In the UK, November 5th is Guy Fawkes Night. What we are celebrating is the arrest of Guy Fawkes in 1605. He was caught in the cellars of the House of Lords guarding thirty-six barrels of gun powder. The plan was to set light to them and destroy the Houses of Parliament during its state opening ceremony, which was attended by the King, James I. I often see social media posts at this time of year suggesting that the last person to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes. That is slightly over-romanticising the situation. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder is two and a half thousand kilos (2¾ US tons). That’s quite a lot. It would have destroyed everything within 500 metres (almost a third of a mile) of the explosion. While we might not be very (or at all) happy with what our government is doing to our country, that’s clearly not the way to go.
Historically, what you need to know is that Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholics while the King was a Protestant. People were generally suspicious of Catholics. It hadn’t been so very long ago that, under the rule of Queen Mary, many people had been arrested, tortured and burned at the stake for the crime of not being a Catholic. Fawkes and his fellow plotters were rounded up and sentenced to death and everyone was very glad. Almost immediately, Parliament declared November 5th to be a day of thanksgiving because the life of their king had been spared. It was known as Gunpowder Treason Day. People could celebrate it pretty much how they wanted, as long as they went to church as well. In Northern Europe generally, we have always loved to celebrate things with a massive fire.
Twenty years later when King James’s son, Charles I, married a Catholic, people began to worry all over again. On November 5th that year effigies of the Pope and the Devil were burned in the celebrations. In 1644 wild speeches were made in Parliament. The Catholics were coming. They were digging a tunnel to Westminster, from Oxford, from Rome, from Hell. The celebrations became more and more fervent and, in 1647, effigies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope were burned at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. You might know that things didn’t go well for Charles I and in 1649 the monarchy was overturned and replaced by Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. During this period, bonfire celebrations became a much smaller affair. Pretty problematic celebrating saving a king’s life after you’ve just cut the head off another one.
Celebrations were in full swing again under the rule of Charles II. Officially everyone was celebrating the preservation of the monarchy, but in fact, the celebrations became more diverse. By 1670, things were getting a bit out of hand. Apprentices in London had turned the day into a fire festival and general excuse for mayhem. They were demanding money for their bonfires and for alcohol. In 1673 Charles’s brother James, Duke of York, converted to Catholicism and the apprentices started to get creative. They made an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, decorated with papal crosses and wearing a triple crown. They carried it through the streets in a torchlight parade then strung it up and shot at it with pistols before lowering it into a bonfire. By 1682 so many Popes were being burned that the militia were called in and bonfires and fireworks were banned.
During the eighteenth century, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations became quite gentrified affairs among the nobility. But among the lower classes it was a much more riotous occasion which included flaming torches, throwing home made fireworks and rolling barrels of burning tar through the streets. It turns out, if there’s anything we like more that a massive fire, it’s a massive fire that’s rolling down the street. There were bonfire parades in towns all over the South of England, some of which still survive. Most notably in the town of Lewes in East Sussex, which is our country’s largest and most famous bonfire celebration. It has a chequered history of riotous behaviour, arrests, opposition and many failed attempts to ban it altogether. It commemorates not only the Gunpowder Plot but also the memory of seventeen Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake for their religious beliefs under the reign of Queen Mary. Lewes has seven bonfire societies who take part in parades and hold five separate bonfire displays on the outskirts of the town. They carry seventeen burning crosses to represent the martyrs and huge effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who was Pope in 1605, through the streets. They also burn effigies of currently reviled public figures. David Cameron, George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and bankers have all featured in recent years. In addition to the enormous figures they also parade model heads on pikes, these might be anyone who they consider to be ‘enemies of the bonfire’. They might be figures who are nationally and internationally hated for doing something terrible, or they might just be local officials who have tried to place restrictions on the event.
So,November 5th has become a focus for anyone who had a grievance against authority. Guy Fawkes had a grievance with authority, and the way he planned to address that was with a massive act of terrorism that would have killed hundreds of people. We burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, not because he was a Catholic, but because of the awful thing he intended to do. If we choose to burn an effigy of a person or group of people it is because we disapprove of what they have done and want to draw attention to it. What we destroy is a symbol, no one is actually hurt. A much healthier way of dealing with our frustrations.