A very short history of bonfire night

Justin Pollard traces the roots of Guy Fawkes Night

Fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day c1800. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty)
Fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day c1800. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty)

No one was more delighted by the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot than James VI and I, who had narrowly avoided becoming the first king to sit on a rocket-propelled throne. So he allowed bonfires to be lit to celebrate, provided they were “without any danger or disorder”.

A few months later parliament passed the Observance of November 5th Act, effectively making the celebration compulsory. How you celebrated remained up to you (as long as you went to church). In Canterbury in 1607 they set off 106 pounds of gunpowder, giving a hint of things to come.

By the late 17th century festivities were getting a shade rowdy, as Londoners took to stopping coaches and demanding beer money, and throughout the 18th century its popularity grew mainly with the burgeoning urban poor. Their children discovered a new way of turning a profit on the night, getting a ‘penny for the Guy’ – an effigy-burning habit started in 1625 when Charles I married a Catholic, inspiring the immolation of papal images.

The rowdiness also continued. This ‘tradition’ dates from at least the 1790s when 4 November is recorded as ‘Mischief Night’ – a time for pranks such as putting treacle on door handles and swapping around garden gates. By the 19th century this was getting a bit boisterous. In Guildford they regularly attacked the magistrate’s house and, in 1864, a policeman was killed.

By March 1859 the government had repealed the 1606 Act. The Guildford mob was controlled, and the violence of the evening re-directed at the poor old Guy. Not that he was necessarily Guy Fawkes.

Ever since 1831, when an enthusiastic Exeter crowd burnt an effigy of their new bishop, new targets had been found for the bonfire. The kaiser and even a few suffragettes found themselves so treated, and the tradition continued with Adolf Hitler.

Today the guy is alive and well, although it is as likely to be an image of the prime minister as Guy Fawkes, getting the sort of grilling you don’t get in parliament, but which Guy himself wished they had all got.

Justin Pollard is a historian, television producer and writer.

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