Old print showing the plotters for the Gunpowder plot
The Plotters

Soon, after the discovery of the Gunpowder plot, Parliament legislated for a annual commemoration of the Plot. The date was chosen as it was the anniversary of finding Guys Fawkes with a lantern next to piles of barrels of Gunpowder. 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 who also supported Guy Fawkes Day as it was anti-catholic.

Guy Fawkes Lantern at the Ashmolean Museum

Banner in Lewes

The anti-catholic element of the celebration has not been important in Britain (except in certain places). Irish friends are amazed we still celebrate it, but more 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.

Procession in 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

Tar Barrels in Ottery St Mary

The King was given the credit for deciphering 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.

Letter Lord Monteagle passed on to King James 1


    1. I took those grainy pictures years ago, but, according to Wikipedia…..
      Crawley News. Retrieved 15 April 2015. “Cliffe Bonfire Society still marches under the No Popery banner and they also burn the Pope” but not the current one the one in 1605.

      So, yes still doing it but not with any feeling of Anglo-Catholicism.

      17 Protestants were burned at the stake during the reign of Mary 1. Its a huge number for a small town like Lewes.London lost over 50.

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