5. Commemoration of the Plot

firework nightThe fifth of November is variously called `Firework Night', `Bonfire Night' or `Guy Fawkes Day'. An Act of Parliament (3 James I, cap 1) was passed to appoint 5th November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for `the joyful day of deliverance'. The Act remained in force until 1859. On 5 November 1605, it is said the populace of London celebrated the defeat of the plot by fires and street festivities. Similar celebrations must have taken place on the anniversary and, over the years, became a tradition - in many places a holiday was observed. (It is not celebrated in Northern Ireland).

It is still the custom in Britain on, or around, 5th November to let off fireworks. For weeks previously, children have been making guys - effigies supposedly of Fawkes - nowadays usually formed from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, and equipped with a grotesque mask, to be burnt on the November 5th bonfire. The word `guy' came thus in the 19th century to mean a weirdly dressed person, and hence in the 20th century in the USA to mean, in slang usage, any male person.

Institutions and towns may hold firework displays and bonfire parties, and the same is done, despite the danger of fireworks, on a smaller scale in back gardens throughout the country. In some areas, such as Lewes and Battle in Sussex, there are extensive processions and a great bonfire. Children exhibit effigies of Guy Fawkes in the street to collect money for fireworks, sometimes using the chant:

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot",…..
Followed by “Penny for the Guy”

 

Fuller versions were used locally. In East Essex for instance, in the 1890s, boys would dress in cast-off hats and coats covered with old wallpaper torn into shreds. Faces blackened with soot, they would chant the rhyme quoted above but with the second verse:

"This is the day they did contrive
To blow up King and Parliament alive
Through God's great mercy they were taken
With a slow fuse and a dark lantern
Holler boys, holler boys,
God Save the Queen
Penny for the Guys"

 

The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the State Opening which since 1928 has been held in November. Ostensibly to ensure no latter-day Guy Fawkes is concealed in the cellars, this is retained as a picturesque custom rather than a serious anti-terrorist precaution. It is said that for superstitious reasons no State Opening will be held on 5 November, but this is untrue. The State Opening was on 5 November in, for instance, 1957.