This evening is Guy Fawkes Night: an event that is uniquely British and celebrated across the country. However, its significance may be lost on anyone who lives outside the British Isles. Indeed, there may be many Brits who don’t know why they celebrate every November 5th! Luckily, Language Insight is here to help.


Guy Fawkes Night is named after one member of the party of conspirators behind the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. At the time, King James VI was on the throne, marking the first time a British monarch ruled over both Scotland and England (he was James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland). However, there were those who wanted to see him replaced, and the motivation was largely religious.

Less than a century before, Henry VIII had rocked the country by splitting from the Pope and the Catholic church and taking complete control of the English church. His daughter, Elizabeth I, introduced the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which dictated that those in either religious or public office swore allegiance to her as both the head of the state and the Church. Practicing Catholics were increasingly ostracised, and priests were threatened with torture or execution if they continued to follow the religion.

Elizabeth died childless and was succeeded by James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. The new king was a Protestant but is generally perceived as having been more lenient towards Catholics than his predecessors. However, there were still those who would never accept a monarch who was not a Catholic.

In 1604, a group of Catholic rebels led by Robert Catesby began plotting to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. The occasion was perfect, as the king, many of his close relatives, members of the Privy Council and the majority of England’s Protestant aristocracy would all be in attendance. With the king and his parliament dead, the path would be clear for the plotters to install James’ daughter Princess Elizabeth on the throne, and restore England to a Catholic nation.

It sounds like a lucky coincidence that the plot was discovered so close to its near-fruition. However, it was the conspirators themselves who helped to give the game away. Concern for the safety of the Catholics who would be at parliament on the day prompted someone with knowledge of the plot to write to Lord Monteagle, advising him to think up an excuse not to attend the state opening, for “they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament”.

Monteagle handed the letter on and eventually it reached the king, who felt the use of the word “blow” was ominous, and a search of the Houses of Parliament was ordered. It was certainly lucky this letter came to light, although there are those who speculate it was actually fake and written by the king’s officials who were already aware of the plot. If the authorities had already known about the plan but left it until the last minute to foil it, it may have been to encourage anti-Catholic sentiment. Some conspiracy theorists allege that these officials even helped the unknowing conspirators in some way, such as by supplying them with so much gunpowder.

Of the 13 conspirators, Guy Fawkes was far from being the brains behind the entire operation. The reason his name has become the one most associated with the plot is that it was he who was discovered sitting with the barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the Palace of Westminster. The night before the planned explosion, a search of the space uncovered Fawkes, who had a pocket watch and several slow matches on him. Beneath the piles of coal, he was guarding were the barrels of gunpowder.

Guy Fawkes’ arrest prompted the other conspirators to flee, yet he refused to give up their names and said he had acted alone. He was subjected to torture and soon started to reveal details of the plot. After further investigation, the other plotters were rounded up. They were all found guilty and sentenced to death by means of being drawn along the ground by horse to the gallows before being hung, almost to the point of death, and then quartered. On the day of his execution, Fawkes jumped from the scaffold so that his neck broke and he, therefore, did not have to face the horror of being quartered alive.


Following the successful foiling of the plot to blow up the king and Parliament, Londoners rung the church bells and lit bonfires across the city on the evening of November 5th to celebrate the monarch’s survival. This was followed by an official Act of Parliament, which called for November 5th to be honoured as a day of thanksgiving.

One tradition that has continued to this day is that ahead of every State Opening of Parliament, the cellars of Westminster Palace are searched for explosives. More than 400 years on, the Yeoman of the Guard still observes this tradition.

Another tradition is that of the burning of the Guy. Named after Guy Fawkes, the Guy is an effigy that is placed on the bonfire before it is lit. It used to be popular for children to make their own and wheel it around their hometown. They would spend a lot of time on the figure in the hope that those who saw it would be so impressed they would give them money for fireworks, which is where the phrase “penny for the Guy” comes from.

Celebrating today

Guy Fawkes Night remains one of the most popular occasions on the calendar in the UK, particularly among children. On November 5th, people build large bonfires in their back gardens or gather at communal events. It helps that the occasion takes place in autumn when there are plenty of fallen leaves and foliage to burn.

Fireworks make up a large part of the celebrations, and local councils will often fund spectacular displays. The fireworks symbolise the explosion that almost befell Westminster Palace all those years ago.

Food that can easily be eaten while outside watching the fireworks forms the traditional Bonfire Night meal. Hotdogs, burgers and steaming soup are a great first course and are often followed by toffee apples or toasted marshmallows. Ginger cake is also popular because of the fiery taste of the ginger, while Parkin cake is increasingly associated with the event. This recipe originates from the north of England and is made from oatmeal and black treacle.

Guy Fawkes Night is a proud British tradition and Language Insight hopes you have fun celebrating it.