Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Well it's been a few days since my last entry here and this is something I really should have done four days ago.  To be honest I wasn't going to write about this particular subject as I sat there and thought everyone knows what happened on 5th November, everyone knows about bonfire night and the gunpowder plot.  But as I stood in front of the fire built just a few hours earlier and watched and listened to the distant and not too distant flashes and bangs of the fireworks let off in celebration I began to wonder what it was all about.  For most in Britain the gunpowder plot is one of the first lessons taught about history but I think that as it's learnt at such an early age most forget what it was actually about, I know I certainly have.  I asked a friend why we celebrate on 5th of November and the answer I got was one that most people would give "Because it's fun" and I totally agree but it did leave me with a few questions.

"Guy Fawkes Night originates from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed conspiracy by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state. In the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Guy Fawkes, caught guarding a cache of explosives placed beneath the House of Lords, James's Council allowed the public to celebrate the king's survival with bonfires, so long as they were "without any danger or disorder", making 1605 the first year the plot's failure was celebrated. Days before the surviving conspirators were executed, in January 1606 Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605, commonly known as the "Thanksgiving Act". It was proposed by a Puritan Member of Parliament, Edward Montagu, who suggested that the king's apparent deliverance by divine intervention deserved some measure of official recognition, and kept 5 November free as a day of thanksgiving while in theory making attendance at Church mandatory. A new form of service was also added to the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer, for use on 5 November." ... Wikipedia

What actually happened, what are we commemorating?
King James I
This one seems to come down to religion and religious freedom.  Following many years of religious intolerance under the reign of queen Elizabeth I it was hoped that her successor James I would have more sympathy towards Catholicism.  Unfortunately this was not the case and in the year 1605 a group of Catholic radicals joined together and devised a plan to kill the king and install his nine year old daughter as the new monarch and Catholic head of state for England.  In all there were thirteen conspirators led by a man called Robert Catesby and their plan was simple, pack the cellar of the House of Lords with explosives and detonate them on the 5th November; the date of the annual State Opening of the English Parliament.  This would eliminate the king but also most of the attending lords some of whom were also Catholic.  A warning note was sent and intercepted and the plot revealed.  The cellars below the House of Lords were searched on 4th November and 36 large barrels of gunpowder were discovered along with the man tasked with guarding them, Guy Fawkes. 

Guy Fawkes
On that very night in 1605 the people of Canterbury lit a huge bonfire to celebrate the salvation of the king and it's a tradition that has stayed with us ever since.  In the first few years the celebrations were limited to sermons and the ringing of church bells on 5th November, few fires were lit.  Then over time the fires became the main event until we get to the present day where the 5th November just wouldn't be the same without a fire or two accompanied by fireworks and the occasional sound of the fire engines.  A popular part of the celebrations since the late 18th century is the burning of a guy, a representation of Guy Fawkes made from old cloths stuffed with newspaper and placed at the highest point of the bonfire.

Why is Guy Fawkes the most remembered and not Robert Catesby?
It wasn't always Guy Fawkes who was burnt on bonfires around Britain; in 1677 it was reported that at one celebration " ... with the burning of large bonfires, a large effigy of the pope—his belly filled with live cats "who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire"—and two effigies of devils "whispering in his ear".".  The general anti-Catholic views of the English people were such that for many years the burning of the Pope on 5th November was common place.  Over time came more religious freedom and the burning of the Pope died out until by the 1790's it was common to see children on the streets of Britain in the run up to 5th November begging for small change with the effigy of Fawkes who would later be placed on the fire.  The question of why Guy Fawkes rather than the leader of the plot Robert Catesby seems to be unanswered.  But it is assumed that as Fawkes was the first to be captured, the first to be tortured and the first to be sentenced to death that he was the one that got all the attention making him the most notorious of the plotters.

Do other countries celebrate on 5th November?
I got to thinking that as the British monarchy is also the monarchy in a number of Commonwealth countries around the world whether they also celebrate in the same way.  So here's a little round up of some of the countries and what they do or don't do -  

North America - Early colonists took with them a lot of traditions including bonfire night which became Pope Night, a decidedly anti-catholic celebration.  The tradition died out in the 1770's as ties with catholic France increased.

Canada - Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot are pretty unheard of throughout Canada.  However Guy Fawkes has been used as a mascot by Canadian military and police explosives technicians for the past two decades. 

Australia - Guy Fawkes night was regularly celebrated throughout Australia until the late 1970's when they introduced a fireworks ban.

New Zealand - Still celebrates with fireworks and bonfires but as there are calls for a fireworks ban here too it looks like Guy Fawkes nights days are numbered.

South Africa - Celebrations for Guy Fawkes night are still running strong in South Africa with many colourful fireworks displays across the country.

Please let me know if any of the above is incorrect or if you know of any other countries that celebrate.

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