Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
The 5th of November occupies a special place in the cultural memory of England. While it might superficially seem like a fun and innocent occasion where children toast marshmallows and fireworks displays are put on both in public and private to numerous oohs and ahhs, this actually belies the fact that the tradition is rooted in deep sectarian divisions that run through modern British history and that persist even to this day.
Unlike many other festivals, the celebration of Bonfire Night, or “Gunpowder Treason Day”, as it was originally known, is not rooted in any ancient tradition – but firmly in the bitter religious conflicts of the Early Modern Period between those who were loyal to the new Church of England with the Crown at its head and those who remain faithful to the Bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church on the continent. Specifically the failed coup of 1605, led by Robert Catesby which famously employed Guy Fawkes, an experienced military specialist, to blow up the houses of Parliament while they were in session.
The plan was forged after the Catholic nobility in England felt badly let down by James I as they had hoped for at least a softening of the stringent anti-catholic position of his predecessor, Elizabeth I, and that he would rule England as he had ruled Scotland – with (for the time) a remarkable amount of religious toleration. In fact, very little changed with James I’s ascension to the throne. It was at this point that Catesby and his co-conspirators decided to take action. The aim was not only to kill king James I but also most of his Privy Council and thus in the same fell swoop to destroy most of the noble and clerical opposition to Catholic rule. The plan was then to kidnap and install the king’s eldest daughter, who was nine years old at the time, as the titular catholic monarch with support from a popular rebellion in the midlands, where the old faith still had many adherents, as well as presumed support from the Catholic powers on the continent.
Of course this plan failed, when Guy Fawkes was discovered and eventually gave up details of the plot after several days of torture. Soon evolved a day of thanksgiving for the protection of king, realm and church, with effigies of, not guy fawkes, but the pope being burned on bonfires, such was the virulent anti-papist sentiment that surrounded the celebration. The burning of Guy Fawkes in place of the pope is in fact a far more modern twist on the event, starting in the latter 18th or early 19th century, when traditional English bigotry against Roman Catholics fell into decline. In fact, much like our national anthem, the original rhyme commemorating the event is now often shortened to remove the sectarian elements:
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
It must be remembered that throughout much of the early modern period in England, there was a continual threat of invasion from the Catholic powers on the continent who were keen, at the pope’s behest, to re-establish the old faith in England, often supported by loyalists to the Church of Rome in England itself. Central to these fears was the existence of the Jesuit missionaries to England who risked life and limb to minister to those in England still loyal to the old faith. The Jesuits were singled out for special abhorrence because of their loyalty to the Pope, even to this day Jesuits must swear a special oath of loyalty to the Roman Pontiff along with their regular vows, and indeed the coup of 1605 was sometimes known as the “Jesuit Treason”, owing to Jesuit priests being confessors to many of the conspirators – though historians question how actively they were involved with the plot itself.
Gunpowder Treason Day was formally celebrated by the state almost immediately with the passing of the observance of the 5th of November Act of 1605. Throughout various periods in English history the celebrations took on differing tones, but always with a strong anti-papist sentiment throughout, as the act itself set out “many malignant and devilish Papists, Jesuits, and Seminary Priests, much envying and fearing, conspired most horribly…” thus cementing a strong anti-catholic current in English culture. It was one of the few national celebrations to survive the Republican period of Oliver Cromwell, whose virulent puritanism famously led him to cancel Christmas, but festivities around Bonfire Night were still permitted due to the strong anti-Catholic message it sent out.
Another important historical event in the history of Bonfire Night was the Glorious Revolution. Some 80 years on from the 1605 coup attempt, William of Orange in conjunction with Parliament successfully staged a coup to remove James II from the throne – after he had not only secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, but also produced a male heir. James II also attempted to ban bonfires and fireworks on the 5th November, ostensibly because of the fire risk, but many felt it was because of his objection to the burning of the Pope’s effigy. This ban was largely ignored and indeed his conversion ignited ever more anti-papist fervour amoung much of the population. William of Orange landed on English soil to become William III of England, coincidentally, on the 5th of November 1688. His birthday was also on the 4th November and he decreed a “double celebration” for his happy arrival and the “Deliverance of the Church and Nation” and so the celebrations around the 5th November become even stronger.
As time progressed, the celebration of the 5th November became ever more a cultural celebration for the lower classes – an opportunity for mischief and to pit disorder against order. The famous bonfire of Lewes was reported to be an excuse for annual rioting and much of the original meaning was lost. While the restoration by the Pope of the Catholic Hierarchy in England and Wales, following on from Catholic Emancipation, saw a resurgence of anti-papist sentiments surrounding the day, with the new Catholic Bishops and the Pope being burned in effigy in Southwark, by this time effigies of the Pope had largely been replaced by effigies of Guy Fawkes and the term “Guy Fawkes Day” rather than “Gunpowder Treason Day” had begun to stick. Finally in 1859, the Observance of the 5th November act was repealed, and the anti-papist thanksgiving prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was removed.
However many of the sentiments of Bonfire Night live on to this day and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many popular hate figures were burned in effigy as part of celebrations: The Tsar of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II, women’s suffragists and, more recently, David Cameron and Theresa May were burned as part of the famous Lewes Bonfire. In a twist on the cultural memory of the event, Guy Fawkes has counter-intuitively become a cult anti-establishment hero, with the popular Graphic Novel and film “V for Vendetta”, and many don his mask to protest against the excesses of Capitalism and Government. Whilst at the same time, marketing campaigns by fireworks manufacturers have largely been successful in getting the 5th November to be called fireworks night, and indeed fireworks are now often the main draw of the event.
In conclusion, whilst this celebration may be steeped in old sectarian divisions, it has largely lost its original meaning – though there are notably parts of the United Kingdom where Guy Fawkes day still resonates with the old sectarian conflicts. The festival itself has also been overshadowed by the modern celebration of halloween, with its similar excuse for riotous disorder. Many suggest that there are are also superficial similarities between it and other festivals that occur at the same time of year, such as the Hindu festival of Diwali – the festival of lights, which symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. Largely it is now a good excuse for gathering round the bonfire or firepit, toasting some marshmallows and enjoying the burning of whatever national hate figure has irked you for that particular year.
Charlie works in the Primrose marketing team, mainly on online marketing.
When not writing for the Primrose Blog, Charlie likes nothing more than a good book and a cool cider.