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This week in history: Bonfire Night, 5th November 1605

The fifth of November is celebrated by millions worldwide, but how many of us actually know the story behind the bonfire?

Bonfire Night originated on November 5, 1605, to celebrate the foiled assassination of King James I. 13 men planned to destroy the Houses of Parliament by exploding gunpowder in a cellar underneath the House of Lords. However, as it became clear to the conspirators that the explosion would lead to the deaths of people who had acted in favour of Catholics, some of the men began to have doubts. This led to somebody anonymously sending a letter warning a friend, Lord Monteagle, to avoid the House of Lords on November 5. This letter found itself in the hands of the king – and Guy Fawkes was found in the cellar alongside 36 barrels of gunpowder. 

During the celebration it is tradition to hold a bonfire and burn an effigy of Fawkes, although it has been known for towns to build and burn effigies of public figures. One of the more controversial examples was a 2015 bonfire in Lewes which burned a 15-foot version of David Cameron and a pig’s head. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its bonfire night celebrations, with multiple societies in the town competing for the best bonfire of the night. 

Here are some lesser known facts about the celebration:

1. It is often assumed that Guy Fawkes was the leader of the gunpowder plot. The leader was a well known Catholic figure: Robert Catesby who initiated the plot. Fawkes was just given the unfortunate task of actually lighting the gunpowder, leading to him being the first caught and most associated with the plot.
2. Ever since the event it has become tradition for the monarch to only enter Parliament once a year at the annual State Opening of Parliament. Before which, the Yeomen of the Guard search the buildings for possible threats. 
3. A theory exists suggesting that Macbeth was Shakespeare’s commentary on the plot. Macbeth was written in 1606, just one year after the scandal. Some of the main plot points of the play, such as treason and the overthrow of the king are reminiscent to the plans of Catesby and his men.

Image: Crispijn van de Passe the Elder – National Portrait Gallery (Wikipedia Public Domain)

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