Sunday, 5 November 2017

What is Bonfire Night?

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot..."

Tonight, up and down the country, Brits will be setting off fireworks. Some of them will also be burning effigies, traditionally of Guy Fawkes, on bonfires. That's because tonight is Bonfire Night.

(Note: Bonfire Night is also known as Guy Fawkes Night, and Firework Night.)


Bonfire Night has its roots in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes was one of the men who planned to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I in the process. He was caught guarding the gunpowder after an anonymous tip-off led to a search of the building. After days of torture, he confessed to the plot. He and several of his co-conspirators were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. 

Why did Guy Fawkes want to assassinate the king? Well, James I was a Protestant and Guy Fawkes was a Catholic.

But why was that grounds for murder?

We can blame Henry VIII for that. You see, when the Pope wouldn't let him divorce Catherine of Aragon, he stomped his foot and started his own religion: The Church of England (Protestantism). He also gave himself the title 'The Defender of the Faith'. This event is known as the Reformation. Following it, Henry was able to grant himself a divorce and marry Anne Boleyn. Having unsettled the entire country simply to gain her hand, he chopped her head off one hundred days later (give or take). 

The marriage might not have lasted, but the ramifications of the reformation were felt for years afterwards. Not only did Henry dissolve the monasteries (1536 - Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act) and pass the Treason Act (1534), making it punishable by death to deny that the King was head of the church or, if we're being technical, even to criticise anything he'd done, he also started killing Catholics. 

The line of succession following Henry's death was, to put it bluntly, a mess. He had declared his first daughter illegitimate after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and done the same with his second after he beheaded Anne Boleyn. Later, he had both daughters restored to the line of succession, though he never acknowledged either of them as legitimate. Of course, his son Edward (born to his third wife, Jane Seymour) inherited the throne first. He was a protestant but he died young. Next in line was Mary, a Catholic, so, on his deathbed, some conniving advisors convinced him to put his Protestant cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne. 

Jane, very sensibly, told them she thought this was a terrible idea. 

Jane was proved right when Mary had her executed for high treason. 

(Unfortunately, I don't think she got to say, "I told you so.")

In 1553, Mary I ascended and promptly started burning protestants. Upon her death, Elizabeth I became queen. She was a Protestant. It's important to bear in mind here that it's perfectly feasible for someone to have lived through the reformation, Edward, Mary, and part of Elizabeth's reign. I mean, can you imagine having to keep track of which religion you were meant to be each week?

Anyway, Elizabeth's death in 1603 brings us to the ascension of James I, another Protestant. Guy Fawkes and the rest of the plotters thought that they could somehow manouver a Catholic onto the throne if James died. 

On the 5th November 1605, people celebrated the king's continued survival by lighting bonfires all over London. This tradition survives to this day.

Forty four years later, the British would be celebrating the execution of the following monarch, Charles I. Funny how quickly things change.


Tell me about a holiday that's somewhat unique to your country.