Cozily wrapped in my hat, coat and fuzzy mittens the night’s chill could only nip at my nose. Of course, even my cold nose was being warmed from constantly rubbing against my camera screen. Looking down the line of revelers pushed up against the metal fence I was leaning against I observed the fire in their eyes. The source of the flickering reflections hungrily cackled as it whipped about. The beast was caged within a ring, enclosed within a vast fence.
The massive bonfire was as distant as watching the event from TV. In fact, I think the TV would have brought me closer.
“In Spain we would be dancing around that fire,” my boyfriend pouted nudging at the fence.
“In Italy too,” a housemate who’d tagged along added as he looked over the crowds.
As they spoke a young woman’s silhouette jogged across the inner ring. The onlookers chuckled as an overseer in official vest began to speed walk after the intruder. We watched as the young woman circled around the distant caged bonfire and dashed back to the outer fence. She completed her lap with no trouble. No one else followed her example though. It seems the sluggish dedication of they safety team was enough to deter them.
It actually made me kind of disappointed to see everyone so content with this arrangement. I wanted everyone to rip down the outer fence and march forward so they could truly witness the bonfire’s girth.
This was a night of treason and plot after all, though we may not remember the full story.
Royalty, Religion and Too Much Power
The day being commemorated is November fifth of 1605.
To set the stage, picture a time when religion was a massive aspect of identity. You ate, slept, learned and socialized through religion. In England before about 1533, the religion to follow was Roman Catholicism.
The Pope in Rome was the Church’s earthly leader, the nobility venerated the religion and the masses followed suit.
Then change arrived through a king unhappy to discover he was expected to follow the rules too (not that he followed them anyway).
King Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon—since damn it she wasn’t giving him a son—but the Pope refused to grant it to him. So Henry broke up with the Church of Rome and Parliament declared him the Supreme Head of the church in England (now he’s the earthly leader of the church).
During his reign people began to move from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, a form of Christianity pioneered in 1517 by German scholar and priest, Martin Luther (he’s famous for criticizing the church for selling forgiveness from sins).
Why Can’t They Make Up Their Minds Already?
In 1547, Henry’s heir a nine-year-old King Edward VI found his regency council setting up Protestant reforms. The church in England started dropping Catholic traditions and beliefs—such as services in Latin.
People began to resist. The Catholics liked their churches and services the way they were.
The indecision continues in 1553 when Mary I, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon (the two who started this flip flop), takes power and restores Catholicism. Everyone must be Catholic and the Pope is back in charge. In fact, if you don’t conform it’s treason and you can be burned at the stake.
But wait! In 1558 it’s better to be Protestant! Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry (lord this guy had way to many children) and his second wife (too many of those too) Anne Boleyn, decides that she doesn’t like this arrangement. She shoves the Pope aside, puts herself in charge of the church and reintroduces the English Prayer Book.
How dare she! Catholic nobles rise up to replace her with her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots and Pope Pius V excommunicates her in 1570.
The Pope’s declaration was a Catholic public relations disaster and actually caused more trouble for Catholics in England because they were suddenly viewed as potential traitors.
More rules against Catholicism were implemented. More attempts to dethrone Elizabeth arose as people continued to chafe. Elizabeth’s rival Mary Queen of Scots is implicated and executed.
However, Mary’s son King James VI of Scotland (James I of England) takes over after Elizabeth in 1603 (HaHA last laugh??).
Catholics see the light at the end of the tunnel… and discover James is actually rooting for Protestantism. More suppressive laws against Catholicism were passed.
We’ve Had Enough
And so we near the Gunpowder Plot date.
In 1604 a group of men met at an inn. They were: Robert Catesby the mastermind behind the plot, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy or Guido Fawkes.
All devoted Catholics they decided they needed to bring down James. And they’d do it with a bang on the new Parliament’s opening day.
With the plan set to blow those in power sky high, they rented a cellar under the House of Lords and Guy Fawkes, posing as a servant called John Johnson, began to pack it with gunpowder.
The date of choice, November 5 of 1605, drew near. As it did, one of the plotter’s brother-in-law, a man named Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter telling him to stay away from the Parliament’s opening day.
The letter would be the plot’s undoing. Historians are still arguing over who may have sent the letter to Lord Monteagle (with some even saying he ordered it written himself).
A Dud Plot
Being the loyal, or perhaps fearful or even opportunistic, man he was— Monteagle brought the letter to the attention of the authorities. At first they didn’t believe it.
King James did though and ordered a search.
A party looked about and didn’t find anything except a cellar filled with a ridiculous amount of firewood. James ordered a second search.
This time they found the attendant of the cellar dressed in cape, boots and spurs—like he was ready to leave quickly.
“John Johnson” was arrested on the spot as Sir Thomas Knyvett, the man in charge of the search, poked around the firewood.
He soon discovered the barrels of gunpowder—all 36 of them. A search of Fawkes revealed wicks and tubes.
Despite the evidence they tortured Fawkes for two days in the Tower of London before he confessed. The other plotters attempted to escape but several died in a shoot-out with the king’s men and the rest were executed in the later months.
Fawkes was to be hanged, drawn and quartered but according to the texts he broke his neck instead.
An Ironic Twist
The people were said to have celebrated this failed terrorist act with bonfires throughout London. Afterwards an annual public day of thanksgiving was enforced through the Observance of November 5th Act until 1859.
Later generations would burn effigies of Fawkes.
As the years passed the merriment of the occasion began to be regulated and excessive activities were clamped down on. In the 1870s galas and community bonfire events began to prevail.
Fireworks were actually a late addition to the day. In 1910, firework manufacturers began to brand the occasion as Firework Night so they could profit from it (and make my life harder through the labeling).
The Guy straw effigy burned in earlier years began to be carried around by children seeking money for fireworks. They’d ask for pennies for the Guy.
After V for Vendetta, a comic from the 1980s, was turned into a movie the modern symbol for Guy Fawkes (that white mask with the sharp black beard) was taken up by protestors and the hacker group Anonymous.
Ironically the tale of almost 400 years ago has gained various ironic twists: the conspirator, Guy Fawkes, was remembered over the intended victim, King James I of England; kids started to ask for money to buy explosives for Guy instead of burning him; and Fawkes went from villain to anti-establishment hero.
It makes you wonder just how many of our historical heroes were considered villains during their time and how many holidays started out with such an oppressive, dark history.