How ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ turned into ‘bonfires, fireworks and vandalism’…
(Plus the surprising connection with the Earl of Manchester!)
Guy Fawkes Night, Bonfire Night, Squib-Night, Plot Night, or simply ‘The Fifth’ are just some of the names that have been used to describe one of the most popular events of the traditional year for the past 400 years.
Only now being supplanted by the earlier ‘Hallowe’en’ celebrations, 5th November remains an immensely well-celebrated date, with millions still trekking out into the cold and wet to enjoy giant bonfires, displays of firework, and traditional confections on an occasion that is both uniquely British and also widely misunderstood – all sparked (pun intended) by the foiled plot of a cabal of radical English Roman Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament with King James I and his government inside.
When so many traditional celebrations have fallen by the wayside, why do we still celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up Parliament?
Much of the thanks for that rests on the shoulders of Northamptonshire MP Sir Edward Montagu, the uncle of the man whose English Civil War regiment we reenact.
Born in Boughton in Northamptonshire in 1563, Montagu was elected MP for Bere Alston, Tavistock and then Brackley. Created Knight of the Bath by James I at his coronation in 1603, the following year he was elected MP for Northamptonshire and was created Baron Montagu of Boughton in 1621. Despite his staunch Puritanism and some of his family becoming key figures in the Parliamentary cause, he supported King Charles during the Civil War and was arrested in August 1642. Imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London he was moved to the Savoy Hospital due to ill health and died a prisoner in 1644.
Back in 1605, in the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Guy Fawkes, the authorities allowed the public to celebrate the king’s survival with bonfires and the ringing of church bells. The following January, days before the surviving conspirators were executed, Sir Edward, who was a “fervently Protestant”(1) MP, suggested that the king’s apparent deliverance by ‘divine intervention’ deserved some measure of official recognition – and so was one of the key figures in the introduction of the Observance of 5th November Act, commonly known as the “Thanksgiving Act”.
As well as the ringing of church bells, the Act – based upon the ancient Hebrew tradition of ‘days of deliverance’ – ordered all people “to attend church on the morning of each 5 November, and all parish clergy to read not only prescribed prayers but the act of Parliament itself, which justified the continuation of laws against Catholic worship.” (2)
The the Act itself enshrined in law the instruction to ‘remember’ the fifth of November, in line with the famous rhyme: “…this unfeigned Thankfulness may never be forgotten, but be had in a perpetual Remembrance, that all Ages to come may yield Praises to his Divine Majesty for the same, and have in Memory this joyful Day of Deliverance…”
Observance of the new law was apparently slow to spread, erratic, and marked by local choice – some parishes lumped it in with other prescribed days of national celebration such as King James’ accession to the throne (March), his birthday (June), and his coronation (July), as well as the first lucky escape of his life – the attempted kidnap in the Gowrie Conspiracy of 1600 (August). But very quickly ‘Gunpowder Day’ became the most popular and most widely marked – as Hutton notes, “it was in the period 1625-40 that the date becomes to some extent Bonfire Night”.
The main way of marking 5th November involved the ringing of church bells and the giving of services, but increasingly the burning off effigies became popular, but not of Fawkes or Catesby, the most well-known of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators – it was also the Pope and the Devil who would be placed on the pyre. In the 1630s only really Puritans celebrated the occasion, but by 1644 the whole nation had adopted the festival (3) and ‘Bonfire Night’ became a major occasion, with fires and burning tar barrels, as well as the burning of effigies. King James himself heard a sermon on the date each year and, by 1625, celebrations were found in all parts of England while, in the 1640s, the minister of Soham in East Anglia was ejected from his living “for failing to offer customary thanks to God for delivering Parliament from destruction in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605”. (4)
At a time when public celebrations were feared by authorities due to their potential to turn into riots or pro-royal protests, the Interregnum government of 1649-1660 still continued to mark Gunpowder Day, which seems to have been part of an attempt to create “Protestant civic pageantry to replace that removed by the Reformation”. (5)
However, it was after the Restoration in 1660 that ‘Gunpowder Treason Night’ became the most widely celebrated ‘political’ anniversary in the calendar, probably thanks to its celebration of monarchy and reference to the relatively peaceful reign of King James. Hutton notes that churchwardens “regularly spent as much upon the ringing then as upon Restoration Day, and that some provided more entertainments, such as bonfires at Cambridge and tar barrels at Darlington on the Tees in County Durham” – as well as Samual Pepys’ mentions of bonfires in London in 1664 “so thick that coaches could not pass”. It is during the reign of Charles II and the subsequent ‘Exclusion Crisis’ over his Roman Catholic brother, James Duke of York, that celebrations really kicked up a notch – particularly in London – with parades and the burning of effigies of the pope in the 1670s and ‘80s. Indeed, the Bonfire Night celebrations of 1678 were an ugly affair…
The Act was eventually repealed in 1859 but by this point Guy Fawkes Night had evolved into something different. So many of the ‘traditions’ surrounding its celebration, such as effigies of Fawkes himself and ‘Penny for the Guy’ collections, seem to have 19th Century roots – yet Guy Fawkes Night had taken on an added dimension of lawlessness as it became known for street fires, impromptu firework displays, and general hooliganism. However, it steadily went from being a raucous and dangerous affair to a more controlled one in the 19th Century as civic authorities attempted to curtail violent behaviour and the event slowly became more family-friendly with bonfires sponsored by councils and business; though there were still 5th November riots in Oxford, Cambridge and London right up into the 1960s (6) and Mischief Night in the north of England (usually marked on 4th November) continues to inspire acts of vandalism. (7)
And while many traditional celebrations have evolved or lost their original meanings, one aspect of Guy Fawkes Night that endured is its status as a ‘political’ event. In the 21st Century, many find the unmissable anti-popery aspects of the celebration uncomfortable. While, in the main, these have lessened as the event has become more of a secular ‘pre-Christmas’ occasion, it does not mean those connotations have vanished. For example, ever since the early 20th Century the Cliffe Bonfire Society – which takes place alongside the UK’s largest and most famous Bonfire Night festivities at Lewes, East Sussex – has strenuously defended its use of anti-Catholic imagery and slogans, and there are regular op-ed pieces questioning whether such celebrations are appropriate in a more inclusive Britain.
Although the Gunpowder Plot was often cited by the supporters of Parliament for their opposition to a king they erroneously believed was trying to reintroduce Roman Catholicism to England, it was not amongst the causes of the English Civil War. Yet a striking feature of the period first half of the 17th Century is how Catholics actually turned from trying to kill the monarch to being some of his biggest supporters – when the Civil War broke out, many Catholic recusants sided with the King, which was merely more fuel for the fire of those who suspected Charles of secret Catholic sympathies. This plugged into a narrative about English national identity that had been building since the Reformation; after 1605, King James worked even harder to connect English Protestantism with the very notion of ‘Englishness’, binding English religion and statehood together with a proto-nationalist fervour. There developed in Protestant mythology “a powerful element … [that] taught that England’s lucky escapes, from the Armada or the Gunpowder Plot, were direct manifestations of the hand of God, and that the fortunates of her kings varied directly with the godliness of their policies” (8) The uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot “made papists and Jesuits seem especially the enemies of the Houses of Parliament” (9) and “the fact that the plotters were Catholic gave the deed an added dimension, in an era when politics and religion were already inextricably mixed”. (10) So while the new anniversary of 5th November “gave opportunities to celebrate representative government as well as monarchy” (11) to provided a chance to “attack Catholics with particular fervour” (12) the success of the day derived largely from the flexibility of its message “to some it was an opportunity to berate Catholics, to others one to eulogize monarchy and condemn all rebellion”. (13)
In his diary for 5 November 1673, John Evelyn shows how the celebrations continued to have a political edge long after the Plot had passed from living memory and also took on elements of current political crises, such as the marriage of the Duke of York, Charles II’s Roman Catholic brother, to the Italian princess Mary D’Este of Modena: “This night the youths of the city burnt the Pope in effigy after they had made procession with it in great triumph, displeased at the Duke for altering his religion, and now marrying an Italian lady”. Historian Michael Braddock said that such rhetoric in the early 17th Century wasn’t as cut-and-dry as it appears to our modern eyes: “Anti-popery was not necessarily about Catholics – it was a language with which to denounce the danger of all threats to the Reformation. In the past, it had been possible to distinguish between the threat of Popery and the more acceptable presence of Catholic recusants and it is well attested that practical local toleration of Catholics existed alongside a keen awareness of the threat of popery in the abstract.” (14)
Yet as the prospect of civil war grew, so too did the divisions within society and, as people began to take up arms, the distinctions that Braddock draws quickly faded away in the face of open conflict. As Evelyn showed, those divisions only increased as the 17th Century progressed and the prospect of an openly Catholic monarch grew.
That Bonfire Night’s earliest popularity grew during a period of heightened political and religious rhetoric should come as no surprise – Montagu’s Act of Observance and the celebrations it enshrined in law contributed to a narrative of Englishness crafted around a particular brand of Protestant government that saw itself in opposition to the ‘foreign power’ of Rome. This built as the century progressed as the Restoration led to the Exclusion Crisis and then to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In this context, does Bonfire Night signify “a certain ideal”, as the historian and former MP Tristram Hunt claims, of “the defeat of religious extremism and the central place of Parliament, self-government and the Protestant legacy in British public life” (15) or is it a lingering reminder of centuries of intolerance? Whether it is right to continue to mark 5th November in modern day Britain is open to debate, but that it has survived at all tells us much about how Britain was, how it has changed, and how it is today.
1 Ronald Hutton: The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994)
2 Hutton, ibid
3 Diane Purkiss: The English Civil War, A People’s History (2006)
4 Malcolm Gaskill: Witchfinder: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (2005)
5 Hutton, ibid
6 Steve Roud: The English Year: A month-by-month guide to the nation’s customs and festival, from May Day to Mischief Night (2006)
8 Keith Thomas: Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)
9 Purkiss, ibid
10 Roud, ibid
11 Hutton, ibid
12 Hutton, ibid
13 Hutton, ibid
14 Michael Braddock: God’s Fury, England’s Fire (2008)