Friday, October 30, 2009

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.

1 comment:

Andy Light said...

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