Guy Fawkes

Remember, remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
There is no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

On the evening of Friday 5th November this year I am hoping to be taking part in one of the Bonfire processions in Lewes, East Sussex. I have been honoured to be a part of this ritual a couple of times in the past and have always felt very moved by the experience though by the end of the evening, after walking for hours along the streets carrying a flaming torch, and soaking up the amazing atmosphere I am absolutely exhausted. For this is no ordinary Bonfire, or Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Every November 5th, the sleepy town of Lewes is transformed as street furniture is unscrewed and safely stored, windows boarded up and thousands of torches are made and put in soak for an amazing night. By early evening, the town is inundated with people who arrive on special trains or coaches from all over East Sussex to witness or take part in elaborate parades with marching bands and participants, many in fancy-dress, carrying flaming torches, and some rolling blazing tar barrels.

The processions, stop on their routes for vigils to remember the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes High Street from 1555 to 1557, under the reign of Mary Tudor and also pay their respects for the dead of the two World Wars, with each participating Bonfire Society in turn laying a wreath at the War Memorial. Each procession ends at one of the number of sites around the town where fireworks are set off alongside mammoth bonfires on which effigies of Guy Fawkes, Pope Paul IV and unpopular contemporary figures are ceremoniously burnt.

There are many Bonfire Night events around the country which take place on or around 5th November but the celebrations at Lewes seem to combine all the elements of the tradition which started in London when people lit bonfires to celebrate the news that King James I, the Lords and the Commons had survived a plot to blow them up in Westminster Palace. It is said that the first bonfires were lit the day after the plot was discovered and the following Sunday 10th November was also appointed a day of thanksgiving. The first Gun Powder Treason Day had arrived.

In January 1606, before the plotters had even been tried and executed, an Act of Parliament was passed to appoint 5th November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for 'the joyful day of deliverance'. Everyone was required to attend church and ponder on the content of a new prayer written for the day which included the words

'We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise, for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our …gracious sovereign King James the first… with the Nobility, Clergy and Commons of this Realm then assembled in Parliament, by Popish Treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter in a most barbarous and savage manner…'

This anti-catholic prayer was enhanced in each parish church by the reading of the Act of Parliament, which justified the continuation of laws against Catholic worship. Debate has raged over the centuries as to what the real intentions of Guy Fawkes, and his supposed conspirators had been and what therefore we are celebrating deliverance from. We know the plotters were all Catholics and consequently could not accept the Act of Supremacy, which declared the monarch the head of the English Church, and for centuries historians believed the official line that the plot had been an attempt to re-establish the Catholic religion in this country.

In more recent times however, it has been suspected that the plot was the work of a group of agents-provocateurs, anxious to discredit the Catholics and reinforce the ascendancy of the Protestant religion. Much of the debate surrounds the anonymous letter sent to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, warning him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament, which led to the plot being exposed. Some historians believe it had been fabricated by the king's officials and was simply a tool for justifying searches and arrests by those who already knew about the plot.

Some sources seem to indicate that the gunpowder was damp and would not have worked anyway but history informs us that Guy Fawkes was a very experienced sapper, an explosives expert, and modern research has shown that the 2,500kg of gunpowder that was alleged to have been found with him would have caused an explosion such that the streets up to one third of a mile from the centre of the palace of Westminster would have suffered severe structural damage.

What we do know from the official records is that by the 12th November, all the alleged co-conspirators, were killed or arrested and taken to the Tower of London. Their religious affinities and non-acceptance of the Act of Supremacy meant that it was easy to see them all as guilty of treason. Over the following 10 weeks, they were probably subjected to extensive torture as this formed part of the punishment for treason at the time. Not surprisingly they all admitted their guilt, were tried for high treason in Westminster Hall on 27th January 1606 and all were convicted and sentenced to death.

The executions took place in two batches over two days. The lesser conspirators, suffered at St Paul's Churchyard in the City on the 30th January and the others including Guy Fawkes, at the Old Palace Yard, Westminster on the 31st. The executions were barbaric - the punishment for treason of hanging, drawing and quartering, in those bloody times included castration and disembowelling alive. The heads and other parts of the conspirators' bodies were afterwards displayed prominently at various points in Westminster and London.

Around the country, the news spread of the plot, the executions and the new law of commemoration. Over the next decade every parish started to hold annual church services, and ring their bells to remind the congregation of the Treason Plot. In many areas it was decided that as well as going to church the people would also celebrate with public bonfires in the same way as they had commemorated the death of the Catholic Mary Tudor and the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588 on 17th November each year. On these bonfires, some chose to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes and even the Pope. In Sussex, the commemorations took this route as the people chose to remember alongside the Gun Powder Treason, the local Protestants who had died for their faith during the persecutions under Queen Mary fifty years earlier.

During the Interregnum, Bonfire Night as it had by then become known, was one of the only festivals permitted by the Puritan Cromwellian government, though the prayers were amended. This had the result of increasing the number of parishes having large public celebrations. When William of Orange landed at Tor Bay on 5th November 1688, to restore a Protestant monarchy, this added to the political importance of the date and ensured its continued recognition well into the eighteenth century though instead of burning effigies of the Pope or Guy Fawkes some communities started to burn other unpopular local or national figures, as they still do at Lewes today.

The fear of civil unrest at the time of the French Revolution led to a general discouragement or public gatherings particularly riotous events such as the Guy Fawkes festivities and drove the organisation of them into the hands of secret Bonfire societies such as are still found throughout Sussex, and to the adoption of disguises by the participants. In many areas the large celebrations simply died out.

The forms of prayer prescribed for the 5th November were abolished in 1858 as being 'politically obsolete and grossly unfair to Catholics'. The Statute was repealed in 1859 but the celebrations continued to take place being so part of the folk tradition. By the early twentieth century commercially produced fireworks were available to the general public, leading to the increase in private garden celebrations on the 5th November until very recently regard for safety and the increased prices of the fireworks has led to the growth once more of public celebrations.

In Sussex the Bonfire Societies carefully schedule their bonfire celebrations throughout October and November so that they are free to attend each other's celebrations. Lewes holds by far the largest event. In Devon and Somerset a similar pattern can be found with Guy Fawkes Carnivals being held in the first weeks of November. But in the West Country the Samhain traditions of guarding against evil spirits predominate, and some of the bonfire traditions have a different meaning.

At Ottery St. Mary in Devon on November 5th a carnival procession, a bonfire and the burning of Guy Fawkes in effigy is followed by the carrying of fiercely blazing tar barrels perilously through the packed crowds. This tradition, which was once very popular but suppressed in many areas of the country, and changed to barrel rolling in Lewes, requires the participants to wear old clothes and protective gloves and carry the blazing tar barrels on their shoulders. During the day smaller tar barrels are also carried by women and children in a tradition that local people believe is not related to 1605 but to the need to protect the community from evil spirits during the winter months.

Whatever the communities have included, and whatever their reasons for doing so, nearly 600 years after that fateful night, the Bonfire, Guy Fawkes or Fireworks night celebrations seem to 'never be forgot'….

© Maureen James 2004