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Guy Fawkes and bonfire night
As children write their names in the sky with sparklers, and people across the country light bonfires and watch firework displays, we delve into our record collections to examine the history behind this tradition.
It originates at the turn of the 17th century, when a small group of English Catholics, fearing of a return to the Protestant religion under the reign of King James I, decided to blow up both King and Parliament with gunpowder. See our panoramic photograph from the 19th century, featuring the Houses of Parliament which could have been destroyed, below. The plot was discovered by the king’s spies on 5 November 1605.
Guy, or 'Guido', Fawkes is the most well known of this group of men. In the days following his capture, Fawkes confessed to the plot and named the others involved. We hold a number of documents at The National Archives relating to the gunpowder plot and Fawkes’ subsequent capture, including his signed confessions. We also hold the testimonies and examinations of accomplices including Francis Tresham and Everard Digby, excerpts of which are featured here.
Fawkes and the other plotters were executed in January 1606. Ever since then, the fifth of November has seen firework displays and bonfires, commonly with an effigy of Fawkes burning atop, to remember the failed ‘Gunpowder Plot‘.
As well as the documents above, our collections include various Victorian firework ephemera, including Brock’s and Pain's advertisements, and packaging for fireworks. Posters for firework displays from Germany to London show the popularity of elaborate displays in the early 1900s, an attraction which endures today.
Read more in our blog about our records on the Gunpowder Plot.
Guido Fawke's signature from his final examination, 26 January 1605/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/sp14-216-doc180-(112v)-guido-fawkes-signature-from-his-final-examination-(mono-detail)-26-jan-1605.jpg
Catalogue reference: SP 14/216 doc 180 (112v)
Proclamation, 7 November 1605/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/sp14-16-doc20-(32)-proclamation-7-november-1605.jpg
Catalogue reference: SP 14/16 doc 20 (32)
Coram Rege Rolls, initial detail James I, 1623/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/kb27-1522-2-coram-rege-rolls-initial-detail-james-I-1623.jpg
Catalogue reference: KB 27/1522/2
Pain's fireworks, Alexandra Palace, 1910/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/copy1-296-(190)-pains-fireworks-alexandra-palace-1910.jpg
Catalogue reference: COPY 1/296 (190)
Houses of Parliament, Railton's drawings, elevation of river front, 1835/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/work29-60-houses-of-parliament-plans-and-drawings-railtons-drawings-elevation-of-river-front-1835.jpg
Catalogue reference: WORK 29/60
Crystal Palace lit for fireworks display, 1901/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/copy1-179-(294a)-crystal-palace-lit-for-fireworks-display-1901.jpg
Catalogue reference: COPY 1/179 (294a)
Declaration of Guido Fawkes after torture, 9 November 1605/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/sp14-216-doc54-(90v)-declaration-of-guido-fawkes-after-torture-9-november-1605-(2-of-2).jpg
Catalogue reference: SP 14/216 doc 54 (90v)
Francis Tresham's testimony, 13 November 1605/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/sp14-16-doc63-(119)-francis-treshams-testimony-13-november-1605-(1-of-5).jpg
Catalogue reference: SP 14/16 doc 63 (119)
Brock's Fireworks Flying Fireship, 1908/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/copy1-272-(25)-brocks-fireworks-flying-fireship-1908.jpg
Catalogue reference: COPY 1/272 (25)
Bristol Airship Crane & Co fireworks, 1910/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/copy1-292-(197)-bristol-airship-crane-and-co-fireworks-1910.jpg
Catalogue reference: COPY 1/292 (197)
Declaration of Guido Fawkes, 17 November 1605/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/sp14-216-doc101-(152a)-declaration-of-guido-fawkes-17-november-1605-(1-of-3).jpg
Catalogue reference: SP 14/216 doc 101 (152a)
Pain's Fireworks, 1900/images/imagelibrary/showcase/guy-fawkes/copy1-169-(148)-pains-fireworks-1900.jpg
Catalogue reference: COPY 1/169 (148)
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