Today we commemorate Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which several important English Catholics – led by Sir Robert Catesby – attempted to assassinate the recently crowned King James I, by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during its state opening. The plan was famously thwarted, however, when one of the conspirators alerted an MP friend Baron Monteagle via an anonymous letter requesting that he avoid the state opening. Monteagle alerted the Secretary of State Robert Cecil, whose search of Parliament uncovered the conspirator Guy Fawkes hiding in the basement with 36 concealed barrels of gunpowder – enough to raze the entire House of Lords to the ground. Torturing Guy Fawkes forced him to disgorge much information about the various Gunpowder Plotters, most of whom were pursued and brutally killed, the rest suffering grotesque torture and that most protracted of executions: hanging, drawing & quartering.
On November 5th 1605 – the night of the conspiracy’s discovery – large beacon fires are said to have been lit by relieved Londoners, re-igniting that same anti-Catholic outrage felt seventeen years previously when Philip of Spain’s 130-ship Armada failed their king’s ‘divine’ mission to subdue and re-Catholicize the English. The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot resulted in an annual lighting of bonfires by the public, a tradition which continued thereafter until – sometime during the 1670s – an effigy of Guy Fawkes is recorded as having been added occasionally. Effigies of the Pope are also reported to have been thrown atop the bonfires during this early period. However, it was the habit of burning Guy Fawkes in effigy which sustained into the 20th century, eventually resulting in the fetishizing of the ‘guy’ itself, which would be trailed around local streets and displayed outside shops and pubs, while its pre-teen creators hollered: “Penny for the guy”.
Quite why the Guy Fawkes tradition has – above other similar events – endured into Modern Times remains a mystery, especially considering England’s tumultuous 17th century also threw up Oliver Cromwell’s execution of King Charles I, the rise of a whole brace of false messiahs, cult leaders and so-called prophets during the Civil War, plus the subsequent hanging at Tyburn of Cromwell’s dead rotting body by irate royalists. With all of this to choose from, perhaps the British public’s decision to continue burning poor old Guy Fawkes just reveals our enduring suspicion of Catholics. But I sincerely doubt it. Instead, I believe that the continued success of Bonfire Night into modern times is solely because its constituent parts facilitated for the general public certain atavistic urges that would otherwise have been frowned upon by good Christians. For what reasons – other than the opportunity to communally burn in effigy an ancient enemy – could generations of British have been goaded into enduring centuries of freezing November evenings, nourished only by jacket potatoes, hot drinks and fireworks?
[Written by Saoirse Ó Gradaigh]
I think you’re absolutely right: The fact that everybody enjoys a bit of a piss-up in winter maybe taps in to a deeper human need to mark the passage of the seasons. Some sort of festival to mark the tranistion into winter seems pretty universal – in the east there’s Dhirwali and in the west Samhain. Bonfire night could be a way expressing this fundamental need in the ‘Christian era’.
Speaking of which, I don’t think the anti-Catholic aspect of Bonfire night can be understood in terms of modern day sectarianism: In the context of the seventeenth century when politics and religion were intertwined Catholicism, and in particular Spain, was seen as ‘the fount of tyranny’. So all the radical movements of that tempestuous era took anti-popery as there stating point. As to the enduring appeal of the Guy Fawkes celebrations; for centuries when the right of assembly was curtailed, traditional fairs and festivals where one of the few times the common people could legitimately get together.
Well I have always thought bonfire night actually has a double meaning effect.
I personally feel that although it’s ‘officially’ celebrating the capture of Guy, it also serves as an annual reminder of his noble attempt to blow up the houses of parliament.
I think however I am going to reinstate the burning of a Pope effigy, or maybe even a Cameron or Clegg one! I mean, let’s keep things relevant!
Agree with some of your sentiment, however Fawkes and his conspirators were hardly “noble” in their intention.
To return Britain to Popery would’ve been so regressive and destructive for Britain and would most definitely have had major reprecussions for our history right up to today.
For example if Britain had remained a Catholic country it possibly could’ve allied itself with the right wing Catholicism that swept Spain, Italy, Croatia and Germany during the 1920’s and 30´s.
I agree with Saoirse Ó Gradaigh when she ponders the reason why this episode is celebrated more than other defining historical points, however I equally wonder why many hold Fawkes -a hero figure (possibly his Irish connection) and consider his actions as “noble”. A common slogan of today is “Guy Fawkes – the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”. Given his intentions in 1605, this description is far from accurate.
There’s a lot of ‘possibly’s’ and ‘if’s’ there???
Good ole Guy, at least he had a proper go!
Classic novels such as Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy have certainly added fuel to the fire.
Guy Fawkes is mentioned in The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler.
And don’t forget that Dumbledore’s phoenix bird is named Fawkes.
The gunpowder plot is one of the best spy stories ever told. I know there are a lot of film versions of the plot but no one has captured the thrill and danger of the real story.
Taboo is a new show based on the Guy Fawkes story.