The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Versions of this rhyme have been chanted in the UK for centuries and whether you call it Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, it is a tradition that shows no sign of abating. The bonfires and fireworks displays of today are steeped in a tradition that started on January 21 1606, when an Act of parliament was passed to appoint November 5 each year as a day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance”. The Act ordered people to attend church on the morning of the 5th, when parish clergy would read prescribed prayers of thanksgiving as well as the Act itself, which justified the continuation of laws against Catholic worship.
If those legislators knew that this particular law would reach into the 21st century, they’d be pretty pleased with themselves.
Off the back of this yearly celebration of the failure of the plot, November 5 quickly became a focus beyond church for anti-Catholic feeling and concerns about the perceived dangers of popery. And over time it was to become a day of bells, bonfires and bright lights.
One of the first big bonfires happened in 1626 when the citizens of Norwich staged a highly symbolic bonfire when they burned a collection of Catholic paraphernalia, found in a chest in the church. Bonfires only happened occasionally, and were banned during the Interregnum of 1649-60. But they returned with force when Charles II came to the throne. Following a number of Catholic plots, the celebrations became even more anti-Catholic focused. In this period it was not uncommon to find a burning Guy Fawkes next to an effigy of the Pope.
Official and respectable celebrations continued throughout the 18th century and in some cases, local councils sponsored celebrations into the early 19th century. In Exeter, up until the 1830s, the mayor and councillors continued to march to the cathedral for the service of thanksgiving and had the Guildhall illuminated. After the service a huge bonfire was lit in the churchyard, followed by an oyster supper.
Towards the end of the 18th century reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes in tow. This continued to be a common sight on the streets of towns and villages well into the 1970s with children begging “a penny for the Guy” to buy fireworks.
Following Catholic emancipation the act itself was repealed in the 19th century. But the tradition of bonfires and fireworks has continued – and so the Act can be thanked for some of the more extreme festivities around today.
Probably one of the most famous Bonfire Night celebrations takes place in Lewes, where true to tradition Guy Fawkes and the Pope are burned together. There are six societies that put on competing displays – all also parade burning crosses through the streets to remember the death at the stake of 17 Protestant martyrs during the reign of Mary I. An incredible 80,000 spectators have been known to attend.
In the West Country celebrations evolved in the 19th century into processions of floats, or carts, now brightly lit by some 25,000 light bulbs. A current estimation is that more than a third of a million bulbs are used during each carnival season. Each Carnival Club, like those of Lewes, has its own theme, which is kept secret while they work on building their creations. They then tour the towns of Somerset, starting in Bridgwater and winding their way through Weston-super-Mare and Wells before a grand finale in Glastonbury later in November.
Ottery St Mary goes one step further. As well as the traditional West Country style carnival procession and a bonfire, they also burn tar barrels. The hardy competitors – who have to have been born in the town – don’t roll the barrels through the streets, a tradition suppressed in other areas in the 19th century, but run with the burning barrels on their shoulders until the heat becomes too unbearable or the barrel breaks down.
In Surrey, the Brockham bonfire is usually around 40ft tall, made with logs, brushwood, grass, leaves and discarded furniture. More than 500 fiery torches that are dispersed around the village are dramatically thrown on the bonfire in unison to set the inferno alight. An 8ft Guy, made from papier-mâché, is paraded through the streets, before being cast on to the bonfire. The evening closes, like all good bonfire nights, with a huge fireworks display.
So whether you’re watching fireworks, furnaces, or sprinting down a street with a burning barrel on your back, you’re doing it because 400 years ago, a law was passed that forced people to attend church and give thanks for “the joyful day of deliverance”.