Guy Fawkes – the history of Guy Fawkes and Catholicism in the UK 

“Remember, remember the 5th of November…”

Last week people went out to their local parks to ignite bonfires and light fireworks in celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. Amidst the spectacular displays and feel-good atmosphere, Bonfire Night is a uniquely British festival. But it also has a salient history that is inexplicably connected to religion in the UK today. 

Whether through childhood nursery rhymes or watching the firework display at The Rec, many of us know why we symbolically burn Guy Fawkes. In 1605, he was caught under the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder, attempting to blow up King James I. Rumbled at the 11th hour by the King’s guards, he was tortured for a confession and then sentenced to death. On the very day the plot was thwarted, people across the country lit bonfires to celebrate the survival of the King. 

As we mark the plot’s failure each year, it is important to understand the motives behind this act of high treason. Fawkes was a Catholic, and King James was a Protestant. At the time, this religious divide was raw across the country, with King Henry VIII having only founded the Church of England 70 years prior. A successful Gunpowder Plot was to pave the way for the return of Catholicism to the British crown. 

For many Catholics, such as Guy Fawkes, it was imperative that Catholicism be reinstated as the main religion in the country. Since the Anglican Reformation, many had lost basic civil rights in the country. A series of diktats known as the Penal Laws led to catholic persecution and forced attendance to Anglican church services. In essence, Catholics no longer felt safe in their own country- this itself explains why Guy Fawkes attempted to kill the King. 

Sadly for Fawkes, Penal Laws only became stricter after the Gunpowder Plot. Anti-Catholic sentiment grew as they became associated with acts of terrorism. New laws curbed voting and catholic education in the UK and Ireland. For the next 150 years, the relationship between catholic countries and the UK was hostile as the country continued to uphold the Penal Laws. 

It took until 1766 for the Penal Laws to be retracted. This came after the Pope recognised King George III as the legitimate ruler of England, leading to greater religious tolerance. However, the number of Catholics in the country had declined from 20% of the population at the time of the Gunpowder Plot to just 1% in 1800. Today, this figure has recovered to about 8%. This reflects our modern-day multicultural society, as a large proportion of Catholics have foreign-born ancestry.  

Bonfire Night may originate in religious tension and division, but today it represents community participation and companionship. Friends, family, and neighbours all come together for an evening each year. Nevertheless, the event explains a crucial and perhaps lesser-known part of British history. And so, the saying goes: I see no reason, why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot. 

Latest from Features & Investigation