere, but the tradition of burning a ‘guy’ on a bonfire because Guy Fawkes was blamed for something thirteen conspirators did is stretching the imagination.

But that’s tradition for you. It doesn’t need to make sense, you ‘do’ it because you always have.

The first in the tradition series started last week with Tammuz, but it only introduced it, didn’t explain it. Maybe next week.

Have a wonderful week,