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Why do the British burn effigies and light fireworks on Nov 5? | Updated: 2017-11-03 00:23

Each year, on Nov 5, Britain's skies are lit up with fireworks and its people gather around bonfires to burn effigies, known as a "guy".

It is a fun festival and one that is especially aimed at children but the light-hearted amusement belies the brutal and controversial history behind Nov 5.

The festival commemorates the capture of Guido Fawkes in 1605 as he prepared to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in an attempt to kill King James I and his ministers.

It was no idle plot. Fawkes had smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellars of Parliament that were ready to be ignited when the king opened Parliament on Nov 5.

In the years following the reign of King Henry VIII, the Church of England had become increasingly estranged from the Catholic Church in Rome. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, had confirmed that the state religion in England was Protestant. It was a time when England's Catholics had little choice but to follow their faith in secret.

When King James I ascended to the throne of England, there was no sign that he would end the persecution of English Catholics, and a group of Catholic activists, led by Robert Catesby, began a conspiracy to assassinate James and his ministers.

Fawkes fought abroad for the King of Spain, who was the leader of Europe's Catholics in their fight against Protestant regimes. When Fawkes returned to England, he was determined to restore Catholicism as the national religion.

Fawkes was discovered by a search party before he could detonate the explosives after the authorities had received information about the plot. He was tortured until he confessed. The next year, he was dragged by horse through the streets of London, and was slated to have been hung by the neck, but fell off the platform and broke his neck. He thus avoided the worst part of his sentence, which was to have been disembowelment while still conscious.

The day of the discovery of the plot, Parliament called upon Londoners to light bonfires to celebrate the king’s health and the country's continuation as a Protestant nation. The festival has continued ever since.

Often,these days, the guy is modeled on a reviled figure from current affairs.

Zhang Yangfei contributed to this story.

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