“Remember, Remember the 5th of November.” Why the British Celebrate Bonfire Night (A.K.A. Guy Fawkes Night)
Remember, remember the 5th of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.— Traditional rhyme
Religious Differences Led to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605
In 1605, England was ruled by King James I, and Protestantism was the established faith in the United Kingdom. Henry VIII had put paid to the power of the Church of Rome after he was excommunicated by the Pope as punishment for declaring that his marriage to Katherine of Aragon was not valid. Henry established the Church of England and declared himself Defender of the Faith. In the years that followed, Henry's decree of the official religion wavered between Protestantism and Catholicism, according to the beliefs of the ruling monarch.
By the early seventeenth century, Anti-Catholic feelings ran high. Catholicism was seen as authoritarian, persecuting and antagonistic to England, beliefs reinforced by the attempted attack on England in 1588 by the Armada of Catholic Spain (Wolffe, p.82). Those who held to the Old Faith were rooted out and forced to recant under threat of dire consequences should they refuse.
The Plot to Blow up King James I and His Parliament Is Discovered
The Catholic conspirators had hoped to restore the Old Faith by killing the Protestant king and his parliamentarians, but on the 5th November in 1605 they were discovered guarding barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the House of Lords. Their treasonous actions had shattered all hope of a return to older days ((Wood, p. 285). Amongst the men who were arrested and sent to the Tower of London for interrogation under torture was Guido Fawkes. The masterminds behind the plot were hunted down. Some died fighting; those who survived were put on trial along with Guido Fawkes, on the charge of treason, in January and March of the following year.
The Punishment of the Catholic Conspirators of 5th November 1605
The surviving participants of the plot were publicly hung, drawn and quartered on 1 February 1606. But Guy Fawkes had avoided the grisly fate by breaking his own neck by throwing himself from the flight of steps as he mounted to the scaffold.
The Anti-Catholic Propaganda That Followed the Failed Gunpowder Plot
On 9 November King James addressed Parliament, presenting his theological argument for the failure of the attempt on his life. His speech was followed the next day by a sermon at St. Paul's. The official line was that the plot was the work of the devil and that God had saved the King.
The trials in 1606 expounded the official version of events:the assassination plot had been the work of fanatics who had been encouraged by Jesuits. A liturgical celebration, Powder Day, was established to commemorate the thwarting of the plot and the preservation of the King's life through God's intervention. Powder Day (and the lighting of fires on Bonfire Night) 'would imprint itself on the national psyche' (ibid, p.285).
The Observance of 5th November 1605 Act of Parliament was passed by the House of Lords in January 1606. The Act allowed for an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot's failure. The provisions continued until the Act was repealed in 1859. But Powder Day (Bonfire Night) is still celebrated by the British.
How Is November 5th Celebrated in the UK?
Nowadays, Bonfire Night is just for fun. So, what happens?
This being England, it often rains on the actual date of the commemoration. It’s hard to keep a bonfire alight during heavy rain and, what’s more, people dislike getting unnecessarily wet, and so the celebrations might be delayed until the weather becomes more clement.
The centrepiece of the event is the bonfire. Some are constructed for community events and are enormous. Others, more modest, are built in the gardens of domestic premises and are a convenient way, though not particularly environmentally friendly, of disposing of garden refuse and other unwanted household items
The second essential piece of paraphernalia on Guy Fawkes Night is an effigy of the man himself. This is placed at the top of the bonfire to be burnt. Grisly, I think you will agree. In living memory, children often constructed an effigy of Guy and begged ‘A penny for the Guy’ on street corners. Making Guys is still a fun pastime but the begging aspect of the activity has largely disappeared.
The third element of Guy Fawkes Night is the fireworks, symbolism for the explosion that would have been caused in Parliament if the plot had been successfully carried out. Some people buy fireworks to ignite in the gardens of their homes and each year nasty accidents that have incurred severe burns are reported in the media. A safer option is to attend one of the large-scale community displays that are held in almost every town or village.
The biggest celebrations on 5 November take place in Lewes, Sussex, where seven different Guy Fawkes Night societies mount fancy dress parades through the town. Intense heat is generated by firebrands that are carried by the numerous participants, who parade close to crowds of spectators. The event has become so popular that on 5 November the Police restrict access to the town centre and the Council discourages non-residents from visiting the town on the day of the parades.
Edible Treats on Bonfire Night
As in all celebrations, food is frequently involved during Bonfire Night activities. Traditional treats are sticky Bonfire Toffee and toffee apples. Warming drinks or soup are sometimes served to fight the effects of standing around out of doors on a chilly autumn evening.
Further Information About Bonfire Night
Wolffe, J.(2008) Tradition and Dissent in English Christianity, Milton Keynes,The Open University
Wood, M.(2003) In Search of Shakespeare, London, BBC Worldwide Ltd
Questions & Answers
© 2018 GlenR