Palace of Westminster in 1605 with House of Lords marked in red. The cellar below stored the barrels of gunpowder. (Detail, John Rocque's map of London, Public Domain image)
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!
Origins and Tradition
On 5 November 1605, during the reign of King James VI of Scotland and I of England, an intricate plot to blow up the Royal family and Houses of Parliament, and everyone in it, was discovered and averted. “Remember, remember the 5th of November...” has not been forgotten to this day. Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot have been the subject of annual remembrance throughout the centuries. Sermons of deliverance, bonfires & fireworks, ‘Penny for the Guy’, and the modern film V for Vendetta reflect the ex
tent to which this treasonous plot shook the foundations of British society (figuratively, although not - as was intended - literally).
Modern 'Bonfire Night' or 'Guy Fawkes Night' began immediately after the discovery of the plot, with the passing of the 5th of November Act 1605, ordering that 5th of November be kept free for a day of thanksgiving for the failure of the plot.
In Great Britain, Guy Fawkes Night has traditionally centred around an effigy (or "guy") representing Fawkes being ritually burnt on the bonfire. In the weeks before bonfire night, children display a "guy" and request a "penny for the guy" in order to raise funds with which to buy fireworks. Only in Lewes, Sussex, are the older anti-Catholic roots of Guy Fawkes night still on prominent display, where Pope Paul V is still among the several effigies set alight as part of celebrations that also commemorate the Marian persecutions of protestants. In more recent years Guy Fawkes Night has struggled to keep pace with the increasing popularity of Hallowe'en, which was an almost unknown festival (with the exception of Scotland) until the 1970s.
An image of the House of Lords in 1807 (centre building), surrounded by timber and rubble, suggests security measures had hardly improved since 1605.
Although mostly a British custom, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations are found in various places around the world (accompanying the British colonists). For example, students at the University of Toronto in Canada burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, while the entire festival was banned in Australia in the 1970s because of the danger from fireworks.
An account of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, written 16 November 1605
Below is an account from the Venetian State Papers of how the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. One of the most interesting aspects for the modern reader is the realisation of just how lax early modern concepts of security were. The cellars under the houses of parliament had been leased, and there was no security preventing people coming and going around the parliament houses.
Calendar of State Papers, Venice and Northern Italy, volume 10 (1603-1607), pp 288-292
http://sources.tannerritchie.com/browser.php?ipid=135122. Report of the Venetian Ambassador, Nicolo Molin, to the Doge and Senate.
‘The King came to London on Thursday evening, the 10th of this month, and made all preparations for opening Parliament on Tuesday, the 15th. This would have taken place had not a most grave and important event upset the arrangement. About six months ago a gentleman, names Thomas Percy, relation of the Earl of Northumberland and pensioner of the King, hired, by means of a trusty servant, some wine cellars under the place where Parliament meets, and stored in them some barrels of beer, the usual drink of this country, as well as wood and coal. He said he meant to open a tavern for the use of servants who attended their masters to Parliament. But among this beer, wood, and coals, he introduced thirty-three barrels of gunpowder, besides four tuns, the size of Cretan hogsheads, intending to make use of it at the right moment. About two months ago Lord Salisbury received anonymous letters from France, warning him to be on his guard, for a great conspiracy was being hatched by priests and Jesuits; but, as similar information had been sent about a year ago by the English lieger in France, no great attention was paid to these letters, and they were attributed to the empty-headed vanity of persons who wished to seem more conversant with affairs than became them. Finally, on Monday last, a letter was brought by an unknown person, for it was dark, about two o’clock of the night, to a servant of Lord Monteagle, who was standing at the door. The unknown said, “Please give this to your master; and tell him to reply at once, as I will come back in half an hour for the answer to carry to my master.” The servant took the letter, and went upstairs and gave it to his master, who opened it and found it was anonymous, nor did he recognise the hand. The substance of the letter was this, that the writer, in return for the favours received at various times from Lord Monteagle, had resolved to warn him by letter that he should on no account attend Parliament the following morning, as he valued his life, for the good party in England had resolved to execute the will of God, which was to punish the King ... and the Ministers for their bitter persecution employed against the poor [Catholics] ... Lord Monteagle read the letter, and great astonishment took it to the Earl of Salisbury, who at once carried to the King, and under various pretexts ordered a search of all the neighbouring houses to see if arms of anything of that sort, which might furnish a clue, were hidden there. Meantime the King read the letter, and in terrified amaze he said, “I remember that my father died by gunpowder [Lord Darnley’s murder at Kirk O’Field]. I see the letter says the blow is to be struck on a sudden. Search the basements of the meeting place.” The Chamberlain, with three or four attendants, went straightway to carry out this order. First he enquired who had hired the basements; then he caused the door to be opened and went in. He saw nothing but beer barrels, faggots and coal. Meantime those who had searched the neighbouring houses came back and reported that they had found nothing of any importance, and when the Chamberlain returned and reported that he, too, had seen nothing but the barrels, faggots and coal this increased the alarm and suspicions of the King, who said, “I don’t like these faggots and coal. Go back and shift all the wood and all the coal and see what is underneath, and use all diligence to come to certainty in the matter.” The Chamberlain went back, and after shifting the wood, he found underneath some barrels of powder, and after shifting the coal he found more barrels. In confusion he returned to the King and told him; and orders were at once given to a certain knight to take a company with him and to set sentinels in various posts to watch who approached the door of the cellars. About two in the morning they saw a man approaching with a dark lantern, but no so well closed as to hide the light completely. The guards cunningly drew back and left him free passage to the cellars, the door of which had not been securely fastened as it was at first. The man went in, laid a train of powder and fitted a slow match, the powder and tinder reached the powder barrels. His intention was to fire the train in the morning. When he had finished his business, as he was coming out, he was surprised by the guard, who asked what [he was doing] at that hour at that place. [He replied] that he had come there, as he had a fancy to see his property. They saw a bag in his hand, and found in it little bits of slow match, and when they turned on the light they saw the train of powder. Thereupon they bound him and took him to the Palace, where some of the Council were awake, waiting the issue of this affair. The man was brought into their presence, and at once confessed that he was servant to Thomas Percy, who had left the evening before, he knew not where for, and was quite ignorant of these facts. He further confessed that it was his firm resolve to have set fire to the mine that morning while the King, Queen, Princes, Clergy, Nobility, and Judges were met in Parliament, and thus to purge the kingdom of perfidious heresies. His only regret was that the discovery of the plot had frustrated its due execution, though it was certain that God would not for long endure such injustice and iniquity.After the Lords of the Council had briefly examined the prisoner, they informed the Lord Mayor, ... so that he might place the whole City under arms, and keep a sharp lookout. This was done, and not only that night, but all next day, which was Tuesday, the citizens were kept under arms. The other Lords of the Council, who had gone home, were summoned, and two hours before dawn they all met at the Palace. The prisoner was then introduced under strict guard. When questioned he replied, “My Lords, I cannot and will not say more than I have already said, namely that I was resolved to obey the will of God, who wishes to punish severely in every way the King and the Ministers for the persecutions they employed and still employ against the poor afflicted Catholics. I am deeply pained that I have failed to carry out so pious and holy a work.” Asked if there were many who were aware of this design, he replied that there were very many, but that he would never name them. The he knew quite well that he would suffer a martyrdom of most cruel torments, which he was resolved and ready to endure, but from his lips nothing should ever issue that might hurt or injure another. That he was guilty he confessed, but no further confession need be looked for from him. ... His Majesty was amazed that so vast and so audacious a scheme should have been hatched in the mind of a man of such low and abject estate. “Let us go,” he said, “not to Parliament, but to Church to thank God, who has saved me, my family, all you nobles and the whole kingdom from a great and terrible disaster. For, beyond a doubt, had the plot succeeded the kingdom would have been in such confusion that God only knows when it would have recovered. The city would have fallen a prey to these wild people, and all strangers, who are hated, would have been put to the sword. In short, had it been successful, it would have been the most stupendous and amazing event that ever was heard of”.The prisoner was taken to the Tower, ‘and for two successive days he underwent the most excruciating torture without saying anything, except that the conspirators were twelve in number, whose names he would not mention’.
The unnamed man in the Venetian account was none other than Guy Fawkes. (Fawkes called himself Guido, after fighting with the Spanish in the 80 Years war, but was christened as Guy). Fawkes was defiant when caught and promised never to give up the names of his accomplices, but after two days of torture he broke and revealed the full list of conspirators. Sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, Fawkes avoided the worst aspects of the execution by throwing himself from the scaffold and breaking his neck. His body was nevertheless mutilated and divided, with parts sent and displayed around the kingdom as a warning to others.
Although bonfires were adopted from 1605 to celebrate the failure of the plot, the burning of effigies only became common from 1673 - and at that time the effigy was usually the pope, not Fawkes. The burning of the pope was provoked with heir to the throne James, Duke of York's open adoption of Catholicism, and underlined the essentially anti-Catholic nature of the event through most of its history. Only in the 19th century was Fawkes marginally rehabilitated, both with the religious motivations of his actions being played down, and popular antipathy to parliament and politicians tending to encourage a jokey sympathy with Fawkes, described as "the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions". Astonishingly, he came in at number 30 in a BBC vote of the 100 greatest Britains.
Further details about the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes can be found on Wikipedia.