In Britain today, the Fifth of November – or Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night – is marked with fireworks, bonfires, and hot roasted potatoes, a fun frolic under the autumn night sky.
The origins of the holiday as an official "Day of Thanksgiving" is lost on most modern revelers. In 1605, a small band of English Catholics conspired to assassinate the Protestant King James I by blowing up him and the House of Lords with a sizable store of gunpowder, and setting a Catholic ruler on the English throne. The plot was discovered, and Guy Fawkesand his supporters were arrested, tortured, and executed. Soon after, the Thanksgiving Act was passed, with the day to be set aside for reflection and rejoicing at the king's deliverance.
But in the politically charged climate of 17th century England, thanksgiving quickly acquired uglier overtones, and the holiday became noted for anti-Catholic demonstrations. By 1678, fear of Catholics had reached a feverish pitch. Catholics were blamed for starting the Great Fire that had burned a large part of London in 1666, for planning to murder King Charles II, and for plotting a French invasion that would result in forced conversions of all English Protestants, and massacres of those who resisted. It didn't help that Charles's brother and heir, James, had converted to Catholicism, and was set to marry an Italian Catholic princess. Nervous Londoners saw menacing Papists and Jesuits lurking behind every corner. Protestant pulpits thundered warning sermons, and innocent foreigners were accused of being Catholic and beaten by mobs in the streets.
As a result, the London celebration of the Fifth of November in 1678 was a lavish affair, attended by huge crowds. A long parade, above, of participants mockingly dressed as Catholic priests and cardinals with a smattering of devils, threaded through the streets, with the loudest jeers reserved for the effigies of the Pope. Here is an excerpt from a tract* describing the event:
"On this present Fifth Day of November, they caused several of the said Effigies, or Resemblances of the Pope, to be made; some of them displaying him in one posture, and some in another; but all of them were followed with loud and numerous acclamations to their several places of Execution.
"He of them who might best pretend to the priority in point of Workmanship and Invention, was raised on a small Pavilion, born like Pageants on Men's Backs, with a large Cross filled with Lamps, which in much majesty stalks before him, whilst the Effigies, curiously adorned with his Triple Crown, Necklace of Beads, and all his other superstitious Accouterments, came very sumptuously behind, in procession from the Royal-Exchange to Temple-Bar....
"So frollick was [the effigy], that he danced before the Flames, and when he came near the place of Execution, cut a Caper into a great Bonfire, provided on purpose to entertain him, whose abominable civilities had been so great, as heretofore to provide such large ones for others. In time after this feigned Pope had been sufficiently exposed to the Vulgar Reflections, he was hurl'd, Canopy, Triple Crown, Beads, Crucifix and all into the Bonfire...where a world of People celebrated his fall with a general cry, that all his Majesties Enemies, or the perverters of the Protestant Religion, or English Government, may ere long be reduced to some such Fate."
Guy Fawkes Day ceased to be an official holiday in Britain in 1859, and while there will still be bonfires, no religious effigies will be consigned to the flames – not that we modern folk are entirelypast burning symbols of the faiths of others.
Above: Detail of The Solemn Mock Procession of the Pope, Cardinalls, Jesuits, Fryers &c., through the City of London. Published by Samuel Lee, London, 1680.
* "The Manner of the burning of the pope effigies in London on the 5th of November, 1678, with the manner of carrying him through several streets in progression to Temple-Bar, where at length he was decently burned: also a particular of several bloody massacres done by the papists upon the bodies of English, Irish and French Protestants" by Anonymous: London, 1678
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.