The fifth of November has been celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night with bonfires since 1605, and later added fireworks and parties. I remember my father reciting the verse as Bonfire Night approached:
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
The history behind the celebration.
The conflict between Catholics and Protestants that has continued in Ireland to this day began when Tudor king Henry VIII wanted his marriage annulled, as his wife, Catherine, had produced only one child, a girl named Mary, and no son. Technically, Queen Catherine had been betrothed to Henry’s brother who died, and the church did not allow marrying your brother’s widow. The Pope, ever playing politics, refused to grant an annulment or a divorce from the Spanish wife, in part to avoid displeasing the Spanish.
Henry was adamant, and declared England separate from the Catholic Church as the Church of England under the King as Defender of the Faith. This caused a rift in which Catholics were persecuted and their property seized. Henry married Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to only one child, a girl. After having the famous six wives, Henry did have a son who followed him as king, but the boy was sickly and did not live past teenage years.
Mary became queen, and returned the country to the Catholic religion with brutality and vengeance, earning the name Bloody Mary. When she died, her Protestant sister became Queen Elizabeth I, and the country reverted back again. After Elizabeth, who did not marry or have children, James I, the child of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, became king. He did not revert the country back to the Catholic religion, so a group decided to take rash action.
Is it any wonder that the conflict has been so brutal when the people had to change back and forth, or hide their true beliefs in order to survive?
The Gunpowder Plot to Blow Up Parliament.
In 1605, a group of thirteen men planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament when the king, his heirs, and the members who were anti-Catholic were there. The plotters amassed 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Parliament building, but some in the group began to have second thoughts about. Someone wrote a letter warning the king to warn of the plot, and the one who was caught in the cellar with the gunpowder, Guy Fawkes, has become a symbolic traitor. He was executed. Bonfires were lit everywhere to show that the plot was foiled and all was safe, and each year afterwards the celebration was repeated.
The Gunpowder Plot was a scary business for the country and for the monarch. Even today, on the one time each year when the king or queen goes to the Opening of Parliament, the guards search the cellars in advance.
Memories of celebrating Guy Fawkes Night.
Most of the history of the day went past me as a young child. I just knew that Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, was something to look forward to every year. Children dragged wagons around the neighborhood, asking for any spare wood for the bonfire. Anything not nailed down could vanish to add to the flames. A stuffed effigy of Guy Fawkes would be hauled up and down streets, with the kids asking for a penny for the Guy to help buy fireworks. A penny wouldn’t go far today, but in our neighborhood the collection provided quite a show. A huge heap of wood piled higher and higher.
On Bonfire Night, the stuffed Guy would be thrown on top of the fire, often seated on a wooden chair donated or confiscated from somewhere. Potatoes would be pushed into the edges of the fire to roast, and be retrieved with a stick, if possible before they turned so black they were inedible. Of course, they were always too hot to eat.
When I was little, my father was the one who did a firework display in our backyard for our immediate neighbors. St. Catherine’s Wheels were nailed to the back fence and lit to spin in sparks. The children were given sparklers and waved them round and round between the fireworks. It was a wonderful magical night, and we thought little of the plots, the brutality, and the religious intolerance which started it all.
For more about the history, read Michael Seger’s article, Remembering Terrorism: The Fifth of November.
Sources: Personal memories, supplemented with bonfirenight.net