Remember, remember 17 November …

Over the last couple of weeks many of you will have heard and seen fireworks flying into the air, lighting up the skies as the nights draw in.  For many people in 21st-century Britain (or at least England) going to firework displays and eating sweets while huddling round bonfires are enjoyable and rather benign activities – although some people get too close to the flames and pyrotechnics, while the impact on animals and the environment of loud smoke-filled explosions is often negative.

Most people will have some vague idea that many of these displays are connected with something called the Gunpowder Plot, and those with a deeper historical knowledge will be aware that the release of fireworks in England has been a cathartic act for over four hundred years, celebrating (with the active encouragement of the state) the providential deliverance of James I (or VI for the Scots reading this) and English MPs from an attempt by Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605, the most famous of whom (Guy Fawkes) continued to be burned in effigy for centuries to come.

What is less well known is that another key event had been celebrated in England during November for decades prior to 1605.  Similarly promoted by state and church officials as a means of encouraging loyalty to the regime and of fostering fear of Catholicism, in late sixteenth-century England it was the accession of Elizabeth Tudor to the English throne on 17 November 1558 which brought people together to drink, feast and light bonfires to ward off the gloom at a time of year when harvests had been gathered and opportunities for outdoor activities were curtailed by the shortening of daylight hours.

By the start of the seventeenth century the accession of Elizabeth was a core part of a Protestant calendar which in many ways was a modified version of a ritual year which had developed over the preceding centuries.  Marking transitions from one season and holy day to the next, this cycle of celebrations structured the lives of rich and poor, young and old in medieval England up to and beyond the violent caesura commonly known as the Reformation, fostering community by encouraging commensality and theatricality.

What we now call the Tudor dynasty died with Elizabeth I in 1603, but Accession Day celebrations had a long afterlife and remained political throughout the seventeenth century. Celebrating ‘Good Queen Bess’ ascending to the throne offered a means to critique the regimes of James I and Charles I prior to the outbreak of civil war in England in 1642, and after the Restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660 the event continued to be remembered by crowds in London and provincial towns each November, fostering a culture of nationalism rooted in anti-Catholicism which celebrated ‘delivery from popery’ and did much to forge not only an English but also a British nation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  

Reflecting on the history of autumnal firework displays thus offers opportunities to explore continuities and changes in English political, religious, cultural and social history. While 5 November is the more well-known date in contemporary Britain, for much of the early modern period (c.1500-1800 CE) 17 November had equal if not greater resonance.  Examining Accession Day celebrations have enabled historians to understand how England became both a Protestant nation and a nation of Protestants, how political fractures emerged and deepened in the early seventeenth century, and how English (and later British) nationalism became such a powerful force in the centuries after 1660.

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