In the United Kingdom and several of its former colonies, the night of 5 November has a special name and meaning. It is known as Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night - or Guy Fawkes Night. On this night, people gather around large open-air bonfires. No bonfire is complete without a 'guy' - a cloth figure of a man, usually stuffed with rags and cardboard, dressed in old clothes and given the 'face' of a lurid mask. Usually the guy has been put together over several days by children: there is a long tradition in many parts of England of groups of children asking passers-by for a "penny for the Guy", to raise money for their fun on Bonfire Night. As the guys burn, fireworks are set off around the bonfires, and even from otherwise sedate back gardens: safety warnings are a constant feature of this night. But how did this tradition start, and who was Guy Fawkes?

A typical 5 November bonfire

The answers come from the first Bonfire Night, on 5 November 1605, when Londoners lit bonfires as a celebration. They were rejoicing because their King, James I of England and VI of Scotland, had been saved from certain death at the hands of Guy Fawkes - a key member of the first group of terrorists in British political history. The intention of this group was to kill James in the name of Catholicism, in a plot which was then called the Powder Treason, but has since become known as the Gunpowder Plot.

King James I

James had succeeded to the throne of England after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. As Elizabeth's cousin twice removed, he was the closest living relative of the childless queen. Under Elizabeth, the Protestant Reformation begun by Henry VIII had been firmly enforced: English Catholics had to hide their religion, or else conform to Protestantism. They faced heavy fines, imprisonment or even execution if they did not accept the Queen, rather than the Pope, as the head of Church and State to whom they owed allegiance.

Under James, it seemed life would be better for Catholics. James was the son of a Catholic monarch - Mary Queen of Scots, executed in 1587 because she had become a dangerous figurehead to English Catholics as someone who might provide an alternative to Elizabeth. He also had a Catholic wife, Anne of Denmark. Thomas Percy, who worked as an agent for the Catholic peer the Earl of Northumberland, reported that his negotiations with James before Elizabeth's death seemed to promise the new king would allow Catholics more religious freedom.

When James appointed Northumberland, and another known Catholic Henry Howard, to important positions in government, and ended the fines for Catholics who kept practicing their religion, he gave the impression that Catholics would find acceptance under his regime. However, the Catholics were soon disappointed, after two small plots against the government in the summer of 1603, both involving Catholics, raised James's suspicion against them. In 1604 the king brought back the fines against Catholics, and ordered all Catholic priests to leave the country.

The Gunpowder Plot conspirators

Around this time, Robert Catesby, a wealthy and rebellious young Catholic, met Thomas Percy, John Wright and Thomas Wintour, at the Duck and Drake Inn on London's Strand. These men knew each other well: several of them had rebelled together before, joining the Earl of Essex's 1601 uprising against Elizabeth. Now they discussed a plot against the king and Parliament on a much larger scale than those of 1603, aiming not just to get more religious freedom for English Catholics, but to restore Catholicism to England by force - a thing the papacy had given up trying to do after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

​Gunpowder was to be their weapon. The key involvement of Guy Fawkes came about because, as well as a fervent Catholic who sympathised with the plot, he was a military man with plenty of experience in handling gunpowder. As an exiled English Catholic, he had spent ten years fighting for Spain in the Netherlands, putting down the Protestant Dutch's revolt against their Catholic Spanish rulers. Often inclined to use the Spanish version of his first name, 'Guido', because of his overseas experience, Fawkes made use of his contacts from those days to obtain up to thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament, a ceremony that would be attended by the king and both the sons who could inherit from him, as well as all the members of Parliament, and most of the nobility and judiciary of England. In 2005, four hundred years after the Gunpowder Plot, a re-enactment of the explosion Fawkes was planning established that no-one in the House of Lords could have survived it.

After lighting the fuse to trigger the explosion, Fawkes would escape to the Continent and appeal for support to Catholic heads of state such as the King of Spain. Meanwhile the other conspirators, now growing in number, would start a rebellion in the Midlands to restore Catholicism. The lone survivor of the royal family after the destruction of Parliament would be James's daughter, the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth: the plotters decided they would abduct her during the rebellion and force her to be the new, Catholic, head of state.

​Catesby rented a house near the Old Palace of Westminster, the collection of old buildings where England's Parliament met. This became the plotters' base. By March 1605, Thomas Percy had rented out part of the Undercroft, or cellars, in the Palace - the area that ran directly beneath the House of Lords. Pretending to be Thomas Percy's servant, 'John Johnson', Fawkes took charge of the gradual moving of the barrels of gunpowder into this area of the cellars. He used coal and timber to make it look like stores of winter fuel.

Plague outbreaks delayed the State Opening of Parliament, leaving the conspirators more time to prepare. By November 1605, they had been joined by various other Catholics: Wintour's brother Robert; Wright's brother Christopher; Catesby's servant Thomas Bates; Robert Keyes, and John Grant, both of whom were also related to the other conspirators. They had also recruited two wealthy young Catholic noblemen, Sir Ambrose Rookwood and Sir Everard Digby. Between them these two owned many horses, and the conspirators would want speed on their side. Another man recruited was Francis Tresham. He was from an old Catholic family, and two of his brothers-in-law were Catholic members of the House of Lords: Lord Stourton, and Lord Monteagle.

On 25 October 1605, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament. The letter insisted that he would put himself in great danger by doing so, "for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say [the king and Parliament] shall receive a terrible blow . . . and yet they shall not see who hurts them." Monteagle showed the letter to Robert Cecil, the deeply anti-Catholic Secretary of State. The action that followed was so delayed that several historians have argued that Cecil's spies may already have alerted him to the details of the Plot, and he was holding back either for dramatic effect, to warn James against Catholics, or else to be certain that he caught as many as possible of those involved.

Robert Cecil

On 4 November 1605, the Undercroft beneath the Palace of Westminster was searched twice. The second search found Guy Fawkes with the gunpowder, carrying a lantern in the darkness of the cellars. He had a watch, slow matches and touchpaper - all that he needed to time and set the explosion. Arrested immediately, he was taken to be interrogated by the king and his ministers. As the news of his arrest spread, the other conspirators fled towards the Midlands and North, hoping that Catholics there would be willing to shelter them. ​

Under interrogation Fawkes gave his name as 'John Johnson', and refused to give any details about fellow- conspirators. He said defiantly that he had intended to blow up Parliament and kill the King, adding that "a desperate disease requires a desperate remedy". Many of the Scots among the ministers and courtiers were now associated with collecting fines from the English Catholics, and Fawkes went on to tell them he had also wanted to blow them all out of England and back to Scotland. Though somewhat impressed by Fawkes's resolution, James knew he was hiding information.

Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London, where, on James's instructions, he was tortured until he gave the names of the other conspirators. It was not until 8 November that he fully confessed. The weakness of his signature after the torture indicates that he was physically and mentally broken. The rest of the conspirators found less help than they had been hoping for: most English Catholics were horrified by the scale of the destruction they had planned, and had no intention of exposing themselves or their families to additional danger by sheltering the plotters. At one point the conspirators tried to dry out their remaining gunpowder in front of an open fire, resulting in the only explosion they ever managed to cause - which blinded John Grant.

On 8 November, as Fawkes gave way under torture in the Tower, most of the remaining conspirators were cornered by Sir Richard Walsh, High Sheriff of Worcester, and two hundred men, at Holbech House in Staffordshire. Catesby, the Wright brothers and Percy were killed in the fight; Thomas Wintour, Rookwood and the blinded Grant were captured. By January 1606, all the surviving conspirators had been arrested. They joined Fawkes in the Tower, where Francis Tresham died in late December 1605. It has been suggested that he was poisoned, to prevent anyone finding out that he had sent the letter to alert Lord Monteagle to the plot, and was possibly working as a double agent for the government.

​After a very brief and public trial in Westminster Hall on 27 January 1606, the plotters who remained were sentenced to the traditional traitor's death - to be hung, drawn and quartered. This meant that, after they had been hanged - a process that did not always cause instantaneous death - their bodies would be cut open and severed into four quarters. Their quarters and heads would then be left on public display as a warning of the fate awaiting traitors who plotted to kill the king. James, as the monarch, was seen as 'the Lord's anointed', chosen by God to rule. An attempt to kill him was also a crime against God, meaning that the punishment had to be all the more fearsome.

​ On the last two days of January 1605, the sentences were carried out. Digby, Robert Wintour, Bates and Grant were the first to be executed, in St Paul's Churchyard. The next day, Thomas Wintour, Rookwood, Keyes and Fawkes met their deaths: the site chosen for them was Old Palace Yard in Westminster, in front of the building they had not managed to destroy. Guy Fawkes was the last to die, so weakened by torture that the hanging killed him instantly. The bodies of Catesby, Percy, the Wright brothers and Tresham were exhumed and beheaded, so that their remains would be exposed to shame like those of their fellow-conspirators.

The actions of Guy Fawkes and his fellow-conspirators had the effect of making life far more difficult for Catholics in England. Laws were passed to forbid Catholics to practise law, vote in elections, or serve in the armed forces, and public suspicion against them remained strong. Historians have estimated since that even if the conspirators had successfully destroyed the House of Lords and the royal family, they would have found little or no support from the people. The Pope, and Catholic heads of state in Europe, also condemned the plot, knowing it would lead to a backlash against English Catholics.

By Act of Parliament, 5 November was appointed a date when the British gave thanks for "the joyful day of deliverance". It kept that official status until 1859, and is still a time of bonfires, and the traditions that developed over time of setting off fireworks and burning 'guys'. Since 1605, the cellars under the Palace of Westminster have been searched on the day before the State Opening of Parliament, though they bear little resemblance now to the place where Guy Fawkes was caught, and security is so stringent in all parts of the building that the cellar search only fulfils a tradition.

Yeomen of the Guard picking up their lanterns for the traditional search of the cellars at Westminster before a modern-day State Opening of Parliament

Those who now enjoy the parties and thrilling fireworks of Bonfire Night are continuing the tradition of celebrating the failure of what would have been the first major act of political terrorism in modern Europe. Perhaps the religious divisions, political intrigue and violence of those days in history are best forgotten. Nonetheless, the shadows of the past survive in a rhyme generations of British children have chanted at this time of year:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!