Twice over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked by colleagues at work what November 5th is all about. Being from Russia and Australia, and relatively recent arrivals in this country, they were unfamiliar with the concept. Therefore, I dedicate this entry to them. This is Bonfire Night, explained for the benefit of everyone who isn’t British.
It all started with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. She died childless, and so the throne went to her distant relative, James VI of Scotland. Importantly, James’ mother had been Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic monarch who had been executed (reluctantly) by the Protestant Elizabeth. The Catholic population of Britain therefore assumed that with James on the throne, they could expect a bit more tolerance. Unfortunately, it was not to be – James had been raised Protestant, like many Scottish nobles at the time. Additionally, the government of England was largely unchanged from Elizabeth’s reign, and James had little interest in domestic policy.
A group of wealthy Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, essentially said “Buggre thys for an Game of Soldiers,” and decided to take drastic action. They intended to bomb the opening of Parliament in 1605. This would take out the King, most of the nobility and the senior bishops of the Church of England. This in turn, the conspirators hoped, would allow them to rise up and take control, installing a Catholic monarch (James’ daughter Elizabeth, who was 9 at the time and probably couldn’t give a damn either way).
Guy Fawkes, the best-remembered of the plotters, was a former soldier and explosives expert, and therefore central to the plan. The plotters had, by chance, found a house with a cellar directly under the House of Lords. Parliament was due to open on November 5th, and Fawkes would be there to set th explosion off. There were 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to completely destroy the Palace of Westminster and devastate the surrounding area.
Unfortunately, the plotters were betrayed, possibly by one of their own number. Lord Monteagle, a Member of Parliament, received an anonymous letter which essentially said, “Yoe Dude, ye may wish to staye awaye from the Openynge of Parliament, be-cause I have heard that Somethyng Bigge is going downe.” He, fairly predictably, had this note read out and a search was arranged. Fawkes was duly captured and arrested, initially using a pseudonym of “John Johnson” and claiming to be a lone nut.
Under torture – which even in those days was viewed as an extreme and distasteful measure – Fawkes confessed all. The plotters were rounded up and then hanged, drawn and quartered. This was followed by an anti-Catholic backlash and, from 1606 onwards, it was officially made the custom to celebrate the failure of the plot and the deliverance of His Majesty. The tradition of a Halloween bonfire was turned into a November 5th bonfire.
There’s some debate over whether the plot would have succeeded. Many historians take the view that, without foreign support, the planned uprising could never have gone ahead. There’s even the persistent suggestion that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the anti-Catholic minister Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. However, as with most conspiracy theories, there’s a drastic shortage of actual evidence.
These days the occasion is still celebrated, although frankly it’s more an excuse to let off fireworks than a commemoration of King James’ survival. An effigy of Guy Fawkes – known simply as the guy – is burnt on a bonfire, sparklers are distributed to children and baked potatoes are usually involved. Also mulled wine, if you’re lucky.
Interestingly, Fawkes’ cultural status has changed in recent years, largely due to Britain’s succession of crappy governments. He’s gone from a symbol of treachery to a symbol of dissent. There’s a popular political blogger named Guido Fawkes (Guy’s name when fighting in Spain). The ambiguous hero of V for Vendetta takes his likeness from Fawkes. In turn, the online anti-organisation Anonymous, best known for their attacks on the Church of Scientology, wear V masks to protests.
On a more mundane note, have you ever referred to someone as a “guy?” You’ve got Fawkes to thank for that, too. A guy, in the sense of an effigy of Fawkes, was a ragged and often strangely-dressed dummy. In the nineteenth century, this came to be used as a term for a ragged or strangely-dressed man, and later became slang for any chap you might see.
Enjoy Bonfire Night, kids. Here’s hoping it’s a good one.
Your swell pal,