Thursday, October 30, 2008

Bonfire Bangers on Guy Fawkes Night

Halloween is a collection of traditions that have come down from pagan harvest festivals with a layer of Christian icing spread over the top. The secular aspects of the holiday often are overlooked. Perhaps the most important is the Gunpowder Plot.

When Elizabeth I took the throne in 1533, England was wracked with religious upheaval. Her successor and sister, Mary, had attempted to reimpose Catholicism on their subjects. Elizabeth restored the Church of England but religious unrest continued to simmer for seventy years. It boiled over in 1605 when a dozen Catholic revolutionaries attempted to blow up King James I and his entire government.

Gunpowder Treason and Plot
The plan was simple—pack an abandoned coal cellar beneath Westminster with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder the opening day of Parliament, November 5, 1605. It was enough to level nearby Westminster Abbey and most of the buildings in the Old Palace complex. Everyone was scheduled to attend that day, including James I and members of the royal family. His children, however, would not be there. The conspirators planned to kidnap them and set up nine year old Princess Elizabeth as their puppet queen.
The man chosen to lay the charges and light the fuse was an explosives expert from York, Guy Fawkes. Fawkes had spent ten years fighting for the Catholic cause in the Dutch Revolt.
On November 4th he took to the cellar beneath Westminster and patiently awaited the dawn of what he believed would be a glorious Catholic coup.
Alerted to the plot by an anonymous letter, government officials searched Westminster and the buildings around it. They found Fawkes in the cellar guarding what looked like a pile of iron bars, stones and timber. When questioned, he claimed to be the servant of the man in whose name the cellar had been rented.

The officials went on with their search but came up empty-handed. Around midnight, they returned to Fawkes and discovered he had in his possession a tinder-box and a dark signal lantern. When they dug beneath the pile he guarded, they found the barrels of gunpowder.

Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London where a confession was tortured out of him. He eventually named his co-conspirators. They all were tried and executed in January, 1606.
Parliament subsequently decreed that parish churches conduct a thanksgiving service every November 5th. (The tradition lasted until 1859.) Given the association with gunpowder, as well as the closeness to the pagan fire festival of Samhain on November 1st, Guy Fawkes Night was soon marked with bonfires and fireworks.

During the week leading up to Bonfire Night, children constructed effigies of Guy Fawkes out of old straw-stuffed clothing. The effigies were then burned on the bonfire. Before the event, the children went around the community begging “a penny for the guy.” Money collected was spent on fireworks.

And what celebration could be complete without food? Bonfire Parkin—a cake made of oatmeal, molasses and ginger, and Bonfire/Plot Toffee became popular Guy Fawkes Night treats. But no Fireworks Night party was complete without the Englishman’s favorite—bangers (sausages) and potatoes roasted in the bonfire.
Today, every opening session of Parliament is preceded by a symbolic search of the basement by the Yeoman of the Guard. In 1834, fire damaged the actual cellar in which the gunpowder was discovered. The cellar was totally destroyed when Westminster was rebuild in 1840.

Please remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy, guy, guy
Poke him in the eye
Put him on the bonfire
And there let him die.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Conkers and the games children played during the Regency

Autumn is the time of year when Regency children gathered horse chestnuts for an old-fashioned round of conkers. It’s believed the game was introduced into England during the late 16thcentury from Eastern Europe. However, the first official conkers competition wasn't reported until 1848 on the Isle of Wight.

The name is thought to have originated from the French word conque which means conch. In France, the game was played with snail shells. After drilling a hole in the conker, a 10 inch string was threaded through and knotted at the bottom end. The player then held the nut while stretching the string in a sling-shot manner. The object was to let it fly and smack the conker of your opponent. A player continued the attempt until he/she missed. Then it was the other player’s turn. The first to break his opponent's conker won.

Fox and Geese
Another popular children's game during the Regency was Fox and Geese, a checkered or lattice board game with Celtic/Germanic origins. There are many versions of this game but in all of them the object was to surround your opponent until he/she couldn't move.
The “fox” was placed in the middle of the board and the “geese” on one side. Pegs/pieces were able to move into the empty spaces around them. The fox could jump over the geese into an empty space. Like checkers, the fox then took possession of the goose piece. Geese could not jump. The object was to “shut up” the fox so it couldn't move, or for the fox to take so many geese it couldn't be “shut up.”

Ducks and Drakes
A simple game of skipping a flat stone across the surface of water to see how many times the thrower could make it skip. The person with the most skips won.


Marbles have been found in archeological digs dating to the Ice Age, in Egyptian tombs, and have been unearthed from Greek and Roman excavations. The game came to England some time during the 1600's. From 18th Century onward, Germany was the center of the marbles trade. As the name suggests, these little round spheres were made of marble. They were also made of stone, baked clay and glass. Nuts were used by early Greeks.

At Oxford and Cambridge, undergraduates were prohibited from playing marbles on the steps of the Bodleian Library and Senate House. Complaints by members of Parliament led to Westminister school boys being forbidden to play marbles in the Hall.
Shakespeare wrote of a game of marbles called “Cherry Pit” in Twelfth Night. A one foot hole was dug in the center of a ten foot ring. Players placed their marbles on the edge of the hole. Using a “taw” or shooter, they took turns knocking their opponents’ marbles into the hole.

Known in America as Jack Straws or pick-up-sticks, the object of this game is to remove a stick from a pile without disturbing the remaining ones. There is evidence the game was played during the 5th century B.C in India. Herodotus wrote of it in 450 B. C. Variations are believed to have spread from Asia to the Native Americans in British Columbia where wheat straws were used. A French version called Jonchets, which consisted of carved bone, irvory or wood sticks, was popular there during the 17th Century.

A cup and ball game found in most cultures. It was especially popular among the royal courts during the 18th Century. The object is to toss the ball into the air and catch it with a cup on the end of a stick to which the ball is attached by a string.