Thursday, November 3, 2016

From the Archives: How Guy Fawkes Crossed the Atlantic & Became Pope Night, 1745

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Isabella reporting:

Because our friends in Great Britain will celebrate Guy Fawkes Day on Saturday, it seems like an excellent time to revisit this post. 

Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday that may have a dark past, but it's certainly alive and well and full of bonfires and fireworks. Yet while it may seem a quintessentially British holiday, there's also a strong history of the celebration in New England as well as Old.

The Massachusetts colony was largely settled in the early 17th c. by English Puritans, and those conservative Protestant values continued to rule the colony. The bonfires and effigy-burning of the Fifth of November was one of the transplanted traditions that prospered, but by the middle of the 18th c., it had developed a few distinctly Yankee quirks. Several colonial wars against the French served to increase distrust and fear of Catholics. While the memory of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot weren't forgotten (the "Remember, Remember" song was duly sung), in all the northern colonies the celebration was now called Pope Night, and a rowdy time it was.

In Boston, crowds of  young men, sailors, and apprentices thronged the streets, dividing into two rival gangs, while costumed boys thumped on doors and begged money for drink. Each gang had their own procession and effigies of the Pope, friars, priests, and devils, and after a fierce brawl between the two gangs (ah, American contests of sports supremacy!), the winners captured the losers' effigies, and everything was finally burned in a satisfying bonfire. Special noisemakers, fashioned from conch shells and called "Pope's horns", added to the din, like 18th c. vuvuzelas.

As political tensions in Boston increased with England in the years before the Revolution, other effigies of unpopular public figures found their way into the procession, including the Catholic Pretender to the British throne James StuartLord North, and Lord Bute. Later infamous Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold earned his place in the flames, too. A 1745 newspaper described the scene:

Tuesday last being the Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, two Popes were made and carried thro' the Streets in the evening...attended by a vast number...armed with clubs, staves, and cutlashes, who were very abusive to the Inhabitants, insulting the Persons and breaking the windows, &c., of such as did not give them money to their satisfaction...the two Popes meeting in Cornhill, their followers were so infatuated as to fall upon each other with the utmost Rage and Fury. Several were sorely wounded and bruised, some left for dead, and rendered incapable of any business for a long time to the great Loss and Damage of their respective Masters.

For more about Pope Night in the American colonies, check out this excellent site commissioned by The Bostonian Society. Also see one of our favorite history blogs, Boston 1775, which has numerous posts on the subject.

Above: Detail from Extraordinary verses on Pope-night, or, A commemoration of the Fifth of November, giving a history of the attempt, made by the papishes, to blow up king and Parliament, printed in Boston, 1768. Collection, Library of Congress


Yve said...

Makes sense that Bonfire Night would transfer to "The Colonies", and even here in Britain Guy Fawkes' effigy is regularly substituted with other unpopular figures of the day such as Tony Blair. It sounds as though the New Englanders also indulged in Mischief Night, although that was just meant for children here. It was originally supposed to be part of the May Day celebration, children were allowed to misbehave and play pranks on each other and adults for that one night. It had moved to either October 30th or November 4th by early Victorian times and only really continues in the Notrth of England now. Since the 1970's the pranks the children play have become increasingly more vandalism based and so the Police are starting to crack down on Mischeif Night, it may soon be relegated to the history books.

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