Bonfire Night

As this day approaches, we get ready to celebrate what could have been a disastrous event in our history. The night of November 5th is known by many names such as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’, ‘Guy Fawkes Day’, ‘Bonfire Night’ and ‘Fireworks Night and is an annual commemoration observed on November 5th each year, primarily in Great Britain, involving bonfires and firework displays. Its history begins with the events of November 5th, 1605 when Guy (a.k.a. Guido) Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested whilst guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. The Catholic plotters had intended to assassinate the Protestant King James I and his parliament. Celebrating that the king had survived, people lit bonfires around London and months later the Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure. Within a few decades the ‘Gunpowder Treason Day’, as it was then known, became the predominant English state commemoration, but as it carried strong Protestant religious overtones it also became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. Puritans delivered sermons regarding the perceived dangers of ‘popery’, whilst during increasingly raucous celebrations common folk burnt effigies of popular hate-figures of the time, including the Pope. Towards the end of the 18th century reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes and 5 November gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day. Towns such as Lewes and Guildford were scenes of increasingly violent class-based confrontations in the 19th century, fostering traditions those towns celebrate still, albeit peaceably. In the 1850s changing attitudes resulted in the toning down of much of the day’s anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed in 1859. Eventually the violence was dealt with, and by the 20th century Guy Fawkes Day had become an enjoyable social commemoration, although lacking much of its original focus. The present-day Guy Fawkes Night is usually celebrated at large organised events. Settlers exported Guy Fawkes Night to overseas colonies, including some in North America, where it was known as Pope Day, but those festivities died out with the onset of the American Revolution. Claims that Guy Fawkes Night was a Protestant replacement for older customs such as Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or ‘darker half’ of the year are disputed as England had no contemporary history of bonfires.

An effigy of Fawkes, burnt on 5 November 2010 at Billericay.

Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and VI of Scotland and replace him with a Catholic head of state. In the immediate aftermath of the 5 November arrest of Guy Fawkes, caught guarding a cache of explosives placed beneath the House of Lords, King James’s Council allowed the public to celebrate the king’s survival with bonfires, so long as they were “without any danger or disorder”. This made 1605 the first year the plot’s failure was celebrated. The following January, days before the surviving conspirators were executed, Parliament, at the initiation of James I, passed the Observance of 5th November Act, commonly known as the ‘Thanksgiving Act’. It was proposed by a Puritan Member of Parliament, Edward Montagu, who suggested that the king’s apparent deliverance by divine intervention deserved some measure of official recognition, and kept 5 November free as a day of thanksgiving whilst in theory making attendance at Church mandatory. A new form of service was also added to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, for use on that date. By the 1620s the Fifth was honoured in market towns and villages across the country, though it was some years before it was commemorated throughout England. Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was then known, became the predominant English state commemoration. Some parishes made the day a festive occasion, with public drinking and solemn processions. Concerned though about James’s pro-Spanish foreign policy, the decline of international Protestantism, and Catholicism in general, Protestant clergymen who recognised the day’s significance called for more dignified and profound thanksgivings each 5 November. What unity English Protestants had shared in the plot’s immediate aftermath began to fade when, in 1625, James’s son, the future Charles I, married the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France. Puritans reacted to the marriage by issuing a new prayer to warn against rebellion and Catholicism, and on 5 November that year, effigies of the pope and the devil were burnt, the earliest such report of this practice and the beginning of centuries of tradition. During Charles’s reign Gunpowder Treason Day became increasingly partisan. Between 1629 and 1640 he ruled without Parliament, and he seemed to support ‘Arminianism’, a controversial theological position within the Church of England particularly evident in the second quarter of the 17th century (the reign of Charles I of England) which was regarded by some Puritans as a step toward Catholicism. By 1636, under the leadership of the Arminian Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, the English church was trying to use 5 November to denounce all seditious practices, and not just popery. Puritans went on the defensive, some pressing for further reformation of the Church. Bonfire Night, as it was occasionally known, assumed a new fervour during the events leading up to the English Interregnum. Although Royalists disputed their interpretations, Parliamentarians began to uncover or fear new Catholic plots. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, the country’s new republican regime remained undecided on how to treat 5 November. Unlike the old system of religious feasts and State anniversaries it survived, but as a celebration of parliamentary government and Protestantism, not of monarchy. Commonly the day was still marked by bonfires and miniature explosives, but more formal celebrations resumed only with the Restoration, when Charles II became king. Courtiers, High Anglicans and Tories followed the official line that the event marked God’s preservation of the English throne, but generally the celebrations became more diverse. By 1670 London apprentices had turned 5 November into a fire festival, attacking not only popery but also “sobriety and good order”, demanding money from coach occupants for alcohol and bonfires. The burning of effigies, largely unknown to the Jacobeans, continued in 1673 when Charles’s brother, the Duke of York, converted to Catholicism. In response, accompanied by a procession of about 1,000 people, the apprentices fired an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, bedecked with a range of papal symbols and similar scenes occurred over the following few years. On 17 November 1677, anti-Catholic fervour saw the Accession Day marked by the burning of a large effigy of the pope and two effigies of devils ‘whispering in his ear’. Two years later an observer noted that “the 5th at night, being gunpowder treason, there were many bonfires and burning of popes as has ever been seen”. Violent scenes in 1682 forced London’s militia into action, and to prevent any repetition the following year a proclamation was issued, banning bonfires and fireworks. Fireworks were also banned under James II (previously the Duke of York), who became king in 1685. Attempts by the government to tone down Gunpowder Treason Day celebrations were, however, largely unsuccessful, and some reacted to a ban on bonfires in London (born from a fear of more burnings of the pope’s effigy) by placing candles in their windows, ‘as a witness against Catholicism’. When James was deposed in 1688 by William of Orange (who, importantly, landed in England on 5 November) the day’s events turned also to the celebration of freedom and religion, with elements of anti-Jacobean ways. Whilst the earlier ban on bonfires was politically motivated, a ban on fireworks was maintained for safety reasons, ‘much mischief having been done by squibs’.

From an issue of ‘Punch’, printed in November 1850.

The restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 provoked a strong reaction. King William III’s birthday fell on 4 November and for orthodox Whigs the two days therefore became an important double anniversary. William ordered that the thanksgiving service for 5 November be amended to include thanks for his ‘happy arrival and the Deliverance of our Church and Nation’. In the 1690s he re-established Protestant rule in Ireland, and the Fifth, occasionally marked by the ringing of church bells and civic dinners, was consequently eclipsed by his birthday commemorations. From the 19th century, 5 November celebrations there became sectarian in nature. Its celebration in Northern Ireland remains controversial, unlike in Scotland where bonfires continue to be lit in various cities. In England though, as one of 49 official holidays, for the ruling class 5 November became overshadowed by events such as the birthdays of Admiral Edward Vernon, or of John Wilkes, and under George II and George III , with the exception of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, it was largely ‘a polite entertainment rather than an occasion for vitriolic thanksgiving’. For the lower classes, however, the anniversary was a chance to pit disorder against order, a pretext for violence and uncontrolled revelry. In 1790, The Times reported instances of children ‘begging for money for Guy Faux’, and a report of 4 November 1802 described how ‘a set of idle fellows with some horrid figure dressed up as a Guy Faux’ were convicted of begging and receiving money, and committed to prison as ‘idle and disorderly persons’. The Fifth became ‘a polysemous occasion, replete with polyvalent cross-referencing, meaning all things to all men’. When I first read the two words ‘polysemous’ and ‘polyvalent’, I had to look them up as they were new to me. I have learned that the former simply means ‘having more than one meaning’, whilst the latter means ‘having or using a lot of different forms or features’. So, back to the story. Lower class rioting continued, with reports in Lewes of annual rioting, intimidation of ‘respectable householders’ and the rolling through the streets of lit tar barrels. In Guildford, gangs of revellers who called themselves ‘guys’ terrorised the local population, proceedings were concerned more with the settling of old arguments and general mayhem than any historical reminiscences. Similar problems arose in Exeter, originally the scene of more traditional celebrations and in 1831 an effigy was burnt of the new Bishop of Exeter, a High Church Anglican and High Tory who opposed Parliamentary reform and who was also suspected of being involved in ‘creeping popery’. A local ban on fireworks in 1843 was largely ignored, and attempts by the authorities to suppress the celebrations resulted in violent protests and several injured constables.

A group of children in Caernarfon in November 1962, standing with their Guy Fawkes effigy. The sign reads ‘Penny for the Guy’ in Welsh.

On several occasions during the 19th century ‘The Times’ reported that the tradition was in decline, being “of late years almost forgotten”, but in fact the civil unrest brought about by the union of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 resulted in Parliament passing the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, which afforded Catholics greater civil rights, continuing the process of Catholic emancipation in the two kingdoms. The traditional denunciations of Catholicism had been in decline since the early 18th century and were thought by many to be outdated, but the pope’s restoration in 1850 of the English Catholic hierarchy gave renewed significance to 5 November, as demonstrated by the burnings of effigies of the new Catholic Archbishop of Westminster as well as the pope. With little resistance in Parliament, the thanksgiving prayer of 5 November contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was abolished, and in March 1859 the Anniversary Days Observance Act repealed the Observance of 5th November Act. As the authorities dealt with the worst excesses, public decorum was gradually restored. The sale of fireworks was restricted and the Guildford ‘Guys’ were neutralised in 1865, although this was too late for one constable, who sadly died of his wounds. Violence continued in Exeter for some years, peaking in 1867 when, incensed by rising food prices and banned from firing their customary bonfire, a mob was twice in one night driven from Cathedral Close by armed infantry. Further riots occurred in 1879, but there were no more bonfires in Cathedral Close after 1894. Elsewhere, sporadic instances of public disorder persisted late into the 20th century, accompanied by large numbers of firework-related accidents, but a national Firework Code and improved public safety has in most cases brought an end to such things. But one notable aspect of the Victorians’ commemoration of Guy Fawkes Night was its move away from the centres of communities, to their margins. Gathering wood for the bonfire increasingly became the province of working-class children, who solicited combustible materials, money, food and drink from wealthier neighbours, often with the aid of songs. Most opened with the familiar “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot”.

Spectators gather around a bonfire at Himley Hall, Dudley on 6 November 2010.

Organised entertainments also became popular in the late 19th century, and 20th-century pyrotechnic manufacturers renamed Guy Fawkes Day as Firework Night. Sales of fireworks dwindled somewhat during the First World War, but resumed in the following peace. At the start of the Second World War celebrations were again suspended, resuming in November 1945. For many families, Guy Fawkes Night became a domestic celebration, and children often congregated on street corners, accompanied by their own effigy of Guy Fawkes, but this was sometimes ornately dressed and sometimes a barely recognisable bundle of rags stuffed with whatever filling was suitable! A survey found that in 1981 about 23% of Sheffield schoolchildren made Guys, sometimes weeks before the event. Collecting money was a popular reason for their creation, the children taking their effigy from door to door, or displaying it on street corners. But mainly, they were built to go on the bonfire, itself sometimes comprising wood stolen from other pyres and seen as ‘an acceptable convention’ that helped bolster another November tradition, Mischief Night. Rival gangs competed to see who could build the largest, sometimes even burning the wood collected by their opponents and in 1954 the Yorkshire Post reported on fires late in September, a situation that forced the authorities to remove latent piles of wood for safety reasons. Lately however, the custom of begging for a ‘penny for the Guy’ has almost completely disappeared. Generally, modern 5 November celebrations are run by local charities and other organisations, with paid admission and controlled access. In 1998 an editorial in the Catholic Herald called for the end of ‘Bonfire Night’, labelling it ‘an offensive act’. In my research I have found similarities with other customs, also that nowadays family bonfire gatherings are much less popular and many once-large civic celebrations have been given up because of increasingly intrusive health and safety regulations. I had no idea that in Northern Ireland, bonfires are lit on the Eleventh Night’ (11 July) by Ulster Protestants. There is of course another celebration involving fireworks, the five-day Hindu festival of Diwali (normally observed between mid-October and November) which I detailed last week. Gunpowder Treason Day was exported by settlers to colonies around the world, including members of the Commonwealth of Nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and various Caribbean nations. In Australia, Sydney (founded as a British penal colony in 1788) saw at least one instance of the parading and burning of a Guy Fawkes effigy in 1805, whilst in 1833, four years after its founding, Perth listed Gunpowder Treason Day as a public holiday. By the 1970s, Guy Fawkes Night had become less common in Australia, with the event simply an occasion to set off fireworks with little connection to Guy Fawkes. Mostly they were set off annually on a night called ‘cracker night’, which would include the lighting of bonfires. Some states had their ‘cracker night’ at different times of the year, with some being let off on 5 November, but most often, they were let off on the Queen’s birthday. After a range of injuries to children involving fireworks, Fireworks nights and the sale of fireworks was banned in all states except the Australian Capital Territory containing the national capital of Canberra and some surrounding townships until 1980, which saw the end of cracker night. Some measure of celebration remains in New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, though on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa, Guy Fawkes Day has become associated with youth hooliganism. In Canada in the 21st century, celebrations of Bonfire Night on 5 November are largely confined to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. The day is still marked in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as well as in Saint Kitts and Nevis, but a fireworks ban by Antigua and Barbuda during the 1990s reduced its popularity in that country.

This week…
I decided to include the fact that there are many food items which are associated with Bonfire Night. Toffee apples, treacle toffee, black peas and Parkin or gingerbread cake, even jacket potatoes are traditionally eaten around Bonfire Night in parts of England. Also, some families eat soups to warm up on a cold night and toast marshmallows over the fire…

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