Guy Fawkes Night: 400 Years of Fire and Madness

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The conspirators. Crispijn van de Passe

Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

“Remember, remember the fifth of November” is more than just a line from V for Vendetta. Also known as Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Day (or Night) is a holiday celebrated every year on the fifth of November in the UK. Bigger and more widely celebrated than Halloween, people get together after dark to drink mulled wine and watch massive displays of fireworks. But what is it, where did it come from, and what did Guy Fawkes do that was so great?

The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy planned by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant James I and to replace him with a Catholic leader. On November 5th, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives that had been stashed beneath the House of Lords for this very purpose. Fawkes was tortured into a confession and was sentenced to a traitor’s execution of hanging, drawing, and quartering, but managed to end his own life by throwing himself from the scaffold to avoid suffering the rest.

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The Execution of Guy Fawkes. Claes Jansz Visscher.

Why would we celebrate that?!

The tradition started that very week when people around London lit bonfires to celebrate that King James had survived the plot. In 1606, the Observance of 5th November Act actually enforced annual celebration on this day. It became known as Gunpowder Treason Day, and was celebrated on command every November.

Three Hundred Years of Madness

If it’s not weird enough for you to be ordered to celebrate, you just can’t have that much fire and booze without attracting a certain amount of madness. Gunpowder Treason Day became the focus of a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment, with effigies of the pope being burned alongside other hate figures. This only got worse when Charles I married the Catholic Henrietta Maria in 1625. During the Interregnum, Parliamentarians feared further Catholic plots, and fueled the paranoia of the public by suggesting that Catholics were plotting to blow them up, too.

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“The Guy Fawkes of 1850, Preparing to Blow Up All of England!”Anti-Catholic cartoon in Punch, November 1850.

The Restoration of Charles II brought new life to the holiday. It became a celebration of “God’s preservation of the English Throne” and was taken over by London’s apprentices as a sort of fire festival “attacking sobriety and good order.” The fires got bigger and the celebrations madder and more violent until fireworks and bonfires were banned by the London militia in 1682.

The damage had already been done, however, and celebrations continued in various forms over the years, all incorporating the element of fire. Frequent violence between the classes in the nineteenth century only added to the festivities, and the Observance of 5th November Act was finally repealed in 1859 (but the violence continued into the twentieth century).

Guy Fawkes Today

Sometime during the late 18th century, children began to drag effigies of Guy Fawkes around while begging for pennies “for the Guy.” This became a tradition, and Gunpowder Treason Day gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day (also Guy Fawkes Night and Bonfire Night). Today it’s a pretty harmless and family-friendly holiday celebrated with fireworks, music, and if you’re unlucky, laser shows. In most places in Britain, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an effigy of anybody, let alone an open flame. People may not be cooking potatoes on sticks over bonfires anymore, but food trucks aren’t usually far away.

For those of you who have read Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta or seen the movie but missed the context, the Gunpowder Plot is a pretty central theme and is repeated through the use of one of the traditional rhymes, V’s plan, and his Guy Fawkes mask.

Here’s one of the better known (and actually least unsettling) Guy Fawkes Day rhymes:

Remember, remember the fifth 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!

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The Restoration: a Brilliant Period for Historical Romance

With so many British historical romances set in the nineteenth century, you would be forgiven for thinking nothing happened in England before the Regency. Although the nineteenth century was a time of progress and those famous balls at Almack’s, I decided to set my new historical series two hundred years earlier in the seventeenth century. 

Charles II in exile

The Southwark Saga begins in 1671, eleven years after the restoration of Charles II. The Restoration is an exciting period to read, write and research. It was a time of change and was characterized by cataclysmic events, such as the English Civil War that saw the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son with a significant part of the Court. The Plague killed more than a quarter of London’s population between 1665 and 1666 and was chronicled in Defoe’s nightmarish Journal of a Plague Year. The last of that was wiped out by the Great Fire of London, which incinerated most of the medieval City of London over a four day period, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches including St. Paul’s cathedral, and killing or displacing thousands of people. After the fire, London was rebuilt with a new street plan designed by Christopher Wren, and began to take on the shape it is today, with the new St. Paul’s Cathedral as its crowning glory. 

Solomon Eccles

There were also many larger than life figures who we still remember to this day. Charles II, “The Merry Monarch” had more mistresses than there are days in the week and more than a dozen illegitimate children, and when the Great Fire threatened to consume the entirety of London, he and his brother, the Duke of York, fought the fire themselves. Diarist Samuel Pepys meticulously recorded his daily life in the 1660s, providing an invaluable resource for historians, while John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, entertained and enraged with his bawdy verse. Out on the streets, you’ll find Solomon Eccles, a composer who had a religious awakening and spent his days nude with a dish of burning coals on his head, urging passers-by the repent as they did their shopping. 

Nell Gwyn

The Restoration is a wonderful time to set fiction, and particularly romance. With the Civil War behind them, London was in the mood to celebrate. The theaters reopened and women were allowed onstage, providing cheap entertainment to people of any class most nights of the week. The rigid social structure and excessive manners of the nineteenth century had not set in yet, and the social mobility of the time was second to none. Courtesans regularly rose above their stations, such as Nell Gwyn, who rose from being an orange seller of humble birth to become Charles II’s favorite mistress. 

The poor could still marry with little more than a declaration and a witness. Highwaymen haunted the forests and roads around the city, and execution at Tyburn was a real threat to them and anyone caught stealing anything worth more than a shilling. For excitement, color, and danger, you’ll be hard pressed to find a time better for fiction than the seventeenth century. 

Tyburn, the first book of The Southwark Saga, follows Sally Green, a French immigrant and Covent Garden prostitute as she tries to escape her unfortunate circumstances. Hero Nick Virtue, a private domestic tutor turned highwayman, must decide if saving her is worth risking his life.

In Virtue’s Lady, Lady Jane Ramsey attempts to marry out of wealth when she falls for Nick’s brother, Mark, an ex-convict and carpenter who lives in the slum in Southwark. Five years after the fire, Mark is still struggling to adapt his business for a city that no longer wants wooden houses, and the last thing he needs is an earl taking shots at him for ruining his daughter. 

In both books, I hope to show you what the Restoration was like from the ground up. You’ll feel the dirt, smell the river, and taste the terrible, terrible coffee right along with the characters as you are introduced to a new world in historical romance. I invite you to join me in the seventeenth century, and I very much hope you’ll enjoy The Southwark Saga. 

For a directory of my history posts about this period, click on the Seventeenth Century History Posts tab above or click here. This page is a work in progress, but so far I have short articles on infamous highwayman Claude Duval, The Great Fire of London, the Plague, the Cheapside Hoard, condom use, mortality, executions at Tyburn, Newgate prison, illegitimacy, Guy Fawkes, coffee, the lead content in makeup, and a whole lot more. Be sure to check it out! If there are any seventeenth century subjects you would be particularly interested in reading about, please leave your suggestions in the comments below and I will see what I can do. 

Thanks for stopping by! 

The Act of Oblivion: Guest Post by Historian John Polsom-Jenkins

Charles II in exile. Philippe de Champaigne, 1653
By early 1660, England and Wales had been in a state of civil war since 1642 and engaged in intermittent related conflicts in Scotland and Ireland since 1638, to say nothing of foreign wars against the Dutch and increased colonial engagements. The success of Parliament against King Charles I had resulted in the traditional structure of England: its monarchy, government, courts, and national church, being dismantled and replaced with a series of experiments in republican government and more radically reformed religion. However, Parliament ultimately found itself unable to negotiate a political and religious settlement between the varied interests who had fought against the King, especially since a wide range of fanatical religious groups had developed during the unstructured years of war, some of them now espousing a radical social agenda, all of which was deeply threatening to those who still believed in a rigid social structure and unified national church.

Parliament eventually having felt compelled to put the King on trial and execute him for treason against his own people, and with his son in exile on the continent, the reins of government fell to the army and Oliver Cromwell in particular. In the 1650s, Cromwell succeeded in creating a sort of hereditary military dictatorship (the Protectorate), in which he fulfilled the role of king in all but name.  When the Protector passed on in 1658, his son, Richard, inherited his mantle but wore it unconvincingly and was persuaded to resign in April 1659. This left the army in charge of the country and it was George Monck who emerged as its foremost and most decisive general. Monck had been a royalist commander under Charles I before joining Parliament to lead its forces against the Irish. Once again, Monck demonstrated his preference for strong, stable government and, in March of 1660, began negotiating directly with Charles II (whose Scottish coronation had been moved as a result of Monck’s attacks) to secure his Restoration to the throne of England. Charles was restored by May.

By the time Charles returned to England, popular opinion had swung in his favor and the army was decidedly on his side, but ruling the country would be no easy task. The extravagant celebrations which accompanied Charles’ entrance into London on his 30th birthday, 29thMay, 1660, masked a country which had suffered years of bitter warfare and division. How to unite the Parliamentarian idealists, who had seen their hopes (in many cases for no less than bringing about heaven on Earth) dashed, with the Royalists, who had suffered military defeat, exile, and confiscation of their property, and who were now anxious for payback?

Charles II was canny enough to realize that for the country to heal, or even cease to tear itself apart, there would have to be plenty of forgiveness, not least from himself. Before he even set foot on English soil, the Act of Free and General Pardon Indemnity and Oblivion, or Act of Oblivion as it is usually referred to, had been agreed on and passed by the interim Convention Parliament. The Act of Oblivion offered a general pardon towards the King’s disloyal subjects for anything they might have done in the regular passage of warfare or governance during the Civil War and tried to prevent the “late Differences” from being perpetuated further by instigating fines for factional name-calling for the following three years (£10 for gentlemen; 40 shillings for everyone else).

Although the Act of Oblivion and Charles’ Declaration made from exile in Breda both represented a genuine attempt at reconciliation in April 1660, they both left unsaid some uncompromising realities. Charles had many who had followed him into battle and exile at the expense of their families, estates, and fortunes and who now expected their loyalty to be repaid. However, the new King could ill-afford to reinforce divisions and push his former opponents back to rebellion. Indeed, his Restoration could not have happened without the support of former opponents in the army, especially Monck.

Further, there were limits to forgiveness. Those most personally offensive to the King, those regicides most directly involved in the trial and execution of his father, were excepted from the general pardon, the new regime famously even going to the length of exhuming the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw, in order to give the corpses a traitor’s death. Of the forty-one surviving signatories to Charles I’s death warrant, only nine shared this fate with the unfortunate corpses along with four others regarded as contributing to the regicide (a preacher, Charles’ guards). Others were saved by family connections, excuses, or running into exile. Charles II needed to restrain himself from being too vindictive in order to preserve the peace, but it was also dangerous to allow those who had so blatantly challenged the divinely-appointed status of his family to rule to do so without consequence.

Perhaps the Act did do something towards consigning the divisions of the immediate past to oblivion, but new divisions developed from the old and Charles’ brother was deposed within five years of taking the throne.

For the verbose legalese of the Act in its entirety, see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp226-234

Dr. John Polsom-Jenkins