Autumn Writings. Bonfire Night andThe Gunpowder Plot

It is a curiously British affair – Bonfire night. This weekend al over the UK, failies will be heading down to their local park for firework displays, or perhaps they will be setting off firesorks in their back garden – all because over 400 years ago, some guy tried to blow up parliament. First a poem that British readers will probably relate to and then a spot of culture

Rockets and Spuds

Rocket displays

Baked spud days

« Hope and Glory »

From the Boys’ Brigade.

Flabby majorettes

Baton twirling

Sausage and burgers

Slowly burning.

One cheap sparkler,

Roman candles

All the hot soup

You can handle.

Freezin’ ‘em off

In a muddy park

Eyes to the heavens

In search of a spark.

All under

Shitty spitty drizzle


With a damp squib fizzle.

(For all the rotten rain damp firework displays when I was a kid.)

The Gunpowder Plot (is not French)

In a damp and blustery Britain, the good folks of Blighty celebrated Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night or Fireworks Night – November 5th (or a weekend thereabouts) when all over the UK, the inhabitants indulge in the letting off of fireworks and the lighting of bonfires, all to celebrate the 1605 Gunpowder Plot.

We don’t celebrate this in France, as I have often tried to explain to many Brits, the Gunpowder plot is part of British and not French history. Do the good folks of Britain celebrate Bastille Day?

For readers unfamiliar with this curious event, here is a spot of history

Twas on the eve of the State Opening of Parliament on November 4th 1605, that guards, searching the vaults of the Palace of Westminster found 36 barrels of gunpowder under the very chamber, where the next day, King James 1st would open the new session of Parliament. There with the barrels, waiting to light the fuse and send the king and his entire parliament to sky-high was one, Guy Fawkes. He was arrested and in the coming days, his fellow conspirators were rounded up. Sent to the Tower of London and tortured, the conspirators were eventually tried and sentenced to death in January 1606. They all met a particularly horrible end – they were hung, drawn and quartered – which involved hanging the victim until nearly dead, then slitting open his lower body with a sword for the extraction of his entrails – which were duly presented to him, and presumably, the cheering crowd.

Obvious Question

Who were these early 17th century “terrorists” who wanted to blow up parliament and why?

They were a group of noteworthy provincial catholic gentry and nobility, dissatisfied at the King’s religious reforms. King James as a protestant King presiding over a largely puritan parliament. The king had basically promised that there would be an end to persecution of Catholics and it hadn’t happened, so this was cause enough to kill the king.

I suppose in Modern day terminology this would be a « terrorist plot » that was « foiled » by the authorities. Blowing people sky high for their religious beliefs. We don’t seem to have evolved much since 1605.

Anyway, the King was safe and, ever since 1605 (in various forms) the failed terrorist attack has been celebrated. In its modern guise, the Brits let off fireworks, normally at big public displays and then they burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a large bonfire.

Explaining Bonfire Night to the Neighbours.

 « But don’t you celebrate Guy Fawkes Night with your family with English friends? » asked one of my mum’s neighbours many years back when I was visiting the UK.

Well. No, I (or we) don’t

First explain to the neighbours why exactly we are letting off fireworks, lighting a bonfire and burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes.

“It’s an English tradition!”

Next explain in this predominantly Catholic country, that, what is now looked on as a bit of traditional fun in the UK, has its roots in a bunch of protestants getting together to celebrate the very grizzly end of a bunch of Catholics

I think there is also another aspect to this – explaining this strange British tradition in a staunchly republican country; we are after all, celebrating the saving of King James 1st. If we’re talking in firework terms, the French light up the skies on Bastille Day – marking those events on July 14th 1789, which eventually led to the downfall of the French monarchy and King Louis XVI losing his head.

Of course, I suppose we have to remember that Charles 1st – son of James 1st – like Louis XVI, also lost his head – sent to the block in 1649, by Cromwell and his cronies. Some historians see this as the end of the English Civil War, whilst others call it part of the English Revolution – so the English had their revolution a full 140 years before the French!