Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James 1 of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state.
|Guy Fawkes and co conspirators|
Many of the Hallowe’en traditions were, over time, appropriated into the Bonfire Night celebrations, which before the year was out was decreed a day of celebration ... when Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination by lighting bonfires, “always provided that ‘this testemonye of joy be carefull done without any danger or disorder’”.
The Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance”, which remained enacted until 1859, while in theory making attendance at Church mandatory.
Although Guy Fawkes was only one of 13 conspirators, Fawkes is today the individual most associated with the failed Gunpowder plot – Bonfire Night being accompanied by the rhyme “Remember, Remember the fifth of November ....”.
Remember, Remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parl’ament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove Old England’s overthrow.
By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys holler, the bells shall out ring
Holler boys holler, God save our bless’d King.
And ..... what shall we do with him?
|Guy Fawkes style lantern|
Bonfires were accompanied by fireworks from the 1650s onwards, and it became the custom to burn an effigy (usually the pope) ... but after 1673, when James, Duke of York, made his conversion to Catholicism public – it became the custom to burn an effigy of a ‘rogue’ notable figure.
In 1790 The Times reported instances of children “... begging for money for Guy Faux”; while a report of 4th November 1802 described how “a set of idle fellows ... with some horrid figure dressed up as a Guy Faux” were convicted of begging and receiving money, and committed to prison as “idle and disorderly persons”.
Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night for the next century or so declined into an excuse for general mayhem rather than any historical reminiscences.
|Effigies in the street at Lewes - Harveys Brewery sign|
in the background
With the rise of affluence during Victorian times organised bonfire entertainments became more popular in the late 19th century, when the pyrotechnical manufacturers renamed Guy Fawkes Day as Firework Night in the 20th century.
After the Wars for many families Guy Fawkes became a domestic celebration, while poorer children often congregated on street corners touting their own effigy of Guy Fawkes – raising that extra farthing, or half-penny ... as they cried “Penny for the Guy” .... usually made from old clothes, newspapers, and a mask ... hoping that their mock-up warranted an old penny of wealth!
Today the November 5th firework displays and bonfire parties are common throughout Britain, in major public displays and in private gardens. In some areas, particularly here in Sussex, there are extensive processions, large bonfires and firework displays organised by local bonfire societies, the most elaborate of which takes place in Lewes about 15 miles from here.
|Tar barrel on the move|
There are six Bonfire Societies putting on five separate parades and firework displays – this can mean 3,000 people taking part in the torchlit processions, and up to 80,000 spectators attending the small market town with a permanent population of around 16,000.
|Lewes Borough Bonfire Society|
The societies, dressed in their own distinctive costume, march through the town with tar burning staves, banners, barrels of burning tar, watched by processions of fiery torch-bearing crowds ... the Lewes streets are quite narrow, while the town ‘wends’ downhill towards the river ...
... a daunting task for the Societies to instil ‘care’ and careful organisation under the auspices of the Lewes Bonfire Council, in association with the Town Council. Mischief Night is on the cards ... it is a right scrum – and that’s an understatement!
|Medieval Street in Lewes|
The town is locked down ... getting in and out is extremely difficult and carefully controlled – I worked in a shop by the bridge on the river front – we had to evacuate early on Bonfire Night ...
Bonfire Societies are another aspect of British history pre-dating the Gunpowder plot ... and we will need to wait a year for me to look into their story!
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