For my American readers, which accounts for most of you, tonight is Guy Fawkes night, or if you prefer the euphemism, Bonfire Night. It’s a tradition that’s been suffering in recent years because of the rise of the infinitely more commercial Hallowe’en, which is an abomination of a festival in the eyes of this author. The proximity of the two events rather tires the public, who traditionally gave a ‘penny for the Guy’ (more on that below), but who are now held to ransom on their doorsteps a few days earlier by adolescents threatening to vandalise their property unless some money changes hands. Such is ‘trick or treat’ in England.
My childhood reminiscences about Guy Fawkes night are in the mode of innocence. Building a bonfire, watching the fireworks, making and then burning the Guy – it was all such a terrific wonder. The great taboo – fire – was once annually the licensed preoccupation of school children. It was an excitement akin only to Christmas morning. And it came with a song, which everybody knew and repeated, lest we should forget:
Remember, remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
And so we sang it, having not much of a clue why we were supposed to remember it. Sometime in the 1980s, the health and safety brigade made the ‘remember, remember’ motto into a cautionary tale about ‘The Firework Code’, with pictures of little Johnny’s burnt hand, and the girl who had a firework go off in her face. I’m pretty sure that this put the very idea into the heads of many a scoundrel.
Round the neighbourhood we would go, dragging a lumpy representation of Guy Fawkes, the manufacturing costs of which were to be met by the village folk. The burning of this effigy was to honour the real burning of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in a Catholic plot to get rid of King James I. We vaguely knew this. We also vaguely knew that Fawkes had been caught in the act, tortured until he confessed, taken to the gallows, from which he jumped and broke his own neck. He was then drawn and quartered, and finally chucked on a great pyre as an example to any other Catholics with big ideas (there is some confusion about this last part). Somehow or other, it became a legendary victory for democracy.
The ConspiratorsSo, in short, a religious extremist took umbrage with the status quo and, in a desperate act of terrorism, tried to assassinate the representatives of government. That government, terrified and reactionary, used torture, killing, and rites of public humiliation to assert its authority. The public, raised to fever pitch with hatred and intolerance, smacked their bloodthirsty chops and carried out representative acts of torture and burning, so as to make their allegiances clear.
Oddly enough, it’s always been told as a story of just punishment for treason. In 1605, doubtless it was.
Any of this sound vaguely familiar? Funny, because while we’re all busy ‘remembering’ we seem to have forgotten completely.
Tonight I’ll be introducing the tradition to some Germans in a little village near Potsdam. There will be children, eyes sparkling at tales of historic gore, who will be instructed to remember. But as a good historian, my exhortation will have more to do with what seems to have become the moral of this story: what goes around comes around. Be vigilant.