Bonfire Night

“When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.” – Shunryu Suzuki

Flying rats

Fireworks started in a Chinese kitchen 2,000 years ago when saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur were mixed together and dried to produce huo yao (“fire chemical”). This crude gunpowder could be poured into a bamboo tube and thrown on a fire to explode. The Chinese went on to perfect the art of pyrotechnics for celebratory purposes but weren’t above using it in warfare to propel arrows and even live rats, which were fired at the enemy to create fear among men and horses.



A bonfire at Himley Hall near Dudley, England

At the heart of a good fire (and a good firework) you’ll find potassium. The lilac-blue flame you see when wood burns is produced by potassium, and potassium nitrate (KNO₃), or saltpetre, is the key ingredient of gunpowder. Saltpetre arises naturally from rotting animal and vegetable waste. For several hundred years, the richest source was the earthen floor of human houses. Enter the “Saltpetremen” and their spades. In the pay of the diarist John Evelyn’s family, granted a royal saltpetre monopoly in 1588, the careless vigour of their extraction methods caused a parliamentary uproar in 1601: “They digge in bedchambers, in sickrooms, not even sparing women in childbed, yea, even in God’s house, the Church.”


The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 started, like many schemes, in a pub – the long-vanished Duck and Drake in the Strand. Of the 13 conspirators, only eight were eventually executed: the others perished at their last stand against the king’s men in Holbeche House in Staffordshire. They hadn’t helped themselves by laying out the contents of their now soaking wet barrels of gunfire in front of the fire to dry. A stray spark set it on fire, blinding one conspirator and seriously burning the plot’s leader, Robert Catesby. Catesby and Percy’s bodies were later exhumed and decapitated, and their heads displayed on poles outside the House of Lords. Another plotter, Robert Wintour, has the dubious distinction of putting Didcot in Oxfordshire on the map for the first time. He had a mortgage on the manor there, which through his death became forfeit to the Crown.


In a 2005 reconstruction the 36 barrels of gunpowder packed into the cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament was shown to have been powerful enough to destroy Westminster Hall and the Abbey, as well as cause severe structural damage to streets up to a third of a mile from the blast.

Tough guy

The most famous conspirator, Guy Fawkes, was a Yorkshireman and a mercenary who had fought for Spain against the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. A militant Catholic, he adopted the name “Guido” to make himself sound more continental and devout. Caught red-handed in the cellars of the House of Lords, Fawkes claimed his name was John Johnson and that his intention had been “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”. This robust approach earned him the admiration of the king, but didn’t stop him being tortured and executed. Unlike most of his co-conspirators, Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck, so was unconscious during his drawing and quartering (castration and disembowelment).

‘No Popery’

The foiling of the plot led to national celebration, much of it violently anti-Catholic. James I had turned the plot to his advantage, swiftly writing up his account of the affair and publishing it in The King’s Book along with the full confessions of Fawkes and Wintour. It appeared less than a month after Fawkes’s arrest. Anti-Catholic legislation was enacted preventing Catholics from voting, practising law or serving as officers in the Army or Navy. Catholics won back the right to vote in only 1829.


It is widely assumed that the tradition of lighting bonfires on November 5 draws on older pagan customs. Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native describes them as “lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies”. Given that the word bonfire comes from “bone-fire”, which relates back to the Celtic feast of Samhain (November 1) where animal bones were thrown into the fire to scare away spirits, this seems at least plausible.

Unfortunately, in England at least, there is no evidence to support the theory. The work of historians shows that there is no record of autumn or winter bonfires in medieval or Tudor England – ritual fires were traditionally lit at Midsummer. The lighting of November bonfires seems to have started with the celebrations in 1605 and to have continued through the Commonwealth and into the Restoration. One reason for its cross-party popularity is that a bonfire can stand for anything – it could be a focus for anti-Catholic and pro-monarchist sentiment simultaneously. Plus, you can burn effigies on bonfires.


The earliest effigies burned on Gunpowder Treason Day (as it was generally known) tended to be of the devil and the pope rather than Guy Fawkes. In 1677 one particularly elaborate pope had his belly filled with live cats “who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”. In 1682 the London militia had to be called in to break up a pope-burning-and-firework party and in 1683 bonfires and fireworks were banned as disruptive and dangerous.

More restrained celebrations were revived under William of Orange, who landed in England on November 5 1688, and over the course of the next century the day gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day, and the effigies that burnt were of the traitor himself.

Fall guy

The effigy of Guy Fawkes – usually old clothes stuffed with newspaper, wearing a mask – gradually became “poor old Guy” and by the early 19th century was used to describe any shabbily dressed person. In its passage across the Atlantic, the word lost its negative connotations and by 1847 was being used as alternative to “fellow”.

Bad guys

The anti-social elements of the festival were never entirely removed. Tradesmen and guilds formed bonfire societies. The butchers around Lincoln’s Inn in London would get a real person to impersonate Guy Fawkes, seat him on a cart and get a priest and executioner to accompany him on a journey through London’s streets, with a guard of honour formed by butchers carrying marrowbones and meat cleavers, while others demanded money for drink.

This kind of extortion was also common in rural communities. In Oxfordshire, local youths would go a-progging – i.e. stealing wood for their bonfires. As well as the usual “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot” rhymes they would sing: “A stick and a stake/ For King James’s sake!/ If you won’t give me one. I’ll take two/ The better for me/ And the worse for you.”

Health & safety

“The 5th of November is not observed by the populace with nearly so much festive diversion as in former times.” This was Rev T F Thistleton Dyer in 1875, but it could have been written at any time in the past 20 years. The decline of Bonfire Night is often blamed on overzealous health and safety regulations. In fact, the real culprit is the rise of Hallowe’en, celebrated five days earlier. Hallowe’en is now the UK’s third most lucrative festival, outstripping Valentine’s Day and gaining rapidly on Easter. In 2011 the total UK spend was estimated at £315 million. This is more than three times the annual spend on fireworks.

But it is too early to write off Bonfire Night altogether. Lewes in Sussex maintains six bonfire societies and attracts huge crowds, as does the insanely dangerous “tar-barrel running” in Ottery St Mary in Devon.

In Edenbridge, Kent, 30ft-tall celebrity Guys are incinerated. Katie Price, John McCririck and Cherie Blair have all featured and last year Manchester City’s striker Mario Balotelli was chosen in recognition of the indoor firework that almost burnt down his house.

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