The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 started like many schemes, in a pub – the long-vanished Duck and Drake in the Strand. Of the 13 Catholic conspirators, only eight were actually executed, the others were tracked down and shot while holed-up at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. They hadn’t made things easy for themselves. The gunpowder they had carried from London was so wet so they attempted to dry it by laying it out in front of the fire. A stray spark ignited it and in the resultant blaze, one conspirator was blinded and the Plot’s ringleader, Robert Catesby, was seriously burned. Catesby was shot dead during the siege but his body was later exhumed and decapitated and his head displayed on a pole outside the House of Lords.
The foiling of the plot led to national celebration, much of it violently anti-Catholic. James I had turned a neat publicity trick by swiftly writing up his account of the affair and publishing it in The King’s Book along with the full confessions of Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour. It appeared less than a month after Fawkes’ arrest.
In January 1606 Parliament passed the Observance of November 51605 Act making the attendence of church and ringing of bells compulsory. The order of service was appended to the Book of Common Prayer where it remained until 1859. Anti-Catholic legislation was enacted preventing Catholics from voting, practicing law, or serving as officers in the Army or Navy. Catholics only won back the right to vote in 1829.
A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.
'The 5 November is not observed by the populace with nearly so much festive diversion as in former times.’ This was Rev T. F. Thistleton Dyer in 1875, but it could have been written at any time in the past 20 years.
The decline of Bonfire Night – families gathering around a bonfire with sparklers, ginger parkin cake and baked potatoes - is often blamed on over-zealous health and safety regulations. In fact, the real culprit is the rise of Hallowe’en, celebrated five days earlier.
Hallowe’en is now the UK’s third most lucrative festival, outstripping Valentine’s Day and gaining rapidly on Easter.
In 2011 the total UK spend was estimated at £315m. This is more than three times the UK’s annual spend on fireworks. But it is too early to write off Bonfire Night altogether.
Lewes in Sussex maintains six Bonfire Societies and attracts huge crowds, as does the insanely dangerous Tar-barrel running in Ottery St Mary in Devon. And in Edenbridge Kent, 30-feet Celebrity Guys are incinerated, Katie Price, John McCririck, and Cherie Blair have all featured in recent years and last year Italian footballer Mario Balotelli, was chosen in recognition of the indoor firework that almost burned down his house.
Until 1859 it was compulsory to celebrate Bonfire Night on 5th November.
Guy Fawkes's lantern can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
In the 17th century, effigies of Guy Fawkes were filled with live cats in order to make them scream when burned.
Desire is a bonfire that burns with greater fury, asking for more fuel. Desire is the sole cause of sorrow and distress.
The most famous conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes, was a Yorkshireman and a mercenary who had fought for Spain against the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. A militant Catholic, he adopted the name ‘Guido’ to make himself sound more continental (and therefore devout).
Caught red-handed in the cellars of the House of Lords, Fawkes claimed his name was ‘John Johnson’ and that his intention had been ‘to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains’. This robust approach earned him the unlikely admiration of the King, but it didn’t stop him being tortured and executed.
Unlike most of his co-conspirators, Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows and break his own neck, thereby avoiding being conscious during the castration, disembowelment and dismemberment that followed.
The gunpowder plotters weren’t messing about. In a 2005 reconstruction, the 36 barrels of gunpowder Guy Fawkes had packed into the cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament were shown to have been powerful enough to destroy Westminster Hall and the Abbey as well as cause severe structural damage to streets up to a third of a mile from the blast.
Paranoia about large caches of gunpowder in London persisted for many years afterwards. Even so, the cellars under the House of Parliament continued to be rented out privately until 1678.
The scare over another Popish Plot in that year led to the arrest of a local man called Choqueux, who was found to have a large store of explosives. He turned out to be the King Charles II’s firework maker.
The ritual of the Searching of the Cellars before the State Opening of Parliament dates back to this incident.
The term ‘bonfire’ derives from ‘bone fire’. These were fires on which bones were burnt in the Middle Ages.
The first recorded fireworks display in England was at the wedding of Henry VII in 1486.
Three sparklers burning together can generate the same heat as a blow-torch.