Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The Fifth Of November: What We Actually Remember

Guy Fawkes Night may have been a total weather-washout in my part of the world, but as it was a Friday, the celebrations extended well into the weekend. For my own part, it was marked in two ways: a huge public bonfire and fireworks display and also by an impromptu display at my cousin's eighteenth birthday party. I've done my fair share of trudging through muddy fields in the past few days, and was glad of strong boots and a hat that covered my ears. The scent of gunpowder clung to the night air; thick with smoke and mist and punctuated with the whistling, screeching and banging of fireworks.

It seems more than a little odd to celebrate an event with the lighting of a large fire, yet it is a traditional English form of celebration that has deep-reaching roots into ancient times. I'm not exactly sure what a love of fire-lighting and sparkly explosives says about a collective national identity, but I'm going to say it's a good thing!

To be a Catholic in England in 1605 was against the law. Fervent Catholics took their faith underground, and an extreme few planned ways to stage a coup in which the Protestant King James I would be killed and replaced with a new Catholic monarch.

Following the discovery and failure of the conspirators' plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and with it, the King himself, ordinary English people in towns and villages around the country marked the failure with the lighting of bonfires. Sensing an opportunity, parliament later passed the Thanksgiving Act, in which it decreed that every November the 5th should be marked with the lighting of fires (not to mention mandatory church attendance). 

And so, today we still celebrate Guy Fawkes Night because the plot failed, not because the plot was ever entertained in the first place, and it is a tradition that has endured over the decades. It's observance has waxed and wained, through civil war and interregnum and beyond until the scapegoat, Guy Fawkes, has become less vilified and something more of a romantic anti-hero.

Photos by André.

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