Guy Fawkes’ lantern

About the object

AN1887.2 Guy Fawkes Lantern © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
AN1887.2 Guy Fawkes’ Lantern © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

​The lantern

The lantern is made of sheet iron with a holder inside for a candle. It has a hinged door which was once fitted with a window made of horn through which the light from the candle shone. The vent at the top let out the heat. This vent is attached to an inner cylinder which could be rotated in order to conceal the light, and therefore the user. This type of lantern is known as a dark lantern. The lantern was originally given to the University of Oxford in 1641 by Robert Heywood of Brasenose College. He was a son of the Justice of the Peace who arrested Guy Fawkes. It has been in the Ashmolean Museum since 1887 when a number of objects were transferred there from the Bodleian Library’s collection of curiosities. The lantern is now very damaged after years of handling by visitors while it was kept at the Bodleian.

The Gunpowder Plot

On 4 November 1605, Guy Fawkes hid in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament ready to light the fuse which would detonate the 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in the cellar by the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. The Plot aimed to blow up King James I and members of parliament when they gathered for the state opening of Parliament ceremony the next day. It was one of several assassination attempts or conspiracies against Protestant monarchs across Europe in the ongoing struggle for power between Catholics and Protestants. Full details of the story of the Plot, of the discovery of Fawkes and its aftermath can be found in the resources given below.

Bonfire Night

Following the discovery and collapse of the Plot, laws were passed banning Catholics from taking on certain public roles such as holding officer rank in the army and navy, practising law and voting in elections. In the same year as the Plot, an Act of Parliament was passed naming 5 November as a day of thanksgiving for the safety of the monarch. Church bells were rung, bonfires were lit and there was music and feasting. Over the years, the focus of the event became firmly established as a celebration of Protestantism and the parliamentary system, though its popularity and the precise nature of the night changed with the prevailing political or religious context.

The abiding feature of Bonfire Night has been, unsurprisingly, the lighting of fires and setting off of fireworks, in some places accompanied by high levels of mischief, hooliganism and violence. Quite soon in its history the practice arose of creating an effigy of Guy Fawkes which would be burned on the bonfire, and in the eighteenth century there are references to children using the effigies to beg for money. The Act of Parliament was repealed in 1859, thirty years after Catholics regained the right to vote. Since then the anti-Catholic nature of Bonfire Night has pretty much disappeared. Nowadays, Bonfire Night is a social and often a community occasion associated with light and warmth on a dark, chilly autumn night.

More information

Lantern introduction
Ashmolean Museum webpage for the lantern.

Gunpowder Plot introduction
Houses of Parliament website with information on the Gunpowder Plot.

Gunpowder Plot resources
An excellent website from the BBC about the Gunpowder Plot with videos and links to other websites.

Gunpowder Plot detail
Detailed information from the Gunpowder Plot Society.

Book by James Sharpe
Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, Profile Books 2006.

Next section: A bigger picture

Guy Fawkes’ lantern