Friday, November 5, 2010

Guy Fawkes Night, 1678: Bonfires, Fear, & Intolerance

Friday, November 5, 2010
Susan reports:

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 Fawkes and 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 entirely past 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


mq, cb said...

You said:

"The origins of the holiday as an official "Day of Thanksgiving" is lost on most modern revelers" and " ... while there will still be bonfires, no religious effigies will be consigned to the flames".

That's not entirely true. It probably is the case that the focus is on the fireworks and the bonfire, assuming you live in a place where they are allowed to hold one. However, every child still learns the "Remember, remember ... " rhyme so you learn why we have Bonfire Night. (In fact, a few months ago, I was most surprised to discover that a German colleague of mine was taught the rhyme when she was at school).

Anywhere that has a bonfire will usually still burn a Guy and where I lived as a child, small boys would still ask for money for the Guy that they had built in the days leading up to Bonfire Night.

Most bonfires that I have attended don't make anything out of the fact that Guy Fawkes was Catholic or indeed refer to the reason why it was originally held (other than the fact that some always says the rhyme). Instead, it's usually used as an excuse for a bit of a chat, and a drink, with your neighbours and friends and to let off some fireworks. However, there are still a few places that burn religious effigies on their bonfires.

The most well-known of these is in Lewes, where they burn Guy and the Pope as well, although it is not the current Pope, as far as I know - see
The Lewes' bonfire is sufficiently remarkable that is reported in the news every year. (If you google the terms "Lewes" and "bonfire", you could pull up the BBC News reports for the last 10 years). Most people however seem to regard it as a bit of local colour and not as evidence of any real anti-Papist feeling, although I'm not entirely sure whether the English Catholic church would agree. However, I imagine that they say nothing to avoid being seen as spoilsports.

Connie G. said...

While Guy Fawkes night seems like the ultimate English holiday, most Americans don't know that it was also celebrated in this country, too. Early Americans called it Pope Night. They also burned straw Popes, plus added fights and drunkeness.It was considered a bully-boy night, and respectable people stayed away.

I enjoyed your descriptions of this night in THE COUNTESS & THE KING. Very powerful.

Richard Foster said...

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead.

Juliette said...

Actually, we over here in England are all fully aware of the origins of the holiday - we all learn about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot in school and as the above comenter pointed out, we all know the rhyme 'Remember remember the fifth of November'.

We are also all fully aware that the tradition of burning a guy on the bonfire relates to Guy himself. We used to have Bonfire Celebrations at the University Catholic Society every year (we Catholics had our own bar, which the Anglicans and Methodists didn't) and we would make a joke of inviting the Protestants over to the Catholic Chaplaincy to burn a Catholic.

The later presecution of Catholics is more often forgotten, as non-Catholic English schools tend to focus on the persecution of Protestants under Mary rather than on persecutions of Catholics, and the Roman Catholic Church is not very popular over here at the moment.

Lil Deville said...

I do hate to pick holes in things but Guy Fawkes wasn't actually the "leader" of the plot, that honour goes to Sir Robert Catesby.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thank you all for the input! I knew I could be stepping into perilous waters here, an American writing about an English holiday - so your comments are most welcome. And whoa, it's not even 8:00 am here. :)

mq, cb said...

Juliette, you said that the Catholic Church is not very popular in the UK at the moment. That's true, but as far as I am aware that doesn't extend to Catholics. In fact, I'm unaware of any anti-Catholic sentiment in modern times in Britain, except of course in Northern Ireland, which is a place unto itself. I'm assuming however that no one regards the inability of a Catholic to inherit the throne as being important.

I learned about the later persecution of the Catholics post-Mary when I was a child, including the Gordon Riots, Titus Oates etc and eventually, the emancipation Acts, but I did History 'A' Level and was a bit of a history nut so maybe that's why.

In a way, I think that Mary's actions against the Protestants are easier to teach because they can be presented to a modern audience as persecution for acting according to your conscience, even if at the time that was not entirely true. Later anti-Catholic actions by the State are always addressed as being about patriotism or politics, rather than anti-Popery for its own sake. After all, the classic answer to the question, "could James II have remained King?" has always been "yes, if he'd not been quite so bullish about shoving Catholicism down everyone's throats" and then people point to the fact that his elder brother, Charles II, had clear Catholic sympathies (whatever you believe about the truth of his deathbed conversion), married a Catholic and still managed to regain his throne and remain King.

Anonymous said...

More here about the Gunpowder Plot:

Anonymous said...

Just think of the trouble that could have been avoided if Catherine of Aragon had had a son.
Alternate history anyone?

Juliette said...

mq, cb - of course, I didn't mean to imply Catholics were being persecuted now or anything, far from it! My point was just that, in my experience (which covers the late 80s and all the 90s) school history in English state schools tends to focus on Catholic persecution of Protestants, rather than vice versa, but there are certainly exceptions (my History A Level covered Henry VIII).

(Also, my family are from Northern Ireland, and the Pope's recent visit did bring out an awful lot of complaints about the Church though not, as you rightly point out, individual Catholics).

Hels said...

In Australia we always celebrated Guy Fawkes Night with great pleasure - it was the best night of the year when I was a child (in the 1950s). Sadly the holiday passed into history when the sale of fireworks was banned throughout the nation on health and safety grounds (in the 1970s).

I do NOT remember that we were celebrating the capture and execution of English _Catholics_ who conspired to assassinate the _Protestant_ King. In a country like Australia that was 25% Catholic, I only remember that we celebrated the defeat of political traitors.

mq, cb said...

Juliette, I think that the Catholic Church is an easy target at the moment, for both good and bad reasons. It is not surprising that history in school focuses on the Tudors. Not only were they delightfully picturesque, and therefore an easy sell, but it's also a lot easier to teach an orthodoxy, particularly if it promotes the view that the way everything turned out was inevitable, and right and proper besides. Most people are quite astonished if you point out that Catholics were effectively excluded from public life for some 300 years and that no one thought this at all odd because a Catholic might as well have been regarded as a traitor in waiting.

Anonymous - ooooh a lovely question; what if Catherine of Aragon had had a son who lived? Presumably this would have meant that she would not have been put aside, which I have often thought described so much better what happened to her than being "divorced".

Well, assuming the son of Henry and Catherine had inherited and produced heirs, England and Scotland might have remained separate kingdoms since Henry's sister Mary's line would never have inherited the English throne, but would England have remained Catholic? Scotland would still have become Protestant, and I'm not sure that the reason why England ceased to be Catholic was entirely because Henry VIII threw his toys out of his pram upon being told that, no he couldn't divorce his wife.

Catherine died fairly young, and Henry could still have re-married and had further children so if he had a reason to stay in with Catholic Spain and Charles V, wouldn't it have evaporated at her death?

He might also have had other Protestant children. After all, he fathered at least one child after Catherine's death.

There was clearly an existing movement towards an examination of Protestantism during Henry's lifetime, even though he only countenanced it to a limited extent. Inevitably, some people would have become Protestants and might they have included the monarch? When you think of the problems that various English monarchs had with the Papacy over the preceding five hundred years, you can see why it's an enticing prospect for a king to be free of the Pope and not to have to call any man your master.

Even if it did, I still don't see an English Catholic succession as meaning that England would have politically sided with the Continental Catholic powers. After all, it had not necessarily done so up until that point.

And would it change the factors that created the Civil War? Does the king rule through a divine right, or is Parliament supreme? That question would still have to be answered. We might still have ended up with much the same. After all, it could be argued that the true legacy of the Civil War was not about religion at all, but about authoritarianism, both in the UK and overseas. Do I bow to you because God made you my master, or can I make up my own mind and is my answer as good as anything that you can come up with? Put that way, the line of inheritance between the seventeenth century English Parliamentarian and the eighteenth century American Colonial rebel becomes very clear.

Sorry to have rattled on but thank you everyone for a fascinating discussion. Bonfire Night ends in 20 minutes but tomorrow night, in the mud of Barnes Sports Club in South-West London, I shall be attending a fireworks display and with any luck, a proper bonfire. Come along if you're in London. Hels, I shall think of you, firework-less. How could Australia ban the sale of fireworks? Madness.

Should be a cracker.

Deb said...

Thanks for the memories! I was born and raised in England in the 1960s and I remember children making "guys" (usually an old shirt and a pair of trousers stuffed with newspaper) then knocking on doors and asking "a penny for the guy." Any money thus acquired was supposed to be used to buy fireworks. Families and neighbors would get together on the evening of November 5 and have huge bonfires and set off massive amounts of fireworks. I've been in the States a long time, but I assume England's laws about purchasing and setting off fireworks have become somewhat stricter in the past four decades.

Fun literary fact: T.S. Eliott's poem "The Waste Land" uses the phrase "a penny for the old guy" at one point.

And one small historical quibble: It wasn't Henry VIII's sister Mary who married into the Scottish royal family, it was his sister Margaret. She was the grandmother of both Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary's second husband, Lord Darnley, and thus the great-grandmother of James VI of Scotland (aka James I of England) on both sides.

mq, cb said...

Deb, yes, you're quite right; it was Margaret, not Mary. Sorry about that.

Re buying fireworks in the UK - as far as I am aware, although they can only be advertised for sale during a limited period leading up to Bonfire Night, nevertheless they can be freely bought, and in quantity, throughout the year. Although they are widely available in early November, for the rest of the year, you'd probably have to go to a specialist shop. Every year there are complaints that they are dangerous, and every year it is pointed out that people don't follow the instructions on the packet.

I'm with Mr Walker, the father in Swallows and Amazons: "better drowned than duffers if not duffers won't drown".

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

And here I was afraid this post would be boring--! :)

If we're talking alternative history, I'd like to imagine not Catherine of Aragon, but Catherine of Braganza being the one to bear the son. It wasn't only a political tragedy that Charles II had no legitimate sons, but also a personal one. It's an old joke that he sired so many illegitimate children (nearly twenty!), yet had none with his queen, but his devotion to all those by-blows was remarkable. He was involved in their lives, and seems to have genuinely cared for them as individuals.

It's tantalizing to think of a young prince receiving Charles's love and wisdom, and imagining what kind of king he might have made. We might still have Stuarts on the throne....

OTOH, if that phantom unborn prince had turned out like Charles's oldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, then it's all for the best that things ended when they did. *g*

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

As an American, I love hearing the different interpretations of English history as taught in school. That happens here as well - and we have only 300 or so years of history to juggle!

Hels, I remember hearing about the banning of fireworks in general in Australia after the recent disasterous wildfires. Offficials here often cancel fireworks displays for Independence Day here for much the same reasons. In the middle of a dry summer, it's just not wise...

mq,cb, I hope you're having a fine old time for all the rest of us!

Deb, I never realized that line in the Eliot poem referred to Guy Fawkes! Thanks for sharing your "fun literary fact."

Unknown said...

I have literature and art history degrees, so I have loved happening on your site and gleaning interesting tidbits! I am a huge fan of V for Vendetta, so it's nice to learn a bit more historical context. Thanks so much!

Have a wonderful weekend!
Hope Ava

Anonymous said...

Oh I am so glad someone mentioned "V for Vendetta." I can never think of Guy Fawks without thinking of that mask!

Deb said...

I have to correct part of my comment above: It's not in "The Waste Land" but in "The Hollow Men" that T.S. Eliot uses the line "A penny for the old guy."

Lexi Best said...

Talk about alternative history anybody see the program Tony Richardson (Baldrick of Blackadder fame) did that traced the family line of the last of the Plantagenets?
According to the program, Edward IV could not have been conceived legitimately, which would have made his brother George, Duke of Clarence, the rightful heir. This is the one who drowned in a vat of malmsey. He had legitimate heirs so Richard III would not have come to the throne. Given that his own claim to the throne was based upon his nephews' illegitimacy (because Edward had married before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodhull) would the Tudors still have had a claim?
Richardson traced the the heirs right down to a man who lives in Australia. I think he was an Earl but didn't use his title.
What was fascinating was the evidence he presented that showed that the royal families through the ages seems to have a particular interest in this family tree and something of a vendetta against them.
Of course, had this particular line been the one to succeed it would have made different marriages than it did, so, the Australian probably would not be the king today, or even in existence, but it is fascinating.

Unknown said...

Congrats, Susan. Having written so much about the English monarchy you must be an experienced swimmer in perilous waters. And you are writing of that 'douceur de vie,' the time of a shared heritage that is your own well as that of the UK -- that time before that seditious dilettante Jefferson and, others of his ilk, started ransacking Rushworth's 'Historical Collections' and similar C17th. texts for his legalistic, and hysterical, resolutions and 'Declaration's,' that turned the world upside down. ; - )

The relevant official texts:
An Act for a Publick Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November. 3 James Cap. 1, (1605)

A FORM of PRAYER with THANKSGIVING to be uſed yearly upon the Fifth Day of November; for the happy Deliverance of King J AME S I,and the Three Eſtates of E N G L A N D , from the moſt traiterous and bloody-intended Maſſacre by Gunpowder:

[As the text is taken from an edition of 1762, it contains references to ‘George’ rather than ‘Charles,’ and also to the events of 1688. This special form of service, and those for 'King Charles the Martyr' on January 30th., and for the commemoration of the restoration of Charles II, May 29th., were removed from the Prayer Book in 1859 by Act of Parliament.]

Chris Woodyard said...

Changing the subject rather abruptly...
All this talk of King Charles the Martyr and official prayers reminds me for no urgently good reason of The Uncommon Prayer Book by M.R. James, a short story featuring anti-Cromwellian Books of Common Prayer printed during the Commonwealth. You'll find the text here:

The royalist Lady Sadleir mentioned in the text was real enough, but I've never been able to find out if James actually knew of such prayer book editions or they were another of his wonderful inventions.

Sorry if this is too off topic.

TONY said...

Hi Loretta. A great post. The burning of effigies bit. Well, we still burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes and in Lewes in Sussex they burn crosses to commemorate the martyrs that were executed there. I think, up until a few years ago, they also burned effigies of the Pope. However, us Catholics have always taken it in good humour, well nowadays anyway. I wouldn't do without Bonfire Night.
I put a post with some pictures and a couple of video clips of my local bonfire night this year on London Calling. We celebrate at the local scouts hut a mere few hundred yards from my house.

All the best,

Here's a link to the Lewes Bonfire Night:

Unknown said...

@ Chris Woodyard, M.R. James 'Uncommon Prayer Book'

As you probably know, Anne Sadler, the elder daughter of Sir Edward Cooke the lawyer, was the donor of the ‘Trinity Apocalypse” (R.16.2, James #950) one of the greatest of English mediaeval manuscripts.

This James published first in volume ii of his The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge: a Descriptive Catalogue (1900) 3 vols. I have excerpted the final portion of his note of her inscription and give a link to his full catalogue text.

“Given by Dame Anne Sadleir. On the fly-leaf she has written: I commit this booke to the custodie of the Right Reuerend Father in God Raffe Lo: Bishop of Exon, when times are better setled (which God hasten) it is with my other booke & my coins giuen to Trinitie Colledge Librarie in Cambridge, God in his goof time restore her with her Sister Oxford to there pristine happiness, the Vulger People to there former obedience, and God blesſ and restore Charles the Second, & make him like his most glorious Father. Amen.
August the 20tie. 1649. Anne Sadleir.”
The binding (xvi-xvii)is of white skin with gold tooling. The royal arms and a crown are in the centre.

There are modern facsimiles and a CD rom edition with commentary:

Anne Sadlier gave many other Mss. to Trinity -- one group have an American connection, a series of letters to her from Roger Williams and in some she finds his religious views sufficiently shocking to make notes of her own opinions on the reverse, she was a devoted supporter of the English Church.

The Ordinance for the removal of the Book of Common Prayer passed parliament on January 3rd. 1645, and stiff penalties were imposed for its use; 5 pounds on first conviction, 10 on the second and one years imprisonment on the third. Checking the ESTC database I can find no record of a printing of the Book, either in England or abroad, between then and 1662. In the story James refers to a printer ‘Anthony Cadman,’ I can find record of none active at the relevant time; there was a Thomas active as printer/bookseller in the second half of the C16th. and a William in the second half of the C 17th., neither specialized in theology or Church controversy.

Chris Woodyard said...

Thank you, Michael. I had hoped that there might be evidence of some genuine anti-Cromwellian Books of Common Prayer, but one of the things I like best about James is his plausibility.

Why in the world was Roger Williams writing to Lady Sadlier? Surely he must have known that she thought that her father had nursed a serpent in his bosom.

Unknown said...

@ Chris Woodyard, M.R. James 'Uncommon Prayer Book'

I have merely copied from the relevant portion of Williams's DNB entry, it is unsupported by citation:

“Less successful was his endeavour to open relations with the family of his old benefactor, Sir Edward Coke, through the medium of Coke's daughter Mrs. Anne Sadleir. This lady was an unbending royalist, and she took very ill a recommendation from Williams to amend her opinions by reading Milton's 'Eikonoclastes.' 'It seems,' she wrote to him, ' that you have a face of brass and cannot blush. . ". . As for Melton it is he, if I be not mistaken, that wrote a book of the " Lawfulness of Divorce," and, if report gays true, had at that time two or three wives living. This perhaps were good doctrine in New England, but it is most abominable in Old England. As for his book ngainst the king, God has began his punishment upon him here, who struck him
with blindness;' and she concluded: ' Trouble me no more with your letters, for they are very troublesome to her who wishes you in the place from which you came.' Here this correspondence ceased.”

I do not have access to the following, but you may:
Hunt, A., The Books, Manuscripts and Literary Patronage of Mrs Anne Sadleir (1585-1670), Early modern women's manuscript writing: selected papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium, ed., V. E. Burke and J. Gibson (Aldershot, 2004) p. 205-236

There is also an unpublished Mss of her religious reflections and personal notes, Trinity R.13.74.

Chris Woodyard said...

Thanks very much. I've located Early modern women's manuscript writing. It promises to be entertaining reading given what I've read of the lady so far. I appreciate the quotes and the citation.

Unknown said...

Anne Sadleir sounds a fascinating character, and there is very much more ‘reality’ to the story of the chapel and payer books than I had realized, even if not an ‘edition:’

It may just be an elaborate M. R. James ‘joke’ but the ESTC computers have churned more data and now show a bare ‘placeholder record Sys #006166366’ – a unique surviving copy, but one having no physical format & no pagination, in the Shropshire County Library of an edition of Common Prayer ‘London; By His Majesty’s Printers ,1649.’ [A catalogue entry for a clearly nonexistent item is known as a ‘ghost,’ Charles was executed Jan30th 1649; an additional irony, the Sadler / Sadleir ‘new’ money came from the dissolution of the monasteries,_Ralph_(DNB00) ]
Librarian’s really do have senses of humor:

Monica Burns said...

WOW!! Great post and great info in the comments!

As an American who knows little of this time period, I do remember there being a great divide for a long time between the Catholics and Protestants dating back pretty far. Not sure when tolerance came to the forefront. I've always thought that particular quarrel more about power than anything else. As well as keeping the masses under the thumb of religious leaders.

But whenever I see the words Guy Fawkes, I always think of the movie V for Vendetta. A movie about one man trying to overthrow a tolatarian govt. It's often made me wonder if perhaps Guy Fawkes might have viewed the govt he was under in a similar manner as the anit-hero/hero (depending on POV) did.

But all the comments here have certainly brought the story of the event ALIVE and it's DEFINITELY and interesting topic! I learn something new everyday.

Chris Woodyard said...

For Michael Robinson. Many thanks for the time-saving link to the essay on Lady Anne and the note on the "ghost" prayer book of Shropshire. I am behind in enjoying the link and in thanking you as a deadline got pushed up and I am trying to be obliging. I hope to enjoy the essay in full this weekend.

I need to check my back issues of Ghosts & Scholars to see if anyone has ferreted out any other details about the books in the story.

I also wonder if the "great roll of old shabby white flannel" with a face at one end was inspired by John Donne's funeral monument.

Chris Woodyard said...

Although there are certainly other images of enshrouded bodies on brasses and other funerary monuments.

Straying WAY off topic. Sorry.

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