Movies such as V for Vendetta have popularized the imagery of Guy Fawkes masks, but we’re willing to bet that few movie fans could explain just who, exactly, Guy Fawkes was. With Guy Fawkes Day rapidly approaching (it’s observed on or around November 5th each year), we’re here to set the record straight—and let you know the best places to enjoy the festivities.
The Origins of Guy Fawkes Day
While modern iterations of Guy Fawkes Day are associated with festive bonfires, spectacular fireworks displays, and cheerful revelry, its origins are a good deal gloomier. Here’s the quick and dirty summary.
It all goes back to the British rule of Queen Elizabeth I, who harshly repressed Catholicism. When she died and King James I took over the throne, Catholics were hopeful they would enjoy more religious freedom. But this was decidedly not the case. If anything, James was even more repressive than his predecessor—he even ordered all Catholic priests out of the country in 1604.
Here’s where Guy Fawkes comes in. Fawkes was a member of a rebel Catholic group that was plotting to assassinate King James I during the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605 (aka “the Gunpowder Plot”).
Authorities learned of the plot in advance and officially foiled it when they caught Fawkes in the cellar beneath the House of Lords along with 36 barrels of gunpowder and matches in his pocket. (Physicists later calculated there was enough gunpowder in those barrels to destroy nearly everything within 1,600 feet from the explosion.)
The same night that the foiled plot was revealed, Londoners lit bonfires and celebrated in the streets. In the coming months, Parliament declared November 5 a public day of thanksgiving—and thus Guy Fawkes Day was born. The celebration is also commonly referred to as Bonfire Night and Firework Night.
So what became of Fawkes? He and his co-conspirators were sentenced to death in January 1606, but Fawkes avoided being hung, drawn, and quartered by leaping to his own death.
Where to Celebrate Guy Fawkes Day
While its origins aren’t really the stuff of children’s tales, Guy Fawkes Day has evolved into an annual celebration featuring parades, fireworks, bonfires, and plenty of mulled wine. Each year, festivities abound across Britain and some former British colonies. The following list represents the best of the best.
Fireworks Festival, London, England
No Bonfire Night celebration roundup would be complete without mention of London’s biggest celebration. Approximately 50,000 attendees come to Alexandra Palace for the massive fireworks display, which lights up Britain’s capital. After the pyrotechnic display, revelers take part in any or all of an extravaganza of festivities, from the German Bier Festival to parades, laser shows, ice skating, and the consumption of mulled wine.
Glasgow Green, Glasgow, Scotland
The biggest Bonfire Night in Scotland draws more than 50,000 spectators, so it’s best to get there early. The event is held in the city’s oldest park, which is packed to the gills with fair rides, food stalls, merchants, and live entertainment. The day is capped off with the lighting of 3,000 fireworks.
Leeds Castle Fireworks Spectacular, Kent, England
Never has an event been more aptly named. Fire-juggling, fire-breathing, a fire tree, and fireworks are just some of the pyrotechnics on display in Kent. Spectators can also enjoy a falconry exhibition, fairground rides, live music, delicious food, mulled wine, and a gorgeous lakeside setting for it all.
Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations, East Sussex, England
The biggest Bonfire Night celebration of the year happens here, where spectators can expect to see more than a dozen marching bands and as many parades featuring vibrant costumes and live entertainment. The procession ends with the lighting of several bonfires on the hills surrounding the town followed by a massive fireworks display.
Lord Mayor’s Show, London, England
The historical inspiration for this popular event dates back to 1215,when the freshly elected city mayor travelled up the Thames to Westminster in order to promise fealty to the king. In the modern iteration, a flotilla travels upriver while a street parade trails behind. It’s all capped off with a huge fireworks display.
Midsummer Common, Cambridge, England
A throng of 25,000 people turns out to witness the fireworks display in Cambridge each year, but the fireworks aren’t the only big event of the evening. After the conclusion of the display, a giant bonfire is lit, fire dancers put on a live performance, and revelers party until late at night.
Sparks in the Park, Cardiff, Wales
History and modernity blend together at this event, which features modern-day pyrotechnics set against the backdrop of a nearly 2,000-year-old castle. The largest Bonfire Night celebration in Wales has occurred annually since 1981 and draws approximately 20,000 spectators each year.
Modern celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day may be well removed from the event’s origins—these days, the event is more about partying and pyrotechnics than it is about political dissent. Contemporary observers of this distinctly British holiday definitely have more fun than the man who sparked it all.