So today is Guy Fawkes Night, another excuse for revelry when you’ve just got over the hangover from Halloween. (I went to an epic house party this year with mates as three raptors and Chris Pratt from Jurassic World. We were the best group costume ever.)
The Fifth of November is a relatively modern festival compared to the older superstitions of Halloween. If you’re English, no doubt you know the origins: in 1605, a group of Catholic conspirators planned to kill King James VI of Scotland and I of England and all his Protestant nobility as they sat in the House of Lords on the 5th November by packing Parliament’s cellars with explosives (Fawkes was their gunpowder expert). This was a period of great religious turmoil, when Protestant and Catholic factions tried to gain power and make their religion the official one of the kingdom. Depending on how cynical you’re feeling, this makes Fawkes either a murderous traitor, or the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions. The plot was uncovered when one of the conspirators betrayed the others, and those involved were executed horribly, as an example to discourage future plots.
A day of thanksgiving for the survival of the king was declared by Parliament, and this took the form of the usual celebrations in the early modern period: lighting bonfires, ringing peals of bells and commissioning special prayers and sermons in churches around the country. The idea was that people would never forget this heinous act. In one respect, people haven’t. But of course, as with all celebrations it has changed its nature and traditions over the last 400 years.
Bonfires are the famous tradition for the Fifth. While nowadays we might have a general “guy” burning on the bonfire, originally the effigies were always of the pope. This is a tradition which has continued to the present day, where in some places images of public figures are burnt. The word “guy” meaning an effigy was first recorded as recently as the early 19th century in the Oxford English Dictionary, around the same time as children playing “Penny for the Guy” seems to appear. This commonly working-class tradition involves children making and dressing a figure and wheeling it around houses, showing him off and asking for money. It’s less common these days, presumably because of its proximity to Halloween’s trick-or-treating. You can’t go begging from your neighbours too often.
The day’s connection to Protestantism helped it survive during the Puritan Commonwealth era when so many other earlier traditions were abruptly banned. The thanksgiving for the king’s health was removed, and the night was kept as a celebration of Protestantism’s triumph.
During the 18th century, celebrations became bigger, with more bonfires in town centres, fireworks and guns fired indiscriminately, and tar barrels rolled through crowded streets. Like lots of other traditional celebrations, the night became associated with licensed disorder – a mischief night where people could get away with things that they couldn’t during the normal year. One tradition that caught my eye in Steve Roud’s book, The English Year, (really good if you’re interested in the customs and folklore of England) comes from Yorkshire: in the 19th century, if you didn’t lock up your broom, it would be stolen, covered in tar and set alight. If you ever saw your broom again, it would be being brandished by a whooping dude running down your street.
I’ve just moved to York. I don’t own a broom, but I’m keeping an eye on my flat’s mop.
All this “licensed disorder” meant that by the 19th century, Guy Fawkes Night was practically an annual riot. So the Victorians did what they do best, and gentrified a predominantly working-class event. Local councils and dignitaries paid for bonfires and firework displays to take place on communal land after a relatively tame procession through the town. More “respectable” people began having private firework parties in their own gardens. And this set-up hasn’t really changed since. Sure, there are maybe fewer private parties these days because of health and safety worries in built-up areas, but large public events are more popular than ever. Guy Fawkes Night is one of those traditions that hasn’t ever really been in danger of dying off, although the religious aspect has diminished in importance. In some areas, if you look closely, anti-Catholic sentiment still lurks below the surface, but in other areas the day’s meaning has flipped: instead, people light bonfires to celebrate a plot that had a good crack and came close to succeeding.
Some towns, of course, still like to celebrate in style. And by style, I mean by chucking fire around and making it a massive party. The town of Lewes in East Sussex is probably best known for this. Since the 19th century, the town has been home to several Bonfire Societies (based in different areas of the town) who hold processions around their area before joining the other societies for the torch-lit Grand Union Parade through town in the evening. This is the high point, where the bands play, people march in costume with banners, and the societies show off their huge effigies before returning to their areas to burn them on bonfires. Instead of just burning Fawkes and the Pope, the effigies are famously of modern-day baddies – last year featured Putin in a mankini and Alex Salmond. I’m willing to bet that this year will feature David Cameron and a pig…
These effigies have been controversial. I don’t think Alex Salmond was too pleased, for one. But while all six current societies burn effigies of the pope and Guy Fawkes, and carry some “No Popery” banners or burning crosses, no-one takes the anti-Catholicism seriously any more. It’s more about, (to quote an authentic Lewensian friend of mine) “sticking two fingers up to authority than anything else”. So while the particularly historical visuals remain, it’s not in the same spirit as the seventeenth century; the tradition has changed with the times. Similarly, every year, there’s always a bit on the news about Health and Safety trying to kybosh the event, but the Bonfire Societies’ strengths in the past have been negotiating compromise with the council et al (who know how popular the event is for tourists): when town centre fires were banned, they moved to their own sites in fields, and switched to safer fireworks when Lewes Squibs, which shoot across the ground, were banned.
One event which Health and Safety forgot is the celebrations at Ottery St Mary in Devon. They party with tar barrels like Lewes, but with a helluva lot more speed. And fire. Each barrel is sponsored by a local pub. They cut the ends off, cover the inside with tar, set it alight outside its pub, then a carrier dashes off down the road, holding it above his head. It gets passed around different carriers until the barrel disintegrates and it’s thrown to the ground to burn out. Crowds increase as the night goes on, and the last barrel reaches the town centre near midnight. The barrels pass super close to spectators, but I imagine that if a huge bloke wielding a flaming ball of fire came running, the crowd would shift out of the way pretty quickly.
Whatever your views on the early 17th century religious situation and Fawkes’ plot against the king, you have to admit that it still holds a popular place in the public’s imagination, boosted again recently in V For Vendetta and the popularity of Fawkes masks among anti-establishment protesters. It is still celebrated in the traditional manner too, with huge bonfire displays, particularly impressive and evocative at this time of year.
So the Protestants of the 17th century shouldn’t be disappointed: gunpowder, treason and plot have never been forgot.