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We have forgotten Bonfire Night

Who's that Guy? Credit: Getty

November 4, 2023 - 8:00am

​​As Eric Hobsbawm so correctly and acutely observed, much of the tradition we take for granted in Britain, most of the pomp and ceremony and circumstance of our cultural existence, is invented. Far from a harmless accumulation of pageantry, even the props and stilts of our “ancient” monarchy are late-Victorian in provenance, from the codification of the State Opening of Parliament to the national anthem. These standards of public life are ultimately contrivances which have found special resonance, containing all the innate decorum of back-of-the-cupboard baked beans hastily prepared for your finest dinner party.

But, on Guy Fawkes Night this weekend, we have the chance to observe a more poignant process: a tradition that is gradually being dismantled and disinvented. This is a festival that was practically imposed on England, conceived and mandated by royal decree. A year after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot — when, as every schoolboy once knew, an attempt to destroy King and Parliament by Catholic dissidents was foiled by royal agents — the Observance of 5th November Act was passed, drafting an annual public holiday in memory.

However, it soon became a popular favourite, practically an early-modern Burning Man. The Gunpowder Plot was the most vivid example of public fears about a “Catholic conspiracy”, the notion that England was under internal threat from a fifth column of Papists disloyal to the Crown. This transformed the King’s survival into something more like a holy deliverance. Over the course of the 17th century, English Protestantism became gradually more militant and puritanical, and the remnants of Catholicism and even High Anglicanism were persecuted. And Bonfire Night became the red-letter day for this fervour: effigies of Guy Fawkes, the pope and the devil burned by drunken villagers, raving at England’s liberation and cursing the Roman faith.

This wasn’t just any typical English revelry, though. As Linda Colley argues in Britons, one of the pillars of our national identity was furious, fanatical anti-Catholicism, our island nothing short of a beleaguered redoubt for Protestantism on the edge of absolutist Europe. After the defenestration of the Catholic James II in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, this national religion became bound with political constitution. Guy Fawkes Night was the brightest popular celebration of this new settlement.

Over the Victorian period the holiday endured, even if its anti-Catholicism was gradually replaced by a sense of constitutional defiance against the villainous Guy, who burned solo from this point onwards. And even if over the 20th century it was increasingly domesticated — “penny for the Guy”, home-launched fireworks — it was still a popular occasion. 

Yet it was already becoming subject to nominal dilution — Guy Fawkes Night becoming Bonfire Night becoming Firework Night — to the point where it is doubtful if most of those watching know what is being burned or why. Late October and early November is taken more as a firework fortnight now. And children don’t pram garish effigies about town for small change anymore. They’ve long been lured away by an alternative and coterminous festival of fructose and face paint.

We are forgetting Guy Fawkes Night, and only really take notice of it when it races to update itself. Take the Edenbridge Bonfire: having put the final seal on the careers of Katie Price, Sepp Blatter, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, this year the Kentish townlet will be burning Sadiq Khan in protest at his Ulez scheme. The effigy in question is a masterpiece, a CCTV-headed automaton, stickered with traffic signs. But this Edenbridge tradition itself is only 20 years old, even if it is always gratifying to see the money-grabber or country-wrecker of the year go up in flames. Like the statues of anonymous generals in London’s tree-muffled squares, it’s another reminder of our addiction to the panting present, and our gradual amnesia to the events that once made up a collective, national past.


is a Junior Commissioning Editor at UnHerd.

nickpaulharris

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Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
5 months ago

[The Gunpowder Plot] was the most vivid example of public fears about a “[Catholic] conspiracy”, the notion that England was under internal threat from a fifth column of [Papists] disloyal to the Crown.

Quiz question: bearing in mind scenes in the news in the last few weeks, any thoughts on a pertinent substitution of the terms in square brackets?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

You have effrontery to quote from the loathsome Eric Hobsbawm Mr Harris?

Hobsbawm along with others such as Ralph Miliband, Harold Laski etc, was an unrepentant communist foreigner, who hated this country and everything it stands for. His observations about Great Britain are as worthless as he and his clique were.

Was it not Hobsbawm who thought that the deaths 50 million would be an acceptable price for his ‘socialist revolution’. He should have been hanged.

Tony Buck
TB
Tony Buck
5 months ago

By the Thought Police, presumably.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

NKVD.

Mrs R
MR
Mrs R
5 months ago

Indeed.
As Gramsci put it in 1915: “Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity. … In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.”
And here we are.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
5 months ago

I remember in defence of of Ralph Miliband one of his sprogs said he fought for this country. In fact he loath this country and only joined the RN to fight Hitler. This is an early quote from his wartime diary
“The Englishman is a rabid nationalist. They are perhaps the most nationalist people in the world … When you hear the English talk of this war you sometimes almost want them to lose it to show them how things are.” 

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

QED!

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago

It has always struck me that no tradition has been so baselessly invented, credulously adopted and tenaciously sustained as Hobsbawm’s ‘Invention of Tradition’. It entirely misrepresents what was said and thought of tradition in the past as well as being a straw-man of the most cynical kind.
It represents an intellectual coup-de-main of sorts. An attempt by a secular-priesthood to insinuate themselves as arbiters of legitimacy between a nation and it’s own memory.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sneering attitude to ‘Tartanry’ and ‘The Highland Myth’ peddled by critical theorists today. It was Sir Walter Scott himself who first disbelieved in the frauds of the Sobieski Stuarts and the Poems of Ossian. But the Highland way of life itself was very real It’s cultural. political, linguistic and customary strangeness is an undisupted historical fact.
We would do well to apply a mite of his rigour to some of the pious frauds we see played on our own understanding today. Mary Seacole, for instance.

Last edited 5 months ago by William Amos
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

Not in LEWES!

Oliver Nicholson
Oliver Nicholson
5 months ago

Though the bonfire (and special order of divine service for November 5th – in Prayer Books till the 1840s) were clearly about the Gunpowder Plot, the fireworks (more redolent of the late 17th and 18th century than of 1605) were surely instituted to commemorate the landing at Brixham on November 5th 1688 of William of Orange – a date chosen by William for its symbolism.He intended to put a stop to James II’s religious partisanship, which had already seen the King meddle in academic appointments at Oxford and imprison Seven Bishops in the Tower of London. Secret RC plots are not needed as a hypothesis when it is apparent that the Crown itself was promoting religious policies which by 1688 conflicted with the convictions of the Established Church and the vast majority of the population.

Last edited 5 months ago by Oliver Nicholson
Niall Cusack
NC
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

In Lewes they are commemorating the Protestant martyrs burnt by Bloody Mary. A friend who lives there tells me there is even an Orange Lodge, but the Orangemen don’t march on the Twelfth to celebrate King Billy and the Glorious Revolution. Plastic Prods, Charles! Plastic Prods!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

Yes there are plenty of Plastic Prods around, starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

I went to Lewes many years ago and was surprised by how Pagan the whole thing was! All rather surprising for Sussex, a touch of ‘Wicker Man’ and ‘Straw Dogs’ if you get my drift?

Niall Cusack
NC
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

Yes indeed. Mind you, I thought it a tad too much when a few years ago a Tory Councillor constructed a gypsy caravan complete with silhouettes of women and children as a float – part of the parade – and then set fire to it!
Shades of Gaza!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

Now that you mention that as I recall the IRA & Co never succumbed to beheading babies and the like. That Tory councillor should have been sectioned.

However I do applaud Lewes as a sort of ‘safety valve’, displaying all the depravity that the civilised world is capable of.. It must never be censored.

R M
2
R M
5 months ago

“The Gunpowder Plot was the most vivid example of public fears about a “Catholic conspiracy”, the notion that England was under internal threat from a fifth column of Papists disloyal to the Crown.”

I don’t know why Catholic conspiracy is in quotes. The plots of the Elizabethan and Stuart period are well documented.

Last edited 5 months ago by R M
odd taff
OT
odd taff
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

Yes for a couple of centuries Catholics attempted to overthrow the English government. They enlisted religious fanatics who entered the country illegally. For perfectly sound reasons Catholics were distrusted and prohibited from government jobs including the armed forces. There are obvious current parallels.

Greg Moreison
Greg Moreison
5 months ago
Reply to  odd taff

Perhaps a fair point, but unfairly made: Catholics did not attempt to overthrow the English government, but to regain control of it after it was taken from them. They did not enlist religious fanatics abroad, they sent their own sons to receive the education that a violent religious revolution had made illegal here: and their sons, quite naturally, loyally returned.
The very clear difference between recusant catholicism in England and the foreign religion you allude to, is that Catholicism is definitely the historically native form of Christianity in our country and history, whether you like it or loathe it (personally I don’t mind which you choose). There are no obvious current parallels with Islam, which is historically utterly foreign to these shores, makes precious few indigenous converts, and therefore its adherents are nearly entirely foreign born individuals, or the immediate descendents of foreign born individuals.
Several friends of mine belong to recusant Catholic families, who can trace their fathers’ fidelity to the Old Faith in this country as far back as, in one case, the 12th century. The difference between them (or any of their ancestors) and any Muslim currently living in the UK is quite stark to anyone who considers the question.
And to admit that is not to pass judgement on, or to in any way insult, any of our fellow citizens who follow Mohammed and his teachings.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
5 months ago
Reply to  odd taff

The plots began c.1570. I can’t think of any genuine ones after that of 1605.

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

It could be argued that is simply because, by 1660, the Catholic powers of Europe had insinuated a Crypto-Papist onto the throne itself. There was no need to subvert the Crown and constitution when the King was very much of their party in the first place
The Secret Treaty of Dover (1670) to convert England by force with the use of French arms was not a plot, indeed. It didn’t need to be as it bore the seals of the five Catholic Lords of the original CABAL at the King’s express command.
All of this has been a matter of historical record since the treaty was exposed in the late 18th Century.
https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Dover

Last edited 5 months ago by William Amos
Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

The Gunpowder Plot resulted in 8 executions, the Popish Plot of 1678-81 resulted in 22.
Thank you Mr Titus Oates.

David Ryan
DR
David Ryan
5 months ago

The “Popish Plot” was a fabrication though

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  David Ryan

The Roman Catholic ‘martyr’ Edward Coleman was, without question, in contact with the court of Louis XIV to try and bring about a Catholic invasion.
Charles II was a Pensioner of the French Court. There can be no doubt that the Jesuits were involved in the subversion of the Protestant Religion in England, with or without the aid of a French invasion.
The hysteria and paranoia was built on a concrete political reality.

Last edited 5 months ago by William Amos
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  William Amos

Deplorable really how that Sc*tch traitor, Charles II sold us out at the ‘secret Treaty of Dover’ .
He should have been ‘hanged drawn and quartered, as he so richly deserved.

“Merry Monarch” indeed!

Last edited 5 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Tony Buck
TB
Tony Buck
5 months ago
Reply to  R M

But weren’t supported by most English Catholics.

R M
R M
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Sure. But that’s often the way in history. Most people just get on with their lives.

Doesn’t mean the plots weren’t happening.

David Lindsay
DL
David Lindsay
5 months ago

Most people think that we are celebrating Guy Fawkes as a folk hero for having tried to blow up Parliament. Even those who know the history enter into that spirit by calling him “the last man to enter that place with an honourable intention” and so on. Most Catholics had no idea about the Gunpowder Plot, and they would have disapproved of it in the strongest possible terms. But they, of course, paid the price for it.

Just as they did for the Spanish Armada, even though the Navy that defeated it was commanded by a Catholic, Lord Howard of Effingham, as loyal to his Queen Elizabeth as I was to mine. Philip of Spain had expected to be supported by a Catholic uprising in England. But there never was one. As anyone who had known anything about the English Catholics could have told him that there was never going to be.

Last edited 5 months ago by David Lindsay
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

What about the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’?

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
5 months ago

An attempt to defend England’s national religion, Roman Catholicism.

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

Its monasteries more like.

William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Indeed, the plot itself was identified and exposed at the crucial moment by the loyal Catholic Lord Monteagle.
Guy Fawkes Night is rightly about the overthrow of treason and rebellion, sedition and privy conspiracy. The junction between loyalty, religion and national unity is a very permeable and vexed one in this country. You see it in Northern Ireland today where Loyalism has so often marched under a banner indistinguishable from rebellion.
But much like the misadvised liberal supporters of Hamas today, anyone who imagines that Guy Fawkes and the Jesuits were striking a righteous blow need only read about the Spanish Fury in the Netherlands to see what was in store for England had his party succeeded.

Stephen Snow
Stephen Snow
5 months ago

Just been setting up for the usual giant fireworks display, bonfire, bar and burgers. Guy is not forgotten here in Edale.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago

I’d suggest the writer has missed by far the most significant aspect of building a bonfire around this time of year, as the clocks go back and late autumnal darkness descends early.
Watching the flames at my local bonfire, i’m aware of a communal feeling of something akin to “the cold and dark are setting in for a few months, but we can beat them and come through again, to the Spring”.
The ancient festival of Samhain falls around this date; it’s Guy Fawkes who was imposed on top of this tradition, just as Xmas was imposed upon the time of year when the mid-winter solstice occurs.
Humans will continue to celebrate these events for as long as they can witness the Earth going round the Sun. The labelling is irrelevant.
Edit – referencing ancient bonfires around Samhain:
Samhain – Wikipedia

Last edited 5 months ago by Steve Murray
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I thought Samhain was substituted for Halloween rather than bonfire night, as bonfire night has its origins in an exact event

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Ancient bonfires taking place around the cross-quarter day (i.e. between solstices) gave those celebrating the demise of Guido Fawkes the perfect opportunity to change the nature of the tradition. Since Fawkes wasn’t burnt but tortured then hung, drawn and quartered, there would be no apparent reason to burn his effigy other than the pre-existing tradition, which we Brits love to play around with.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

He managed to avoid the last bit by leaping off the gallows and breaking his neck.

His most famous remark, when asked what he intended to do with all that gunpowder was:-

“.. to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”.

Good man!

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago

THIS INNOCUOUS COMMENT WAS THROWN INTO THE ‘SIN BIN’ FOR 12 HOURS PLUS!

No doubt due to the machinations of ‘Jock Nostra’.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Guy Fawkes leapt to his death from the scaffold, thus saving himself from a terrible execution.

Niall Cusack
NC
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

To clarify: he had to climb a ladder to the top of the gibbet. The hangman would have pushed him off the ladder and allowed him to strangle and writhe for a while. Once he was “half-hanged”, the executioner would have cut him down, castrated and disembowelled him and burned his genitals and entrails in front of him while he was still conscious.
Fawkes frustrated the hangman by jumping off the ladder and breaking his neck. He was dead before the real fun began.
As Charles Stanhope might say: “Ah! They really knew how to treat Papists in those days!”

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

As you well know Father Quinlan all traitors, Catholic or Protestant were treated like that!

Incidentally I have always admired Fawkes, as off course did his intended target James I.
His defiant remark when asked what he was going to do with SO much gunpowder:- “Blow you Sc*tch beggars back to your native mountains “ is priceless!*

(* The word SC*TCH is verboten on UnHerd and results in immediate censorship sadly.)

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

Yes. At the Restoration the surviving regicides were hanged, drawn and quartered .
The bodies of Cromwell and his son in law Ireton were dug up,mutilated and exposed .I have to say that after what he did in Limerick Ireton deserved post mortem humiliation.
,

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

When offered the chance to exhume and desecrate the body of Martin Luther, the Emperor Charles V declined saying “No, I fight the living NOT the dead”.

That is how it ought to be don’t you think?

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

Yes, I do think so.

jane baker
jane baker
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

He was brave.

jane baker
jane baker
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

They’ve sort of got melded together. And the USA style Halloween hasn’t really caught on and stands oddly apart. No guys now,no bonfires but there are relevant safety aspects now.

Tony Buck
TB
Tony Buck
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Puritan England hated old folk festivals, even Christmas.

The Protestant meaning of Guy Fawkes Night, saved it.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
5 months ago
Reply to  Tony Buck

The tradition would’ve returned anyway, once the Puritan ethic had faded, so “saved it” is a gross exaggeration. You don’t destroy a millenia-old human need to defy the oncoming winter darkness with a bonfire so glibly.

Last edited 5 months ago by Steve Murray
William Amos
William Amos
5 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“It was as if these men and boys had suddenly dived into past ages, and fetched therefrom an hour and deed which had before been familiar with this spot. The ashes of the original British pyre which blazed from that summit lay fresh and undisturbed in the barrow beneath their tread. The flames from funeral piles long ago kindled there had shone down upon the lowlands as these were shining now. Festival fires to Thor and Woden had followed on the same ground and duly had their day.”
Hardy, Return of the Native

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
5 months ago

All the Muslims imported from Pakistan neither know nor care about Guy Fawkes. And if they had their way, they’d probably blow up Parliament.

Niall Cusack
NC
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

When Gerry Adams was first elected as MP for West Belfast he was asked if he would be taking his seat in Parliament. He replied: “I think Guy Fawkes had the right approach to the English Parliament.”

Charles Stanhope
CS
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

‘Brighton’ got even closer than Fawkes ever did, it must be said.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

Thanks, Charles! That is very much the point!

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

Once again: REM ACV TETIGISTI!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

“Sic semper tyrannis”.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

John Wilkes Booth?
“But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the show?*

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
5 months ago
Reply to  Niall Cusack

All the better for your presence sir.

Niall Cusack
Niall Cusack
5 months ago

Too kind!

Simon
S
Simon
5 months ago

I recall reading the guide the Home Office published for aspirant Brits like me. It was mostly a potted political and constitutional history of the UK that would enable one to answer questions such as: “There is only one parliament for the United Kingdom?”

I was, however, surprised to see the word “alleged” used in connection with the Gunpowder Plot, as in “the alleged plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.” I had thought that was a settled matter. Luckily there was no question on this topic in the exam.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
5 months ago
Reply to  Simon

They were a rather convenient boogie man.

John Murray
John Murray
5 months ago

When I was living in Leicester in the 90’s, they just renamed it “Diwali” and fireworks were going off at night all week.

ralph bell
ralph bell
5 months ago

The quiet fireworks are a additional attack to spoil the celebration. Like u would not do anything if you have to accommodate everyone specific needs and their dogs.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
5 months ago
Reply to  ralph bell

So many people and animals cannot stand the noise of fireworks, so the silent ones are a good idea.

Chris Amies
Chris Amies
5 months ago

These days it seems to be a couple of weeks bridging Hallowe’en and Diwali.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
5 months ago

The Catholic/Spanish/French conspiracy was more than a “notion” to those in the 17thC. Reminds me of commentators who talk of the “Red Scare of the ’50s” as a quaint quirk of that generation. They were both real threats, and thank God for the Brits who worked against them.

Richard Calhoun
RC
Richard Calhoun
5 months ago

Bit like Xmas then?

Robert Jaeger
Robert Jaeger
5 months ago

Remember, Remember the 5th of November
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07eNzt7eGuw&t=3s

Amelia Melkinthorpe
AM
Amelia Melkinthorpe
5 months ago

“Pram” is not a verb.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
5 months ago

Perambulate is, so perhaps it should be.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
5 months ago

Anything can be a verb if you’re creative enough, like glass and Roger

Alan Bright
Alan Bright
5 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

verbing nouns is great fun

Niall Cusack
NC
Niall Cusack
5 months ago
Reply to  Alan Bright

Nouning verbs is even better!