…Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no good reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!”
Hello again readers and for those who don’t know…. today is not just any other day! It is November 5th and the UK this day is normally referred to as Bonfire Night. It is a celebration, a time to gather round a bonfire with friends and family and enjoy bright and colourful fireworks and also some seasonal foods. No bonfire would be complete without a guy sitting on top, with loud cheers when this historical effigy is consumed by licking flames. Most people know that Guy refers to Guy Fawkes, the leader of the Gunpowder Plot which so nearly succeeded in blowing up Parliament on November 5th 1605. He was the leader of a group of Catholics who wanted to kill the Protestant King James of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state. Few will know the whole story of this famous day in the UK calendar so let me enlighten you…….
James’ Council allowed the public to celebrate the King’s survival with bonfires so long as they were “without any danger or disorder!” So the very first bonfire night was actually in 1605! The following January only days before the last of the plotters were executed, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, also known as the “Thanksgiving Act”. It was proposed by a puritan member of Parliament Edward Montagu who suggested the King’s apparent deliverance by divine intervention deserved some official recognition. This meant that henceforth November 5th would be kept free as a day of thanksgiving and attendance at church was considered mandatory.
Little is known about the earliest celebrations. The towns of Carlisle, Norwich and Nottingham provided music and artillery salutes. In 1607 the people of Canterbury celebrated November 5th with 106 pounds of gunpowder and 14 pounds of match. By the 1620s November 5th was honoured in most towns and villages across the country. It became known as Gunpowder Treason Day and became the predominant English state commemoration. On 5th November 1625 effigies of the pope and the devil were burnt on bonfires for the first time and this was the beginning of centuries of tradition which lasts to this day. Feelings were running high in this year as James’ son, the future Charles I had married the catholic Henrietta Maria of France. Puritans reacted by issuing a new prayer warning against rebellion and Catholicism.
Bonfire Night assumed a new fervour during events leading to the Interregnum. Parliamentarians feared new Catholic plots. Preaching before the House of Commons on 5 November 1644 Charles Herle claimed that Papists were tunnelling “from Oxford, Rome, Hell, to Westminster, and there to blow up, if possible, the better foundations of your houses, their liberties and privileges.” A display at Lincolns Inn Fields in 1647 included fireballs burning in water and fireboxes whose many rockets were suggestive of “popish spirits coming from below” to enact plots against the King. Effigies of Fawkes and the pope were present. By 1670 London Apprentices had turned November 5th into a fire festival, attacking not just popery but sobriety and good order by demanding money from coach occupants for alcohol and bonfires. In 1673 the apprentices marched at the head of a procession of about 1000 people. An effigy of the Whore of Babylon was fired bedecked with a range of papal symbols. In 1679 an observer noted “many bonfires, and burnings of popes as have ever been seen.” Violent scenes in 1682 forced London’s militia into action and to prevent a repeat of the troubles a proclamation was issued banning fireworks and bonfires. Fireworks were banned under King James from 1685. Some reacted to a ban on bonfires by placing candles in their windows “as a witness against Catholicism.” In 1688 James was deposed by William of Orange who conveniently landed in England on November 5th. A ban on fireworks was maintained however due to safety reasons “much mischief having been done by squibs.”
In the nineteenth century 5th November was largely “a polite entertainment rather than an occasion for vitriolic thanksgiving” The lower classes saw it another way, a pretext for violence and uncontrolled energy. During this century Gunpowder Treason Day became Guy Fawkes day and an effigy of the chief gunpowder plotter was more likely to be thrown on the bonfire than an effigy of the pope. As early as 1790 the Times reported instances of children “begging money for Guy Faux.” In March 1859 the Annniversary Days Observance Act repealed the Observance of 5th November Act and public decorum was gradually restored. Gathering of firewood for bonfires became increasingly the duty of working class children, who often begged wood,money,food and drink from the wealthier neighbour in their communities. They often began with a song, quite often the famous “Remember, remember…”. Organised entertainments became popular in the late 19th century and the firework manufacturers reamed Guy Fawkes Day as Fireworks night. At the start of the second world war in 1939 celebrations were suspended and started anew in 1945. Guy Fawkes or Bonfire night then became a local affair, celebrated within a community with a huge bonfire at its centre. Children often congregated on street corners with their home made guy weeks before the night. Their chants of “Penny for the Guy” was familiar all over the land. The fireworks of the 1950s and 1960s were sold only in newsagents and were small in scale and price. These were generally let off around or near the bonfires or in back-gardens.
Fast forward to 2014 and much has changed. Guys are now rarely seen though I did see one in Stockport this year. The celebrations are much bigger as are the bonfires but are now run by local charities, councils or other organisations. A payment to gain entry is expected. Fireworks can now be purchased from multiple outlets including supermarkets and even pop-up firework shops. Once restricted firmly to the 5th of November, it is now more likely to see the whole event transferred to whichever Saturday night is nearest to the famous day. Sadly the old celebrations have given way to a stage-managed money –making firework display that mostly does not even take place on November 5th. The real reasons for having bonfires, fireworks and guys seems to have been lost in the smoke of the huge but heartless modern displays.
Well readers if you are off out tonight enjoy November 5th. Personally I will not be going anywhere at all. Our local giant stage managed affair takes place at the weekend…. And I can see the fireworks clearly from my bedroom window!
References; information for this article came from Wikipedia ie http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes_Night