Soon, after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Parliament legislated for an annual commemoration of the Catholic Plot. The date was chosen as it was the anniversary of finding Guy Fawkes with a lantern next to piles of barrels of Gunpowder on the occassion of the State Opening of Parliament 5th November 1605.
Fireworks and bonfires were clearly appropriate given that it has been estimated that the amount of gunpowder would have killed the king, the Royal Family, the House of Lords and the House of Commons and devastated a huge area around Westminster. But some suggest that the nature of the commemoration draws some elements from Halloween – use of bonfires and dressing up. Halloween was frowned upon by puritans, but they supported Guy Fawkes Day as it was anti-catholic.
The anti-catholic nature of the celebration is a fact, but it really isn’t something we think about. There is little anti-Catholic prejudice in Britain (except in certain places). Irish friends are amazed we still celebrate it, but for the vast majority of people in Britain it is really just Fireworks night, nothing to do with anti-catholic sentiment.
Traces of the anti-catholic nature of it do continue in places like Lewes, which is one of the most traditional Fireworks Nights. This consists of clubs who organise a parade through the town, and then the burning of an effigy of the Pope and, more recently, other unpopular figures on the contemporary scene. Click here for more on Lewes.
Ottery St Mary continues the tradition of using Tar Barrels. These are wooden barrels in which tar and tinder are set on fire. The Barrels are either rolled through the Town, or down a hill, or, as in Ottery, carried on the shoulders of volunteers. This has a pedigree which goes back before 1605 as there are references to tar barrels and displays in Protestant processions to celebrate the accession to the throne of Edward VI and Elizabeth 1
Discovering the Plot
King James 1 took credit for discovering the plot as he is said to have deciphered the warning given in a letter, written to William Parker, 13th Baron Morley, 4th Baron Monteagle at his house in Hoxton, London which warned against turning up at Parliament but was not explicit as to the nature of the threat.
My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme, and thinke not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no apparance of anni stir, yet I saye they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them this cowncel is not to be contemned because it may do yowe good and can do yowe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as yowe have burnt the letter and i hope God will give yowe the grace to mak good use of it to whose holy proteccion i comend yowe.
James realised this sentence: ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them ‘ implied an explosion. His father was blown up in a Gunpowder Plot in Edinburgh, so perhaps he was particularly attuned to the threat. On the other hand, there is a possibility that the King’s Secret Service were aware of the plot and arranged matters, so the King could receive the credit for its discovery.
The Fifth of November
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
First published 5th November 2021