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Brighton Journal | 21st February 2020

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What’s the story behind Guy Fawkes Night?

What’s the story behind Guy Fawkes Night?
Angus Walker
  • On 5th November 2019

Bonfire Night, or to give it its proper name, Guy Fawkes Night, has been celebrated in Britain since 1605. Every year on November 5th, millions of people around the country attend bonfires and firework displays, but what exactly is the history of this festival, and why does Sussex have such a connection to it? Why do we all light sparklers and become pyromaniacs for one night every year?

Guy Fawkes and The Gunpowder Plot

The history of the festival begins with the infamous Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant king, James I. On November 5th 1605, Guy Fawkes was was arrested while guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. Fawkes, and seven of the other conspirators, were later found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Celebrating the fact that the king had survived the attempt on his life, people lit bonfires around London. A few months later, the introduction of the Observance of 5th November Act created an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure.

When were fireworks introduced to the celebrations? 

Fireworks probably came to Britain in the 13th century, but the first documented use of them here is at the wedding of King Henry VII, in 1486. It wasn’t until the reign of Elizabeth I, however, that they became popular across the country.

Since fireworks contain gunpowder, they have an obvious connection to The Gunpowder Plot, and it is thought that they were introduced to 5th November celebrations in the late 17th century.

Why is Sussex obsessed?

Sussex Bonfire Societies are renowned across the country for their wild celebrations, extravagant displays and controversial effigies. The numerous societies were set up in the mid-nineteenth century to commemorate the deaths of Protestant martyrs in the county.

The biggest event in the country is held in Lewes, ‘the bonfire capital of the world’, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.  Part of the reason Guy Fawkes’ Night is celebrated so enthusiastically here owes to the fact that the event also commemorates the Lewes Martyrs, a group of 17 protestants who were burned at the stake in the town by Mary I.


Stay safe this bonfire night! Visit for tips on how to celebrate safely. 

Featured image: Bonfire Night via Flickr.


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