Who was Guy Fawkes and is he responsible for New Zealand's noisy fireworks?

Sunday night is Guy Fawkes Night, and no doubt you've already smelt some gun powder or at least whiffed some cheap, Chinese-made skyrockets.

The historical figure supposedly behind all this fire-cracker business was an English-born, religious terrorist named Guy Fawkes, who played a minor part in an assassination attempt on the King of England in 1605.

Fawkes was actually a career soldier and after converting to Catholicism, he spent several years in Spain, fighting for Catholics against Protestant Dutch reformers.

Despite all the films, books and bangs celebrated in his honour, Guy Fawkes' role in the hit attempt on King James I was essentially acting as the 'trigger man' for a team of plotters, led by a revolutionary Catholic named Robert Catesby.

All of the plotters were devout Catholics, who wanted to kill the Protestant king, because they believed he was persecuting the Catholic faith.

A depiction of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic revolutionaries plotting to kill the King.
A depiction of Guy Fawkes and the Catholic revolutionaries plotting to kill the King. Photo credit: Getty

The plan was as simple as it was brutal - blow up the Palace of Westminster and everyone in it, including the King.

Fawkes' greatest claim to fame in all this was renting a house near the palace and smuggling in 36 barrels of gunpowder, ready for the big bang.

It never eventuated, however, after an anonymous letter tipped off the assassination attempt and Fawkes was arrested.

After some nasty torture sessions, Fawkes gave up all 13 of his conspirator mates, who were all killed, while resisting arrest or executed after capture. 

Fawkes' end was equally as grisly. Set to be hung, drawn and quartered in a public execution, he took matters into his own hands, by jumping off the gallows and breaking his own neck.

So why do we celebrate this failed Catholic-sponsored act of terror in New Zealand?

We do so largely because of our shared British heritage. 

Colonial settlers brought the English tradition of bonfire night with them to Aotearoa.

Originally called Gunpowder Treason Day, it used to involve the burning of Catholic-themed effigies, but has morphed, over the decades, into a slight pre-Christmas boom for retailers, who import tonnes of profit-making sparklers and roman candles.

We're still lighting up the sky after all these years.
We're still lighting up the sky after all these years. Photo credit: Getty

Today, Guy Fawkes nights in New Zealand are a far more tame and safe affair than they used to be.

Many a young Kiwi lad would accidentally blow off his fingers each year, while setting off the now-banned mini-explosives, 'thunderbolts' and the infamous red terrors - 'double happys'.

Others would lose eyes or lips, while the family pet would also sometimes suffer horrific injury or death.

Thankfully, those days are behind us now, and all we have to endure is the incessant whistling of skyrockets and the like - while still keeping those terrified pets inside.

"Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot."

You could arguably rename November 5 - Robert Catesby Night.