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Bonfire Night 2014


I don’t usually touch on annual festivals much here, I usually find little reason to link it to reading or writing but I am making an exception here. Bonfire Night / Guy Fawkes night is one of my favourites. I always find I feel Christmassy the day after. After all, in the UK it’s the last celebration or festival before Christmas. The US has Thanksgiving at the end of November so I imagine the feelings that encourages are pretty similar.

What is it about?

In the early hours of 5th November 1605, guards at the old House of Parliament were alerted to a strange man lurking in the undercrofts. He was in possession of a number of explosive barrels stacked up in a prominent place that would certainly have brought down the building above if they exploded. He was immediately arrested and after extensive interrogation, revealed the names of his co-conspirators – a group of Catholics determined to kill the king and place on the throne his young (Catholic) daughter, Elizabeth.

Fawkes was a mercenary and had fought on the side of Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years War. Realising the extent of chaos that would have resulted in their sectarian terrorism, 5th November was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and an Act of Parliament passed as the day as a public observance. This poem was also written in the aftermath.

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holloa boys, holloa boys
God save the King!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

Warning: There is a very politically incorrect bit here but it really points to the hostile sectarian feeling from back then.

A penny loaf to feed ol’ Pope
A farthing cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

It is no longer a public holiday but the tradition of bonfires and fireworks continue. Most towns that are able to attract a sizeable crowd have a fireworks display. Traditionally we eat cinder toffee, candy floss and toffee apples, wrap up warm and enjoy the smells and sites of the creeping autumn wind and cold.

Latterly, Guy Fawkes has become the face of anti-establishment and held up as some sort of freedom fighter. Thanks to the success of the graphic novel and the film V For Vendetta where the titular V fights against a UKIP-like government fascist dictatorship in the UK and vows to bring down the government on the anniversary the real Fawkes tried to do the same. The V mask is the symbol now of Anonymous, the global anti-establishment group (and is arguably passing into lore as the face of all anti-establishment groups).

It is important to remember that the real Guy Fawkes was not a freedom fighter. The James government enacted many anti-Catholic laws out of paranoia, but had the conspiracy succeeded, it would have been Protestants that suffered – Fawkes, Catesby and the other ringleaders were not interested in egalitarianism.

If you’re going to a display tomorrow night, stay safe!


4 thoughts on “Bonfire Night 2014

  1. I went to a Catholic secondary school and the version we were taught is a little different. Persecution of the Catholic families had already begun, so the Plot was started not just to kill Parliament, but mainly to kill James I, who had effectively become a heretic, burning witches and turning aside from his Catholic heritage.
    The plotters had buried the gunpowder under piles of wood and coal, and Fawkes who held the matches was hidden in the coal too. He wasn’t strictly a mercenary, but a protestant who had converted to Catholicism and who had then accompanied the Catholic king of Spain in the eighty years war. A zealot convert, and potential suicide bomber (although there was a plan to get him to Europe by boat if he made it). He wasn’t found accidently, but was betrayed.
    One of the conspirators (probably) warned an MP (who happened to be his Brother-in-law and a Catholic sympathiser) not to attend the State opening of Parliament (which had been delayed by fears of plague). He lead guards in a search of Parliament, including the cellars that the House of Lords rented out (a search that the yeoman guard still carry out every state opening). They found Fawkes, but initially not the explosives, only later did they find the powder on a second search.
    Fawkes was tortured and revealed the names of the plotters, and all the conspirators they could take alive, including their confessor (since they had confessed the plot to him and he hadn’t immediately informed the authorities) were tortured before being tried, hung, drawn and quartered. Following the plot’s failure Catholic persecution increased which influenced directly the thirty years war and Civil War (along with increasing English fears of a union with Scotland under a Scottish king) only forty years later.
    Definetly all worth remembering less we repeat it somehow or if it was in anyway relevant in the modern world…

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