On my way to the bus stop today I passed an effigy of Guy Fawkes sitting next to a charity collection box with the sign ‘A penny for a Guy’ tied around his neck. The Guy is made from old clothes stuffed with newspapers and a mask. He’s burned on top of of a bonfire on Bonfire Night. This is a pretty low key English celebration with gatherings of families and friends. Bonfires, fireworks, sausages and baked potatoes are the order of the night.
Since 1605, 5th November has been a night to light bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination. So what’s it all about?
Here’s the history of Guy Fawkes Night, Plot Night and Bonfire Night, as it is variously called, in a nutshell:
After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact, decided that violent action was the answer.
A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics.
To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder – and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords. But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. The warning letter reached the King.
Guy Fawkes, was found leaving the cellar of Parliament when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th. He was caught, tortured and executed, along with the 12 other conspirators.
In Britain in the early 1980s, artist David Lloyd and writer Alan Moore created the graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” about a masked rebel named V who fights a fascist future British government. Lloyd suggested having the rebel wear a Guy Fawkes costume. This inverted Fawkes’ image — from traitor to hero fighting an unjust state. It also separated it from religion. The reputation of Guy Fawkes has been recuperated. Before he was originally seen as a terrorist trying to destroy England. Now he’s seen more as a freedom fighter, a fighter for individual liberty against an oppressive regime. The political meaning of that figure has transformed.
A stylized Guy Fawkes mask became a touchstone for protesters in the Occupy movements of 2011.
Steve and I are staying indoors and cosy tonight with Gorgonzola, crackers and a bottle of red wine.
We watched the fireworks from our living room window. They’re devilishly difficult to photograph, but I managed to get a couple of good shots.