Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Britain annually on November 5th. The event is accompanied by firework displays, the lighting of bonfires and the ceremonial effigy-burning of one Guy Fawkes. The origin of this celebration stems from events which took place in 1605 and was a conspiracy known as "The Gunpowder Plot," intended to take place on November 5th of that year (the day set for the opening of Parliament). The object of The Gunpowder Plot was to blow up English Parliament along with the ruling monarch, King James I. It was hoped that such a disaster would initiate a great uprising of English Catholics, who were distressed by the increased severity of penal laws against the practice of their religion.
The conspirators, who began plotting early in 1604, eventually expanded their members to a point where secrecy was impossible. One of their number, Thomas Percy (who had contacts at the Court of King James), hired a cellar beneath the House of Lords. Within this cellar were secretly stored 36 barrels (almost two tons) of gunpowder, overlaid with iron bars and firewood. The plan went awry, however, by way of a myserious letter received by Lord Monteagle on October 26th (10 days prior to the opening of Parliament). Monteagle, brother-in-law of Francis Tresham (another of the conspirators and likely author of the correspondence...although this was never proven), was urged in the letter not to attend Parliament on opening day. When the message was revealed to the First Earl of Salisbury and others, they took steps which led to the discovery of the hidden cache and the arrest of Guy Fawkes on the night of November 4th as he entered the cellar. The majority of the other conspirators, either overtaken as they attempted to flee or seized shortly thereafter, were killed outright, imprisoned or executed. While the plot itself was the work of a small number of men, it provoked hostility against all British Catholics and led to an increase in the harshness of laws against them. Even to this day, it is the law that no Roman Catholic may hold the office of monarch and the reigning king or queen remains Supreme Head of the Church of England.
A modern theory regarding the involvement of Guy Fawkes in the Gunpower Plot is that he was not trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament at all, but merely attempting to assassinate King James who, it was believed, had reneged on his promise to put a stop to the persecution of Catholics. In any event, it remains unclear whether the conspirators would have been successful in their plan, even if they had not been betrayed. Some believe that the gunpowder they were planning to use was so old as to be useless for the task.
Today, one of the ceremonies which accompanies the opening of a new session of Parliament is a traditional searching of the basement by the Yeoman of the Guard. It has been said that for superstitious reasons, no State Opening of Parliament has or ever will be held again on November 5th. This, however, is a fallacy since on at least one occasion (in 1957), Parliament did indeed open on November 5th. The actual cellar employed for the storage of the gunpowder in 1605 by the conspirators was damaged by fire in 1834 and totally destroyed during the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster in the Nineteenth Century. Portions of the original cellar are on display at Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London...as is the lantern which was carried by Guy Fawkes in 1605.
Also known as "Firework Night" and "Bonfire Night," November 5th was designated by King James I (via an Act of Parliament) as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance." This Act remained in force until 1859. On the very night of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot, it is said that the populace of London celebrated the defeat by lighting fires and engaging in street festivities. It would appear that similar celebrations took place on each anniversary and, over the years, became a tradition. In many areas, a holiday was observed, although it is not celebrated in Northern Ireland.
Guy Fawkes Night is not solely a British celebration. The tradition was also established in the British colonies by the early American settlers and actively pursued in the New England States under the name of "Pope Day" as late as the Eighteenth Century. Today, the celebration of Guy Fawkes and his failed plot remains a tradition in such places as Newfoundland (Canada) and some areas of New Zealand, in addition to the British Isles.