Monday, 5 November 2012

Remember, Remember. . . .

The tradition of Guido Fawkes related bonfires began the same year as the failed plot to destroy the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Relieved that King James I had been saved, Londoners lit bonfires all over the city in thanksgiving.

By the 1620s the fifth, known as Gunpowder Treason Day, became an occasion with public drinking and solemn processions demonstrating England's Protestantism and having been saved from Papism. However in 1625 the future Charles I, married the Catholic Henrietta Maria of France, and on 5 November that year, effigies of the pope and the devil were burnt in protest.

For eleven years during Charles' reign, he ruled without a Parliament and Gunpowder Treason Day took on new importance. By 1636, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to use 5 November to denounce not simply Popery, but all seditious practices.

During the events leading up to the English Civil War, Royalists disputed the interpretation of Bonfire Night, but on 5 November 1644, Parliamentarians, in fear of new Catholic plots, preached that Papists were tunnelling, 'from Oxford, Rome, Hell, to Westminster, and there to blow up, if possible, the better foundations of your houses, their liberties and privileges'.

At a display in 1647 at Lincoln's Inn Fields a bonfire was lit commemorating, 'God's great mercy in delivering this kingdom from the hellish plots of papists', and included fireballs burning in the water, fireboxes, effigies of Fawkes and the pope represented by Pluto the Roman god of the underworld. Under Oliver Cromwell, the fifth was still marked by bonfires and explosives, but as a celebration of parliamentary government and Protestantism, not of monarchy.

Formal celebrations resumed under Charles II, where Anglicans and Tories saw the event as God having preserved the English throne, but by 1670 London apprentices had turned it into a fire festival, attacking not only popery but also 'sobriety and good order', demanding money from coach occupants for alcohol and bonfires. The burning of effigies continued.

In 1673, Charles's brother, James Duke of York converted to Catholicism, and that year a procession of about 1,000 people, and the apprentices fired an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, decorated with papal symbols. Four years later, elements of Queen Elizabeth's Accession Day celebration of 17 November were incorporated, with the burning of an effigy of the pope—his belly filled with live cats 'who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire"—and two effigies of devils "whispering in his ear'.

These events escalated when the Exclusion Crisis - the Whigs attempt to have James Duke of York excluded from the succession due to his Catholicism -  when there were 'many bonfires and burning of popes as has ever been seen', along with violent scenes that forced London's militia into action.  The following year, bonfires and fireworks were banned and continued after 1685 when James II became king.

Some reacted to this ban by placing candles in their windows, 'as a witness against Catholicism'. When James was deposed in 1688 by William of Orange—who landed in England on 5 November—a ban on fireworks was maintained for safety reasons, 'much mischief having been done by squibs'.

John Evelyn was reputed to comment on the banning of bonfire night as, 'being an infringement of a man's right to burn a catholic', which is not very pc for 2012, but it goes to show how intransigent people were in the 17th Century in matters of religion.

I hope things are different now, but maybe not.

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