Senior lecturer Caroline Nielsen investigates the history of Bonfire Night:
Most people in England are probably familiar with this rhyme:
‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot’
The rhyme refers to the 1605 Gunpowder Treason plot; a failed assassination attempt on King James I of England and Scotland. Rhymes like this one have been around more or less since the plot itself. They were designed to give children a mnemonic history lesson. Earlier rhymes could be detailed, like this nineteenth-century one:
‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I hope that night will never be forgot.
The king and his train
Had like to be slain:
36 barrels of gunpowder
Set below London to blow, London up!.
Holla boys! Holla boys!
Let the bells ring!
Holla boys! Holla boys!
God save the King
A stick or a stake
For [Queen] Victoria’s sake,
And pray ye remember the bonfire night.’
(quoted in M. E. S. Wright, Rhymes Old and New (1900), p. 14)
But behind these simple rhymes lies a complex history of religious intolerance, persecution and violence.
The Gunpowder Plot was a religious sectarian plot against the Protestant monarch James I and his court. Early seventeenth-century England was fraught with religious divisions. Catholics were actively discriminated against in law and in wider society. Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith publicly. There were fines for not going to Protestant churches or for not educating one’s children to be Protestant or for hiding a priest. Catholics priests risked imprisonment or execution for saying Mass. Many English Catholics had initially hoped that James (who was married to a Catholic) would curb some of these laws, but that didn’t happen. Frustrated by James’ perceived unwillingness to help his loyal Catholic subjects, a small group of conspirators decided to act. The plotters would be deemed to be terrorists now: they were willing to kill potentially large numbers of people indiscriminately for their cause. The plot was stopped at the last minute. One of the conspirators, Guido (or Guy) Fawkes was caught red-handed in Parliament, not far from the pile of gunpowder barrels intended to kill James. Fawkes was arrested and taken away for interrogation and torture. This is why Fawkes is the most well-known of all the conspirators, even though he was not heavily involved in the early planning (Fraser, 97-100). Most of the other conspirators were caught over the next fortnight, and the main trials began in January 1606. (Fraser, 211-226.)
In recognition of his brush with death, James passed a law in 1606 that there should be an annual national ‘thanksgiving’ event on the 5th November. Contemporaries believed that God had acted to save James, and by extension the Protestant monarchy. The 5th of November was to be a day of state religious observance. It wasn’t until 1859 that James’ act for this national ‘remembrance’ day was repealed.
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century people commemorated in a set way. People were encouraged at church services and civic events to ‘remember, remember’. Souvenir sermons were printed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on the 5th November. All shared the same prejudicial theme: that Protestantism was inherently better than Catholicism.
People gradually began to add other rituals to the religious services such as processions, bonfires and fireworks. These rituals also tapped into the earlier religious traditions of having parties with bonfires for Halloween (31st Oct), All Saints (1st Nov) and All Souls (2nd Nov). Now synonymous with Bonfire Night, the ‘Guy’ ritual was actually one of these later additions to the event. It is thought to date from the 1620s. Effigies of the Pope would be paraded around the crowd and then ceremoniously dumped on top of the bonfire. One can’t imagine the fear and horror felt by seventeenth-century Catholics, watching as their neighbours and friends publicly burnt symbols of their faith. Sometimes the Devil would be burnt in effigy. According to historian David Cressy, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the effigy was identified as ‘Guy Fawkes’ (Cressy, 147).
The legacy of the Plot was heightened religious discrimination at a state level. The plotters were a tiny minority: they didn’t represent other English Catholics, the vast majority of whom just wished to practice their faith and live quietly. It was this silent majority which proved to be the victims. The plot hardened the English state’s already-prejudicial attitudes towards the Catholic minority. The plot was used to justify the passing of a series of acts which limited Catholics’ rights. Catholics could not practice law, nor serve in the military. They couldn’t officially act as legal guardians or executors in wills. They were barred from studying in English universities (although some did study in Scotland). They were banned from voting in elections until 1829. People became openly more anti-Catholic. Wild rumours spread about Catholics, and there were even periodic riots against Catholic people throughout the eighteenth centuries and into the nineteenth. (Fraser, 283).
Festivals and celebrations change meaning over successive generations. Our contemporary understanding and enjoyment of Bonfire Night is very different than that of the inhabitants of seventeenth-century England. To them, the 5th of November was a public religious event centred on Protestantism and a Protestant monarchy and driven by anti-Catholic sentiment. To us in the 21st century, Bonfire Night is now all about food, drink and watching beautiful fireworks displays with friends, family and our wider communities. ‘Firework Night’ is often used in schools as a way to teach fire and firework safety. The emphasis of the event now is very much on keeping everyone safe so we can come together as communities, rather than on encouraging religious division. Political effigies are still burnt in some places: the Lewes festival in Sussex featured in national headlines yesterday for its fire procession and its political effigies. But this event is now largely an exception. Effigies are not usually the central feature of contemporary Fireworks Night events, and are often omitted totally. But this omission doesn’t mean that we should forget the hidden histories of the 5th of November. We should be open about the history of this commemoration, and willing to highlight the historic legacy of the Plot.
If you would like to know more about the history of festivals, and of Bonfire Night, try:
- David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London: Sutton, 2004), chapter 9.
- Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996).
- Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History (Pelican: 1998).