Bonfire Night: a 400-year-old political hot potato

Ahead of Bonfire Night, which marks the anniversary of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, historian James Sharpe explores the significance of the Fifth of November...

An illustration of the Gunpowder Plot principal conspirators, copied from a rare print published at the time (5 November 1605). (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).
Numerous accounts of the Gunpowder Plot have been written, and its story told and re-told many times. But the story of the changes in how this failed act of terrorism has been remembered over the centuries remains virtually unknown. For if Gunpowder Plot itself has a history, so do the rituals of the Fifth of November. Reconstructing that history shows how the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot has frequently been an occasion for political contestation.
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This story begins in January 1606 when Parliament, whose planned opening on the previous 5 November had been so rudely interrupted, finally met. Both houses readily responded to a suggestion that some measure should be taken for commemorating this horrifying instance of Catholic perfidy and God’s intervention in preserving England. The result was “An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November”.
This act was not repealed until 1859, and it was the incorporation of this annual service of public thanksgiving in the Church of England’s Prayer Book which, more than anything, ensured the survival of the Fifth of November as a national festival.

How was Fifth of November celebrated in the 17th century?

We know comparatively little about how the Fifth was celebrated in the early 17th-century. Churchwardens’ accounts from a wide geographical scatter of parishes record disbursements for bell-ringers and for wood for bonfires. Some cities enjoyed more elaborate celebrations, while a stream of Fifth of November sermons survive.
These sermons demonstrate how the memory of Gunpowder Plot was constantly evolving. They invariably contained a powerful anti-Catholic message, but they also located the discovery of the plot firmly in a providentialist model of history, a model which emphasised God’s continual interventions to save Protestant England from Catholic threats: in 1558 he had saved the English from Mary Tudor, in 1588 he saved them from the Spanish Armada, and now in 1605 he had saved them from a Catholic takeover founded on an act of terrorism.
But these sermons also demonstrate that as the political crises of 17th-century England unfolded, remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot became politically contested. The plot was captured by the Parliamentarians in the Civil Wars and their aftermath as a powerful element in their version of English history, while in 1660 preachers were using Fifth of November sermons to represent the Restoration as a divine deliverance on a par with that of 1605.

Timeline: 5 November – from plot to party

 
1606
In January, Parliament, meeting for the first time after the plot, passed an Act ‘For a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every Year on the Fifth Day of November’. This, by ensuring that the plot was remembered annually in every parish church in England, was probably the decisive factor in prolonging its memory. The act was repealed in 1859.
 
1673–85
Period of intense political instability initiated by the public acknowledgement by James, Duke of York, heir to the throne, of his Catholicism, and incorporating the Popish Plot scare and the Exclusion Crisis.
Anti-Catholic feeling reached new heights, and Fifth of November rituals became heavily politicised.
 
1688
Replacement of James II by William and Mary. That William, portrayed as the saviour of English Protestantism, landed on 5 November made that date doubly memorable, while his landing, like the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, was interpreted as evidence of divine providence and God’s favouring of the English.
 
1709
A Fifth of November sermon by High Church and Tory clergyman Henry Sacheverell defied the dominant consensus by playing down fears of Catholicism and instead attacking Whigs and Non-Conformists as the ideological heirs of Charles I’s executioners. The ensuing political crisis emphasised the Fifth’s continuing status as a powerfully symbolic date.
 
1841
Publication of Guy Fawkes, or the Gunpowder Treason, a novel by the best-selling author William Harrison Ainsworth. This symbolised changing attitudes by portraying Guy Fawkes and other Catholics in a sympathetic light: Ainsworth declared that in writing the book his ‘one doctrine’ was toleration.
 
1850
In 1850 a Catholic hierarchy was reinstalled in England following Catholic emancipation in 1829. This provoked widespread hostility, and in that year and those following, celebrations included the burning of effigies of popes, prominent Catholics, and High Church Anglicans regarded as collaborators.
 

1870–80
The old-style, frequently riotous, disorders of Fifth of November, whether anti-Catholic or not, largely died away. It became increasingly domesticated, or was celebrated through officially organised, and usually civic, displays and celebrations.

 

2003
Royal assent given to the Fireworks Act 2003. This attempted to limit the sale of fireworks, ban their being let off in the streets, and place severe regulations on public firework displays. Felt by some commentators to denote the legislating of traditional Bonfire Night celebrations out of existence.

 

But it was the heightened political and religious strife of 1673–85 which was to see the Fifth develop a more sharply defined political significance. The failure of Charles II to produce an heir meant that his brother, James Duke of York, would succeed. In 1673 James made his conversion to Catholicism public, and married a Catholic, Mary of Modena. That year London apprentices (doubtless with the collusion of their elders and betters) burnt a giant effigy of a pope. As England experienced the turmoils of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, similar pope-burnings occurred on 5 and on 17 November, Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day, another symbolically important date in England’s Protestant calendar.
When James came to the throne in 1685, official attempts to subdue anti-papal demonstrations on the Fifth of November increased the dismay felt at the accession of a Catholic. But in 1688 James II was removed when William of Orange, husband of James’s daughter Mary, landed in England to take the throne. He landed in Devon, on 5 November.
Accordingly, far into the 18th century, preachers at Fifth of November services could add another deliverance to their list, and remind congregations that on that date not only was England saved by divine providence from the Gunpowder Plot, but also from a popish, and hence tyrannical monarch. The preachers found a further menace in the emergence of that potential Catholic superpower, Louis XIV’s France.

Pope Day: how was the Fifth celebrated in the 18th century?

Although we have evidence on how preachers might put a spin on the significance of the Fifth of November in the 18th century, we as yet know little about how the Fifth was celebrated on a popular level. But there is information on the Fifth of November rituals in Britain’s North American colonies. New England Puritans had initially been opposed to observing the date, but by the early 18th century it was widely commemorated. It was known as Pope Day, indicating perhaps that the Fifth first assumed importance in the colonies at the time of the pope-burnings in England of the 1670s and early 1680s.

The day was specially significant in Boston, where rival working-class crowds from the north and south ends of town would parade, both with an effigy of a pope on a carriage. Pitched battles broke out as each mob tried to capture the other’s pope. But in the colonies the date again assumed a political significance. The popular demonstrations which accompanied the run-in to the American Revolution show how the ceremonies of Pope Day helped school American urban mobs in the crowd action which was to be turned so effectively against the British Authorities.
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Who was burnt in effigy?

The early 19th century was to witness an increase in references to popular celebrations of the Fifth in England. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries it had been a pope, the devil, or Jacobite Pretenders who were burnt in effigy. By 1800 or so it was Guy Fawkes. The reasons for this change remain elusive, although it might be that it was becoming less acceptable to be openly anti-Catholic.
Nevertheless, anti-Catholicism was still there. The Act for Catholic Emancipation had been passed in 1829, in the face of massive opposition, but it was the reinstallment of a Roman Catholic hierarchy in 1850 which really unleashed hostile reactions in Fifth of November celebrations. Effigies of a pope were burnt anew, as were effigies of Cardinal Wiseman, the learned and civilised Irish Catholic clergyman who, as Archbishop of Westminster, now headed the Catholic church in England.
But against this continuing anti-Catholicism must be set another tendency. In novels, popular drama, and works of history directed at the general reader, a more even-handed treatment of the plot was being presented, in which old-style anti-Catholicism was heavily toned down or marginalised. The plot was, by the early Victorian era, even made the vehicle for pantomimes.

Public order problems

But whether fuelled by anti-Catholicism or not, the Fifth of November became an annual occasion for severe public order problems in a number of English towns. The issue was a clash between the new standards of public order demanded by Victorian town councils, and a desire among the lower orders to celebrate the date in what they perceived to be the traditional manner.
One such town was Lewes in Sussex, which still enjoys large-scale celebrations. Others were Guildford, where from 1858–62 the town authorities more or less turned the town over to the “Guildford Guys” on the day, and Exeter, where in 1867 and 1879 riotous mobs celebrating around bonfires in the Cathedral Close had to be cleared at bayonet point by regular infantry.
But the Fifth was tamed. This was due partly to the growth of working-class respectability, and partly to the development of domesticity among the upper working and lower middle classes. These would buy fireworks and celebrate with their families in gardens or backyards. In many towns, the old plebiean desires for excitement were channelled through the medium of civic fireworks displays. Bonfire Night, by the end of the 19th century, had essentially been de-politicised.
This, one hopes, is something which will continue. Nobody is currently telling us to hate Catholics, and although at Lewes and a few other places modern politicians are sometimes burnt in effigy along with Guy Fawkes, there is little real edge present. The rigorous observance of the Fifth of November is being replaced by a bonfire season; effigies of Guy Fawkes are burnt infrequently; one rarely sees children out on the streets begging for “a penny for the Guy”, and the occasion is becoming circumscribed by regulations, most recently the Fireworks Act of 2003. It is assuming the aspect of an ideologically neutral fire festival to challenge the onset of winter.
But as we gather round the bonfires, we need to remember that the Fifth of November has a history, and one that has frequently been politically and ideologically charged.
James Sharpe is professor of history at the University of York and author of Remember, Remember the Fifth of November (Profile Books, 2005).