On the 5th of November 1605, Guy Fawkes sat in the basement of the Houses of Parliament while the reigning monarch, James I, was inside. Alongside Fawkes were 36 barrels of explosives. The Gunpowder Plot was afoot. As we all know, Fawkes was stopped in his tracks just hours before lighting the fuse, but if he had been successful, the whole landscape of British history could have been very different.
Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholics, infuriated by the new King’s persecution of members of their religion, so they decided to try and assassinate him with the view to restore a Catholic monarch in his place. The plan seemed to be going smoothly, and enough gunpowder to destroy Parliament was stashed in the cellar, but it all came undone when one of the conspirators sent a letter to his brother-in-law, an MP, warning him not to go to the Commons that day because something was going to happen.
This mistake proved fatal – literally – as Fawkes was tortured at the Tower of London to reveal the names of his accomplices. They were all hung, drawn and quartered on the charge of high treason. Despite not being the mastermind behind the plot (Robert Catesby deserves the credit for that), Fawkes became a demonised figure in Britain, and was used as an example of what fate awaited disobedient Catholics in the Jacobean era.
A year after the event, Londoners began lighting fires to celebrate James still being alive, and the Observance of 5th November Act was passed, enforcing an annual public celebration to mark the plot’s failure – Gunpowder Treason Day. The act wasn’t repealed until 1859.
In a display of anti-Catholic sentiment, effigies of the Pope were burned on huge fires in gatherings which often turned raucous and violent. This Pope-burning tradition became popular in 1625 when Charles I married a Catholic princess, despite the nation’s distaste of Popery.
The rowdiness associated with the event took such a hold that in the 1790s, November 4th was coined ‘Mischief Night’, as youths used the celebration as an excuse to pull pranks like putting treacle on door handles and swapping garden gates, as well as getting into fights.
The lasting impact of the Plot is evident as the famous English Folk Verse –
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot!
– was actually only first penned in 1870 – over a quarter of a millennium after the explosive event almost took place!
In the 1950s and 60s, there was a tradition continued from the 18th century where children made their own ‘Guys’ – basically big dolls representing Guy Fawkes – in exchange for change with the cry of ‘penny for the Guy!’ Health and safety regulations were pretty lax back then, so huge bonfires used to be erected, sometimes even in the middle of the street, and swarmed around by whole communities of kids playing and men drinking pints.
Over time, the custom of burning a Guy transformed from attacking the Pope to other hated figures. Adolf Hitler was a prominent effigy figure during the War, and in recent years, politicians seem to have been the main targets, including Theresa May and Nigel Farage. I wonder who will be in the firing line this year…
Bonfire Night is still a key date in the UK’s calendar, centuries later, and although the bonfires, fairs and firework displays will largely have to be put on hold this year, I think it’ll continue to be celebrated for years to come. So, remember, remember!