Today is November 5, the day the British commemorate an attempt by a group of Catholic dissidents to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. They do this by standing around a bonfire and burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes, the man whose job it was to light the fuse on the barrels of gunpowder squirreled away in the basement and the man whose capture lifted the lid on the entire plot, but not before he was tortured so severely he could not longer write his own name.
They also set off fireworks, in a ceremony that possibly has its roots even further back than the Gunpowder Plot, concerning the end of harvest and the beginning of the privations of winter, possibly moved on a day or two from All Hallow’s Eve, and incorporating the traditions of Samhain. There again, it might just be because fireworks look particularly good on a winter’s night and when they’re done you can still be in bed at a decent hour.
So, why has this tradition lasted as long as it has? Why should Brits remember remember the 5th of November? It surely can’t still be relief that King James survived the attempt, especially as it was taken off the statute books as a mandatory celebration in 1859 (a very long time after the King had died anyway).
Here are five clues as to why Guy Fawkes lingers long in the British consciousness:
Thing 1: He’s not the bogeyman
There is a question to be answered as to whether the British burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes because he is widely hated, or because he represents an insubordinate side of British culture, one that enjoys sticking two fingers (never one, that would be vulgar) up at the establishment. After all, they don’t call him “one of the last honest men to enter Parliament” for nothing.
Certainly the residents of Lewes, East Sussex, are channeling the latter spirit when they put their various effigies to the torch. Rather than sticking to the traditional Guy, they’ll burn anyone who is a figure of public controversy, including Osama Bin Laden and various Prime Ministers.
And that’s the most recent version of the event. For the 200 years following the Gunpowder Plot, the Lewes bonfires were more like riots to commemorate Protestant martyrs than celebrations of a foiled atrocity, but they later became codified into civic events as the town grew. The current processions are lit with flaming crosses (one for each of the Marian martyrs) and there’s often an effigy of Pope Paul V. The fact that there are many Catholic families living happily in the Lewes area, and worshipping in St Pancras’ church is of no concern, because this is more of a ripe raspberry in the face of authority than a interfaith punch-up with fireworks.
Thing 2: He wasn’t always a Catholic
Oddly, there were times during Guy Fawkes’ life when he may even have been broadly sympathetic to such displays of rampant anti-Catholic feeling. He was actually born a Protestant, and was raised in the faith until he was eight, when his father died and his mother, the child of Catholics who never abandoned their faith married a Catholic named Dionis Baynbrigge. He converted to Catholicism during his rebellious teenage years.
And actually, part of the reason there was a Gunpowder Plot at all was because England was being ruled not just by a Protestant king, but by a Scottish one. King James’s rule unified England and Scotland, but he wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms.
Thing 3: Guy Fawkes Night isn’t celebrated everywhere
Guy Fawkes was born in Stonegate, York in 1570, and attended St. Peter’s school, which still exists. This is the only place in the U.K. that refuses to take part in the ceremonies of bonfire night, out of respect for their former pupil. And if that sounds strange, given the nature of the conspiracy he was part of, consider this: as part of a BBC poll in 2002, Guy Fawkes ranked 30th in a list of the nation’s favorite Britons.
This is in marked contrast to the 1600s, when effigies of Guy Fawkes were filled with live cats in order to make it look like he was screaming as he burned.
Thing 3: There’s a Guy Fawkes Island
You have to admire the residents of the Galapagos Islans for having the gall to name one of their uninhabited outcrops Isla Guy Fawkes, or Guy Fawkes Island. That takes some nerve, especially as the British Navy used to be the most feared seafaring force in the world. It is possibly something to do with Spain, as Guy had fought as a mercenary in the Spanish Army against the Dutch, as part of the Eighty Years war. Such was his ardour for European Catholicism he took an Italianate version of his own name: Guido.
Thing 5: He cheated his own punishment (sort of)
Guy Fawkes was scheduled to be hanged, drawn and quartered. As a traitor, he would be publicly hanged until near death, his testicles would be cut off and his stomach opened, before his head would be cut off and his body hacked into four bits. But rather than face such a horrific ordeal, he leapt from the gallows, ensuring a speedy death as his neck broke. They did still cut his body into quarters though, and send the bits to the farthest reaches of the kingdom.
Curiously, despite the horrors listed above being performed in public spaces before an audience, women were not permitted to be hanged, drawn and quartered for their treasons on grounds of public decency. They had to make do with being burned at the stake, and did NOT have the chance to break their own necks.
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