Bonfire Night
5th November

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Bonfire Night

Bonfire Night

A back garden bonfire - typical of those held around Britain on Bonfire Night each year.

That Britain was once ridden with religious strife that would make the Middle East blush is today largely forgotten. Modern Britain is very much Religion Lite, with a mostly secular populace and a public discourse that rarely references faith in any serious sense. And so it is easy to forget that once the divide between faiths plunged the country into bloody insurrection and war for centuries.

On November the 5th each year, however, one event from Britain's far more strident religious history is remembered in fire and explosion: Bonfire Night.

Sometimes known as Guy Fawkes' Night after its most infamous participant, Bonfire Night commemorates the events of the Gunpowder Treason - a plan by 13 militant Catholics to kill the King and his ministers by blowing parliament up with 36 barrels of gunpowder placed in the cellars.

The plot was eventually revealed by a traitor within the conspiracy and disaster averted on November 5th when the gunpowder was discovered. The conspirators were rapidly rounded up by government agents, forced to confess under torture and publicly executed in that most horrible of ways - being hung, drawn and quartered.

The anniversary of these events is still celebrated across the country, despite a recent trend towards official disapproval and a sense of unease about the use of the event for political reasons.

Bonfires

Fires have often been lit in spontaneous celebration at good news, and have formed the centrepiece of events such as Yule since time immemorial. As news of the discovery of the plot spread among the population of London, fires were spontaneously lit in celebration that the King's life had been spared and people gathered to celebrate.

For some reason, the events became celebrated as an anniversary and rapidly became an annual tradition that persists to this day.

Bonfires can range from small, personal affairs held in back gardens to huge, organised public displays in parks. Until recent memory, most pubs and clubs held a bonfire on the nearest weekend to November 5th and the night air on these weekends was always thick with smoke, but health and safety laws and prohibitive insurance costs have reduced the number and today few such open public events take place.

"Chumping"

In some parts of the country - particularly Yorkshire - informal bonfires were actually often organised by children. Children would go door to door asking people for spare wood and building their own fire on waste ground wherever it could be found. The wood collected was known as "the chumps" and the activity itself "chumping."

Less scrupulous kids would simply steal wood from back gardens or (more likely) other people's unlit fires. In parts of South Leeds, fights over bonfires were commonplace on the night before bonfire night itself as rival groups would strive to build the most impressive bonfire - often hurling stones at each other, or even aiming fireworks at their opponents.

Today, official and parental disapproval alike has largely put paid to the practice. If informal fires are held at all, they are done so under the watchful eyes of health and safety conscious parents as part of the modern child's more contained and controlled lifestyle.

The Guy

The Guy is the name given to an effigy which is traditionally burned on the bonfire. Taking its name from the most famous of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes (who was not actually the leader of the plot) most guys are simple, anonymous creations made from clothes stuffed with paper.

Originally, the Guy was truly an effigy made to resemble Fawkes and today in some cases more elaborate Guys are still made in effigy of controversial figures of the day in what is sometimes called an act of folk justice. In 2012, for example, the town of Edenbridge in Kent burnt a 30 foot effigy of American cyclist Lance Armstrong, revealed this year to have been a drug cheat.

Anti-Catholic Sentiment

The original events commemorated were inextricably bound with the long, vicious and bloody religious conflict that simmered throughout Britain for centuries.

Today, the anti-Catholic sentiment of the original celebrations has largely been forgotten and Bonfire Night is treated as a more general sense of gaiety. That said, in some parts of the country anti-Catholic imagery is still a central part of Bonfire Night - most famously at Lewes in Kent. Each year, disquiet is expressed in the pages of the press that Bonfire Night effectively celebrates the murder of Catholic martyrs (whether those celebrating it recognise that fact or not) and/or an act of terrorism.

The Gunpowder Treason Rhyme

Bonfire Night is, of course, an annual recollection of real historical events. While the complexities and true nature of the history are largely forgotten by the public, a traditional rhyme still accompanies the evening and is often recited by schoolchildren - although only the first stanza is truly ever recalled.

Remember, remember
The 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent 
To blow up king and parliament. 
Three score barrels were laid below 
To prove old England's overthrow. 

By god's mercy he was catch'd 
With a darkened lantern and burning match. 
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring. 
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him? 
Burn him! 

Subversive Significance

While the original events and celebrations were straightforwardly in celebration of the deliverance of the king from danger, Bonfire Night has sometimes been used as a way to express popular resentment at political and other figures. As mentioned before, effigies are the most common form in which this is expressed. Rare indeed is the political leader of the last 50 years who hasn't found themselves burnt in effigy on bonfires throughout the land.

Furthermore, it is often wryly asked whether people are truly celebrating the deliverance of the King and his ministers or actually celebrating the spirit of insurrection represented by the gunpowder conspirators. Since the 2005 film 'V for Vendetta,' in particular, the stylised image of Guy Fawkes has become the mask of popular protest with political groups from all parts of the spectrum donning his guise during public gatherings to hide their identity.

The event itself is largely frowned upon now by the establishment. Whereas once it was embraced as part of a celebration of the survival of establishment itself, today bureaucracies see it through a prism of health and safety and a thin-lipped disapproval of the political message they see expressed through the evening. Popular, spontaneous gatherings have always been viewed with suspicion by the authorities and most councils prefer instead today to stage their own politically neutered bonfires in mass gatherings stripped of iconography and effigies alike.

See also: conspiracy theories

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 7th August 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2018
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Bonfire Night: location

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Videos

Videos

Lewes Bonfire Night 2012

Perhaps the most famous bonfire celebrations in the country are held at Lewes in Sussex