We Really, Really, Didn’t Start The Fire. Honest.

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Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot

So, what is it we’re remembering?

Guy Fawkes Night / Bonfire Night / Gunpowder Treason Day.

Its had various identities and is a day unique to British culture.

In 2013 I went to a gig on Bonfire Night by US band; Phosphorescent. They’d spent the evening listening to a constant barrage of fireworks and came onstage to comment that having never heard of Bonfire Night before, they had to have it explained why the city sounded like a war zone.

But they liked the wild vibe.

School is in, then. We’ll be starting off with a history lesson. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz at the end.

It all starts well before the event we’re commemorating, back to Henry VIII. In terms of historical influence, he gets about a bit.

Hard proof.

When he assumed the throne in 1509, (this was before the acts of union that created Great Britain / UK ) England was a Roman Catholic country with the Pope as Head of the Church. The very basic retelling is that Henry wanted to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but Pope Clement VII refused the request.

Not one to bow to anyone else’s authority, Henry had himself installed as head of the Church of England and removed papal authority.

That set off a chain of events that resulted in anti-Catholic sentiment becoming not just prevalent – but legitimised by the state. This was actual life and death stuff with the deaths often occurring in gruesome ways.

More on that later.

By 1605, via a convoluted succession: King James I is on the throne (alternatively known as King James VI of Scotland for lovers of confusion). It was not a good time to be Catholic; persecuted and forced to practice their religion in secret with the threat of fines, imprisonment and execution.,

There was the Bye Plot to kidnap James…

…followed by the Main Plot to remove him.

And, stepping things up, we moved on to the Gunpowder Plot.

…The aim of which was to set off an explosion at the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament, killing James and the most important members of government, the church and judiciary who would all be present. After which they would kidnap his daughter and install her as a proxy monarch to do their bidding, and restore Catholic power.

The name associated with the plot is Guy Fawkes.

But Robert Catesby was the main player.

He assembled a group of plotters, with Guy’s primary role being to set off the explosion. Security wasn’t what it is today; the then parliament building hosted various businesses and functions. The plotters rented a storage vault and filled it with barrels of gunpowder.

There was concern amongst the group that fellow Catholics would be caught up in the explosion. An anonymous letter sent to a friend warning him against attending parliament on the day in question.

Unfortunately for the plotters, he passed the letter on, finding its way to King James. On 5th November the building was searched and Guy along with 36 barrels of gunpowder were found, sealing his place in history as the face of the plot.

The other plotters fled London. After being tortured for days, Guy gave up their details. Catesby was killed following a standoff with the king’s men. The others were captured and transported to the Tower of London to join Guy Fawkes. After interrogations and a trial, eight of them were sentenced to –

(readers of a sensitive nature may now wish to skip on a little…)

… sentenced to be hung then removed from the noose while still conscious, to have their genitals cut off and burnt before their eyes, then dissembowelled (likely still alive at this point, but if they’re lucky they’ll have passed out) and their heart removed. Finally, they would be decapitated and quartered and the dismembered parts of their body displayed.

If a jobs worth doing…

“Look, Steven, I’m sorry about the merciless, inhuman and relentless torture.
But maybe just once, you could ask me about my day?”

Guy managed to escape watching his gentleman’s area being hacked off and the relocation of his bowels by throwing himself from the gallows with the noose attached, to kill himself by breaking his neck.

In 1606 Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act requiring thanksgiving services in all churches to mark the plot’s failure.

This became known as Gunpowder Treason Day. Over the next few decades the commemoration extended to include bonfires, bellringing and fireworks and in line with the religious intolerance that brought about the plot effigies of the Pope would be burnt.

In the late 18th and early 19th century the restrictions on Catholics were finally repealed, sectarianism began to fall away and Guy took over from the Pope as the focus with the day becoming known as Guy Fawkes Day (or Night) and more recently as just Bonfire Night.

Through the 1800s, the 5th of November often seemed to have been used as a cover for violence and disorder and a chance to co-opt the rowdy celebrations to air grievances against authority. Across the country there were various restrictions placed on gatherings and the use of fireworks to dampen down any insurrection.

By the time we got to the 20th century it became more of a child oriented event.

It was common for children to collect wood to build a bonfire and to make a ‘Guy’, a representation of Guy Fawkes, out of whatever materials were to hand and this would be taken round the neighbourhood asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ before being placed on top of the bonfire. Large scale community bonfires and firework displays organised by local authorities were commonplace but it also moved into small scale celebrations in people’s gardens. 

From my own perspective as a child in the 80s Bonfire Night was a big event.

Two houses along from me was a family with four boys, all older than me and who took charge of bonfire arrangements. In front of our houses was a playing field imaginatively known as ‘The Big Green’ with football (soccer) goalposts on it. Along with some other neighbourhood kids, each year from a week or so before the 5th we would knock on doors collecting anything that people didn’t want that could be burnt.

Whether it should be burnt, or if it contained unsafe materials is another matter. But no one worried about that.

What could possibly go wrong?

The location for the bonfire was the middle of the big green, right in the centre of the football pitch. It made for an added element to games having a large ash grey grass free circle strewn with debris to play through.

One problem was that other kids would try and spoil the big night by lighting the ever growing pile before Bonfire Night. They got a surprise one night as undercover of darkness they crept towards the bonfire with box of matches in hand only to have two of my neighbours leap out of the pile and send them running. We’d had a sofa donated to the pyre that year providing a comfy guard station to wait for just such an occurrence.

We never created our own Guy. Though on one occasion, I put on some of the rags we’d collected and sat on the shoulders of the eldest neighbour and we knocked on a few doors asking for a penny for the Guy. We got plenty of laughs but no pennies.

Parental supervision was largely absent. We were left to our own devices in organising the bonfire.

The only adult intrusion was that we weren’t trusted to light it, that was always one of our dads.

For the first hour or so it would be a family affair with people coming out from houses to join together, light sparklers and fireworks and enjoy the fire.

The grown ups and younger children would gradually disperse leaving us to it. At which point, anything went.

Aerosol cans which had been collected ready for the night would be thrown on. Give them a few seconds to heat up and they’d explode and be fired out in indiscriminate fashion like a missile. There may have been the odd paint tin as well which would provide a rewarding pop and send the tin flying.

We were well aware of the fireworks code and the dangers, that’s what made it more fun when you’re 10 and don’t think the consequences apply to you.

Chemistry sets were a big let down, though. We imagined explosions but there was nothing but a barely audible fizzing sound. Obviously even for the times they were never going to put in anything actually dangerous when its aimed at children but in our minds chemistry = dangerous chemicals.

You just know it: This kid absolutely wears a necktie to the beach.

Anything that produced noxious thick black smoke was good though. A car tyre for example, we’d run through the smoke alternating between laughing and coughing. Honestly, kids are idiots.

One year the council kindly provided us with a real bonus. Some roadworks on our street coincided with bonfire night.

We requisitioned the traffic cones and chucked them on the fire, they produced satisfying clouds of foul black smoke.

Their mistake; what can I say?

If this gives the impression we were little hooligans, we really weren’t. I was a really good kid, well behaved and very rarely in trouble at school. Bonfire Night just gave an outlet for rogue tendencies, it was all quite normal behaviour and despite our best efforts no one ever got hurt. Well, they likely did somewhere else, but not at ours.

This element was evident in some areas as Mischief Night. I’d never heard of it before I moved to Leeds, we saved all the mischief for the 5th but in Yorkshire and some places the 4th was designated for general devilment, pranks and making a nuisance of yourself to the local community.

Back then we knew all about the reason behind Bonfire Night, learning about Guy Fawkes in primary school but the anti-Catholic sentiment had long since disappeared.

We also learnt all about Halloween traditions the week before. But for us, Bonfire Night was more important. There wasn’t much trick or treating and no decorating of houses.

Since my childhood, that has changed.  Leaving kids to arrange their own bonfire isn’t the done thing anymore. Perhaps importantly there isn’t much scope for consumerism in Bonfire Night other than selling fireworks. And the sale of them is increasingly restricted. In theory: in the 80s it shouldn’t have been possible for us to buy them, but there was always a shop that was happy to let any rules about not selling them to children slide.

It used to be that every evening for weeks before Bonfire Night would be accompanied by the sound of fireworks, like an extended aural tribute to the sound of World War 1 shelling. Which obviously doesn’t go down well with pets. There’s still plenty of fireworks but its nothing like as excessive as it used to be.

Halloween, though, offers a more family friendly and non dangerous experience, as well as far more scope for profit. We’re nothing like the US, but we have adopted many of the same traditions. Its grown exponentially in recent years. An article this week reported that consumer spending on Halloween has tripled in the last 10 years to nearly £700m. 

There are still places where Bonfire Night is taken very seriously.

In the county of Sussex, there is a strong tradition of Bonfire Societies, the most famous being the small town of Lewes, which draws huge crowds.

Each year competing societies produce huge effigies of a notable public figure that has drawn particular ire that year. This results in a lot of politicians getting the treatment; Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Donald Trump, George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad as well as other ne’er do wells like Bin Laden, Sepp Blatter and Jeremy Clarkson.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V are also produced each year. He was Pope in the 17th century when 17 Protestant martyrs were burnt to death in the town. All of the effigies are paraded through town along with flaming torches and costumed participants before being burnt.

Bonfire Night might now be far removed from the original meaning, and be second fiddle to Halloween. But it has lasted over 400 years.

Guy Fawkes might not have achieved his aim, but his place in history lives on. 

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JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

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Phylum of Alexandria
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November 4, 2022 8:09 am

“Remember, remember
The 6th of November,
The day we’re all left in the dark,
I no of no reason
This sun-robbing season
Should e’er be thought as a lark!”

–Me, just now

I’d like to say that I never did anything as reckless as hurling aerosol cans into a giant fire, but….there was that time after a great ice storm that my brother and I trekked alone to our nearby park, and used ice picks to slowly climb up a hill, all for the thrill of sliding down at warp speed! And miraculously, no one was hurt, but it could have been very different!

Still, I think our society has really gone the other way in terms of risk aversion. It’s good to be prudent, but allowing some risk now and then pays off not just in terms of unbridled silliness, but also in letting kids learn how to navigate some conflicts and uncertain situations without parental involvement.

Once in a while it’s good to not give any Fawkes!

Last edited 29 days ago by Phylum of Alexandria
mt58
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November 4, 2022 12:44 pm

JJ writes an interesting article, and we start a discussion about risk assessment. Reason # 454 to love this place.

Anyway, my two cents {for Guy}:

My brother and I would leave the house at 8:00AM and walk a mile and a half to the center of town. We’d wait at a bus stop, and get on, riding for 45 minutes to the subway station. No cell phones or any other practical way to get in touch with our folks in case something went south. We were 100% on our own.

We’d change subway trains three separate times, until we were in the heart of the big city. We would then walk another eight blocks, buy two tickets, and make our way into the ball park for the 1:00 Saturday game, to root for our local MLB team. (Splitting a hot dog and a drink.)

We’d then do the entire process in reverse, and finally get in the door at about 6:00, in time for supper, and tell Ma all about the game. We did this whole thing at least 15-20 times.

I was 10, and he was 7. I somehow don’t see this happening in 2022. Or am I wrong? Do kids do this now?

Last edited 29 days ago by mt58
lovethisconcept
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November 4, 2022 1:10 pm
Reply to  mt58

No, they absolutely don’t. My experience was different as I grew up in a very rural area. My sister and I would take off on horses or bikes in the morning, depending on our mood, and come back in time for dinner. Likewise, no way of letting anyone know if there was a problem. I do think that there is still more freedom for children in rural areas, although all day excursions would not be allowed. But a bike ride for a couple of hours, with accompanying cell phones, is still fairly common where I live.

LinkCrawford
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November 4, 2022 1:24 pm

It is the lack of communication that makes it scary to us. We would ride our bikes many, many miles from our rural suburban home in the 70s/80s. But once in a while I remember coming home hours later than my mom expected and getting verbally chastised because of it.

If I had a bunch of rural land I would have no problem letting kids roam around all day digging holes, making forts, making tree swings, etc. But in urban areas, it is just a little too risky. Some of the extra worry is over the top, but I think we are good to be cautious.

thegue
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November 4, 2022 1:46 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

One final point to bring up, because I’ve had this conversation with people my (our?) age, who long for “the good ole days”.

Go look at data – child mortality, kidnapping, homicide, missing children…

All of which were higher as one goes back generationally. Sure, there are year to year fluctuations, but our time (2022) was significantly safer than it was in the 1960s…1920s…etc.

England’s crime records go back to the 14th century(!), and this trend has been continuing for over 600 years.

The ONE “bump” in crime occurred during the late 80s/early 90s, but there is a social aspect to it that is probably best not discussed.

LinkCrawford
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November 4, 2022 1:52 pm
Reply to  thegue

Thanks for the stats, thegue! I’ve wondered if this is true. I think that it’s always been rare, but the risk is there, and over time our society has realized that the risk, while low, is not worth the harrowing consequences.

Reminds me, that when I turned 9, my mom let me walk about a mile on an active railroad track to get to school. I had worn my mom down asking to do it, and she finally let me that year. A couple times a train came, so I just hopped off the track into the brush and let it go by and then continued walking. I loved it.

dutchg8r
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November 9, 2022 5:32 pm

I know certainly in some metro areas now kids can’t have that independence. A mom tried once to let her kid learn responsibility and independence when they were maybe a first grader in suburban DC (MD side) and walking to school alone, a neighbor called the cops that the child was being neglected, and mom was arrested.

I remember seeing the mom on local news just incredulous that society wants kids raised by helicopter parents. It was truly insane to realize what our modern society has come to.

Last edited 24 days ago by dutchg8r
thegue
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November 4, 2022 9:15 am

When I lived in Syria, there were a few holidays I simply did NOT understand: one day, I stepped out from the apartment building and witnessed a bunch of locals in white robes walking down the street with a burning cross.

Wait a minute…the KKK is an INTERNATIONAL organization?

No, but it was a holiday for Syrian Christians – a day to celebrate the chopping down of the tree that would be used to make the Cross.

Later, I did the Seven Churches tour in Old City Damascus, where we “celebrated” the Syrian martyrs against Ottoman officials who killed local Christians.

The celebration? We lit some candles, prayed at the altar, then STUCK OUR HANDS IN THE COFFINS AND RUBBED THE BONES OF THE DEAD.

lovethisconcept
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November 4, 2022 1:12 pm
Reply to  thegue

I’m thinking that would be a hard pass from me, if I knew about it in advance. But, if I wasn’t expecting it, I would probably go with it rather than upset anyone’s religious ceremony.

thegue
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thegue
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November 4, 2022 1:46 pm

I did not know what was happening at that time.

I did not do it again.

Virgindog
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November 4, 2022 10:30 am

Thanks for this explanation, JJ. I sort of knew the Guy Fawkes story, but this was, ahem, enlightening.

LinkCrawford
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November 4, 2022 1:25 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Ditto!

mt58
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November 5, 2022 10:53 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

It was illuminating.

cappiethedog
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November 4, 2022 1:50 pm

We have our own version of Bonfire Night, too, in my neck of the woods. It’s called New Year’s Eve. You’re not supposed to shoot off aerials, but somebody paid off the cops. People come from out of state to blow stuff up. Fingers crossed, you hope your neighbor doesn’t burn your house down.

dutchg8r
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November 9, 2022 5:25 pm

Brilliant, I actually understand the whole Guy Fawkes thing better now! Thanks JJ.

And I was totally picking up “The Purge” vibes when you were discussing how it was an evening where anything goes in the fire and you can give in to your naughty side without feeling guilty. 😁

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