In Britain, November 5 is marked with celebrations of bonfires, toffee apples and fireworks. People gather to watch a ‘Guy’ burn on the bonfire, wrapping up warm against the frosty English weather. This festival originates from the story of a man named Guy Fawkes and the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Read on to learn more about the history of Guy Fawkes Night, and discover where you can celebrate in London this year.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics that had been treated unfairly under her rule were hopeful that her successor, James I would be more tolerant of their religion. When they realised they were wrong, a group of 13 men got together and came up with a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London, killing the King and the Members of Parliament that were persecuting them.
The group got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder, and hid them underneath the House of Lords. Realising that innocent people could be killed in the explosion, some of the men began to have second thoughts, and one wrote a letter warning his friend to stay away from Parliament on November 5. The letter was intercepted by the King, who sent forces to put a stop to the attack.
A member of the group, Guy Fawkes, had been chosen to light the gunpowder, and was waiting in the cellar with the barrels when the police arrived. He was caught and sent to the Tower of London to be tortured and executed. The remaining co-conspirators were all caught too, and the King declared that the people of London should light bonfires to celebrate his survival. A few months later Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act to celebrate the failure of the plot, and the apparent divine intervention that had saved the life of the King.
To this day, once a year at the State Opening of Parliament, there is a tradition that the Yeoman of the Guard search the building’s cellars for explosives. This is largely for ceremonial purposes, and to remember the gunpowder plot of 1605.
Modern day celebrations
Nowadays, towns and cities around Britain celebrate Guy Fawkes Night by putting on colourful fireworks shows, with music, food stalls, sparklers and bonfires. British weather is quite cold in November, so most people wrap up warm with winter coats, scarves and gloves to spend the evening outside.
Effigies of Guy Fawkes called ‘Guys’ made from old clothes and newspaper are burned on the bonfire, and fireworks are set off to remind us of the gunpowder that nearly blew up Parliament. Some people set off fireworks and make their own bonfires in their gardens to celebrate. Food eaten during the festivities traditionally includes hotdogs, treacle toffee, baked potatoes cooked in the fire, and a type of cake called Parkin cake made from oatmeal, treacle, syrup, and ginger. Roasting marshmallows or sausages over the bonfire is also popular.
If you find yourself in London for Guy Fawkes Night this year, there are a lot of places to celebrate all around the city.
London’s most extravagant display is held at Alexandra Palace. It includes a huge fireworks and laser show, ice skating, a German beer festival, street food market, a Day of the Dead Parade and even a funfair. One of the hottest tickets in the city, you’ll have to book in advance for this sell-out event.
£11 adults, £8.50 children; ice skating and beer festival cost extra. 4-5 November.
Watch a dazzling fireworks display set to the hits of well-known music legends at Battersea Park. Enjoy family friendly entertainment, food and drink stalls, and a huge bonfire alongside the impressive pyrotechnics show. Book in advance or show up early to avoid disappointment.
£6.50-£10, 5 November.
As with years before, Crystal Palace will be putting on two separate fireworks shows. Both are set to music, but the first one (held at the earlier time of 7pm) is designed specially for children, with less loud bangs and more colour. The main show begins at 8:30pm, there will also be food and drinks stalls around for you to enjoy. This event is alcohol-free, and perfect for families with small children.
Book online, £7.50 adults, £5.10 children. 5 November.
One of the largest displays in the city - with the added bonus of being free to attend – Southwark’s fireworks display is set along the south bank of the River Thames. A great event to attend if you’re keen to see central London’s skies lit up by the colourful display. There will also be food, drink and entertainment before the main event. Although the event is free, it is ticketed in order to control numbers.
Book online, free. 5 November.
If you’re new to London and want to learn more about its history and culture, check out our blog post on the history of London. And if you’re interested in living and studying in England’s capital, then take a look at our English courses at our London school.