If you’ve been watching Gun Powder, the BBC’s serialisation about Guy Fawkes, his cronies and their attempt to blow up Parliament, the background to Bonfire Night will be that much clearer. But how did the tradition of burning effigies of the ill-fated Catholic come to pass and why don’t we do it these days?
Tom Cullen (as Guy Fawkes) and Kit Harington (as Robert Catesby) in Gunpowder.
It had been hoped that when James I took to the English throne, the persecution of the Catholics that had reached its height under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I would diminish. However, it continued unabated and a group of 13 staunch Catholics, led by Warwickshire-born Robert Catesby, agreed that violence was the only answer. They decided to blow up Westminster on the opening of Parliament, when the King would be in attendance.
The group bought a house, which had a cellar that extended underneath Parliament – the perfect location in which to ignite the gunpowder. Poor old Guy Fawkes was never the ringleader, despite the fact his name is the most closely associated with the date. He was simply tasked with guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder and lighting them, given his previous experience with explosives. However, the plot was thwarted in the early hours of November 5th and poor old Guy was arrested, tortured to reveal the identities of his co-conspirators and then hung, drawn and quartered.
The King demanded that bonfires were lit across the country on November 5th to thank God for saving his life. Church bells rang out across the country too.
Whilst straw effigies had been thrown onto fires since the thirteenth century to drive away evil spirits, following the foiled rebellion of 1605, they became known as Guys to represent Guy Fawkes. In fact, Parliament decreed in 1606 that November 5th should become a national holiday to mark the “detestation of the Papists”.
Bonfire Night grew in popularity over the centuries. Fireworks became integral to the celebrations as a way of representing the barrels of gunpowder that were never detonated. Even the names of some fireworks have a significance – the Roman Candle was a slight at the seat of the Catholic Church in Rome. The Catherine Wheel is so named because of St Catherine of Alexandria who was condemned to death by ‘breaking on a wheel’. Legend has it that when she touched the wheel, it spun into hundreds of shards.
Organisations and villages throughout the country used to spend months collecting wood to build giant bonfires for November 5th. Children would make elaborate Guys, tie them to a cart and wheel them through the street asking for money with the familiar call of “Penny for the Guy”.
Friends and families would gather together around a fire in their garden, enjoy a box of fireworks and eat treats such as Bonfire Toffee, hot soup and jacket potatoes.
However, in recent years, Bonfire Night has become less of a celebration for a host of reasons. An increase in the number of firework-related accidents led to fewer people hosting their own events at home and, instead, opting for one of the bigger, organised events. Health & Safety has also impacted on these too and some of them no longer burn a fire. Whilst safety is important, the loss of intimacy and often the cost involved in attending such an event has taken away some of the magic.
What’s more, fireworks used to be exclusively set off on Bonfire Night. Not anymore; fireworks are now commonplace throughout the year be it for weddings, festivals and New Year.
When people stopped burning Guys and started creating effigies of unpopular, but very-much living, celebrities and politicians, there was uproar and soon the idea of burning images of people per se, was considered not politically correct.
Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night as a time to celebrate. The two are within five days of each other and Christmas also looms in the distance, so the more commercial opportunities seem to have won the day.
If, like us, you remember the excitement of Bonfire Night as a child - the smell of smoke hanging in the air, the joy of writing your name in the air with a sparkler and the unbeatable taste of a jacket potato baked in the embers of the bonfire, then we leave you with this little poem that might stir a few memories.
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!