On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes planned to blow up King James I during a Parliament meeting by lighting over 20 barrels of gunpowder in the building’s cellar. The night before the planned attack, Fawkes hid in the cellar and covered the barrels with coals and fagots. Fawkes and a number of other Catholic men resented the anti-Catholic laws in England, and hoped to establish a Catholic government after they blew up the Protestant king. The plot’s mastermind, Robert Catesby, chose Fawkes for the task because he had recently returned from fighting a foreign war and wouldn’t be recognized easily.
Unfortunately for Fawkes and his co-conspirators, the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Authorities arrested Fawkes that evening and tortured him on the rack to force him to name the other men. Catesby and four others were killed when they resisted arrest; Fawkes and the rest of the gang were found guilty of treason and executed.
In January of 1606, Parliament declared November 5 as a day of thanksgiving. According to tradition, children carried straw effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets, asking passersby for “a penny for the Guy” so they could buy fireworks for the celebration. They recited verses from the poem “The Fifth of November,” which states “Remember, remember!/The fifth of November,/The Gunpowder treason and plot;/I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot!”
The holiday even spread to the American colonies, where it was referred to as Pope’s Day. Colonists did not focus on the figure of Guy Fawkes, but they did burn effigies of the Pope, the devil, and political enemies.
Unlike Britain, which still celebrates the original holiday, America does not. During the American Revolution, the colonies needed the support of France, which was a Catholic country. It became politically incorrect for colonists to hold an anti-Catholic celebration.
In England, however, people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks, bonfires, parties, and burnt effigies of Fawkes and unpopular politicians. Children still go door-to-door before the holiday asking for “a penny for the Guy,” which is similar to the American custom of trick or treating on Halloween. Guards also continue the tradition of searching the Houses of Parliament, just in case any plots like the one Fawkes and his conspirators planned are afoot.