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We know you Brits know EVERYTHING there is to know about Bonfire night, (or do you?) but what about the rest of you? We weren’t even sure we knew ourselves. So we thought we’d check it out.
It all started on the 5th November 1605. Guy Fawkes and ---- others were ready and waiting for the biggest explosion ever. The plan was to blow up the house of Lords, and with it King James I.
Why? In the 17th Century politics was seething with religious sectarianism. Every since Henry IIX had parted with the Catholic Church, Catholicism had been under fire. Catholic rebels were plotting though. The were determined to replace the protestant King with a Catholic head of state. And so there sat Guy Fawkes, guarding the gunpowder and waiting for the signal to ignite. But the government had got wind, and Fawkes was caught and arrested. Of the whole gang he was the only one who didn’t escape.
King James has survived the attempt on his life. And celebrate, fires were lit and celebrations held all over London. Soon after, the Observance of 5th November Act was passed, enforcing by law, an annual public day of thanksgiving.
In the following years, the celebrations spread throughout England. In 1607 Carlisle, Norwich and Nottingham all had big celebrations with music and military salutes. In that same year, Canterbury exploded 106 pounds of gunpowder as part of the celebrations.
The the 5th November became the most important State Celebration day in England. But it was also infused with anti-Catholic sentiment. Preachers used the occasion to rail against Papism and the dangers of Catholicism. Effigies, not just of Guy Fawkes but of the Pope were burnt on the bonfires.
The anti-Catholic element of Bonfire night waxed and waned throughout the 18th Century. During the 19th Century, the government became concerned that the violence against Catholicism was getting out of hand. In 1859 the government decided to repeat the Observance Act to try and diffuse the violence. Gradually, the 5th November became less and less sectarian (in England at least). And by the turn of the 20th Century, the day had become a social event with little political meaning.
Some historians have suggested that the 5th November was a Protestant commandeering of ancient Pagan celebrations and rituals connected with Autumn. A lot of the traditions. they say, are borrowed from the older tradition of Samhain and Halloween. But others have pointed out the day is specifically about the Gunpowder plot and the attempt to blow up the King and the House of Lords.
We may have largely lost sight of the origins of Bonfire Night, but it’s still an important tradition. Health and Safety rules have changed the way we celebrate. But we still turn out each year, to oo and ahh at the fireworks, eat bonfire toffee and stand around fires. What will you be doing tonight?