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Please begin with an informative title:

and most of the rest of Britain. Don't worry, it's only the annual celebration of burning (in effigy) a Roman Catholic and setting off fireworks.

Remember, remember the fifth of November
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.

"Guy" or Guido Fawkes was discovered in the cellars under the old Palace of Westminster on the night of 4/5 November 1605 preparing to set off explosives intended to kill the King and Parliament assembled above. The Catholic plotters wanted to overthrow King James who had agreed to expel their priests from the country.

James had been King of Scotland (as James VI) since the abdication of his mother Mary "Queen of Scots" in 1567 when he was 13 months old. James' father, Earl Darnley, was killed in an explosion at his residence. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell was widely believed to have been behind the killing but was acquitted and later married Mary. The resulting uproar resulted in Mary's abdication, her flight to England and eventual execution for plotting against her cousin Elizabeth I.

On Elizabeth's death without issue in March 1603 he became James I of England and Ireland, uniting the two kingdoms. He was to go on to sponsor what is now known as the "King James Bible" even though authorized translations had been issued since Henry VIII. (The regnal numbering system was clarified in 1952 with the accession of Elizabeth II. Churchill formulated the principle that this would be the higher of the two kingdoms thus if, as is unlikely, Charles were to choose to use the regnal name James, he would be simply James VIII.)

James had initially attempted to soften views about Catholics in England - his wife, Ann of Denmark herself was Catholic.

The early signs were encouraging. Upon his accession as James I of England (VI of Scotland), the new king ended recusancy fines [for non-attendance at Church of England services] and awarded important posts to the Earl of Northumberland and Henry Howard, another Catholic sympathiser. This relaxation led to considerable growth in the number of visible Catholics.

Trying to juggle different religious demands, James was displeased at their increasing strength. The discovery in July 1603 of two small Catholic plots did not help. Although most Catholics were horrified, all were tainted by the threat of treason.

Yet rumours suggested James was more warmly disposed to Catholics than the dying Queen Elizabeth.

The situation deteriorated further at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604. Trying to accommodate as many views as possible, James I expressed hostility against the Catholics in order to satisfy the Puritans, whose demands he could not wholly satisfy. In February he publicly announced his 'utter detestation' of Catholicism; within days all priests and Jesuits had been expelled and recusancy fines reintroduced.


By the following year the plot had been hatched to blow up Parliament as the King attended its opening. A house next to the Palace of Westminster and space in the cellars beneath Parliament had been rented. Although gunpowder was a royal monopoly, it is likely they purchased the explosives on the black market or directly from sources abroad.  The scheme unraveled when one of the plotters warned a relative not to attend the opening. As a result, the cellars were searched and the treason exposed.

Fawkes, under the name John Johnson, was taken to the Tower of London for interrogation. Bonfires celebrating the failure of the plot and the survival of the King and Parliament were lit on the 5th. Fawkes held out for two days under torture (surely an indication that this technique is totally unsuitable for the "ticking time bomb" scenario much in favor by the Right as a justification for "enhanced interrogation"). The severity of his treatment is evident in the almost indecipherable signature on his confession. Eventually he was to be executed the following January - not burned at the stake but suffering the sentence for traitors to be hung, cut down while still alive, have his "privy parts" cut off, be disembowelled, the organs burned before him and then beheaded. The body to be cut into four.

James decreed that a sermon in celebration of the survival should be preached on the anniversary. The custom arose (likely deriving from the ancient celebration of Samhein at the end of the old year in the first week in November) of burning the Pope in effigy. This tradition is still carried out in some parts of Britain, notably in Lewes in East Sussex which features processions through the streets - including the carrying of burning crosses (to commemorate 17 martyrs burned at the stake in the town between - 1555-1557)

"Gunpowder Treason Day" became one of many anniversaries and other "red letter days" in Protestant England to replace the Catholic saints' days previously celebrated. (One of the features of the English character which is not often fully recognized is the propensity to find any excuse for a booze up and blow out).  The Catholic James II tried to ban fireworks and reduce the extent of the celebrations when he acceded in 1685 however his conflicts with Parliament meant William of Orange and Mary were invited to become co-regants in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. William, at the invitation of Parliament, landed with an "invasion force" on 5 November, the day following his birthday.  The date therefore became reinforced as a significant date for Protestants especially as, following the Bill of Rights, Catholics were excluded from the throne (a position that remains to this day as the monarch is also head of the Church of England although recently it has been possible for them to marry Catholics)

The Catholic emancipation in the mid 19th century meant that Fawkes rather than the Pope became the effigy being burnt. The demanding of money to fund the celebrations date from way back in the 17th century but by the early 20th century the general availability of retail fireworks meant that children would construct their effigy in mid October and take it round asking for a "penny for the Guy". In the 1960s I remember the local cinema's Saturday morning children's show organizing competitions for the best "Guy". Like many such traditions (including the making of a miniature garden or "grotto" to beg for money for the Mitcham Fair in South London), this has become almost extinct due to parental worries about child safety - although the grafting of the US traditions of Halloween has provided some redress. Oh and yes, both Halloween and Bonfire Night are celebrated - the one with imported American traditions, the other with bonfires and fireworks. If you've forgotten my remarks about the English taking any excuse for a celebration, we now have Diwali to throw into the mix and this year it coincides with the period between Halloween and November 5.

The Stuart monarchy (James I to James II) has a history of coincidences, starting with the explosive end of James I's father. James later commissioned Inigo Jones, the famous architect, to build a Banqueting House for the Palace of Whitehall; the only part of the palace that still survives after a fire in 1698. It was from one of the windows of the Banqueting House that his son. Charles I, was taken onto the scaffold where he was executed. James II (the grandson) fled to live in France; Mary's ally. There is one other survival of the old Palace of Whitehall in the name of the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police; Scotland Yard, where originally the delegations from  that country lodged. The current headquarters, New Scotland Yard in Victoria Street, is to be sold and buildings on the original site will be adapted for modern use.

Most of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed, also by fire, in the early 19th century. The Parliament building we see today is the result of a Victorian competition. The most available surviving parts are the Jewel Tower (now on the opposite site of a road, next to Westminster Abbey) and Westminster Hall. A few parts of the earlier building survive (mostly courtyard facades) within the newer build although these are not generally available for public view as they now contain administrative offices.

Like many traditions, the celebrations in Britain may well be moved to the nearest weekend so last weekend there were some fireworks displays although most appear to be scheduled for next weekend or the actual day. (If you are "celebrating" in the English sense you need the following day off to recover so the 5th is usually for the children to watch fireworks and increasingly these are public major displays rather than individual family's events) Traditionally the food served includes toffee apples (literally apples dipped in toffee and allowed to cool) and potatoes or chestnuts roasted in the embers of the bonfire.

Shops in the UK often regard the end of the build up to Bonfire Night as the start of the build up to the Christmas shopping period and indeed there is a sort of "calendar" built into UK commemorations. From Halloween we have Bonfire night. This is followed by the more serious Remberance Sunday - the closest to November 11 and, increasingly, Armistice Day itself on November 11 at 11 am.  Rather like Ash Wednesday in the build up to Easter, this is, culturally, the moment for serious reflection before the excesses of Christmas and the New Year (Another example of tthe two separate celebration merging into one. New Year was the Scottish holiday with a Bank Holiday to compensate for Boxing Day Bank holiday taken in England and Wales. Now both share bank holidays on 24/25 December and the work day after 31 December.)

Of course the American tradition of fireworks on July 4th echoes these November 5 celebrations of a constitutionally significant event - rather more appropriately I would suggest given that these days they are directed more at children. In November, just after the "fall back" of the clocks, the early evenings are dark so freworks can be appreciated. In July, most of Britain is light until very late in evening (as late as 10pm in London for example due to the effect of the season and Summer Time).

Under James I the English started their colonization, initially in the "New World", rather than mostly raiding other nations's exploitation of the continents by privateers like Drake. By 1620 when the Pilgrim Fathers' main contingent left London (not Plymouth where the whole fleet assembled!) the anti-Catholic mood had relaxed and, as many have pointed out, their founding of a new colony was in effect to ensure that Protestantism became more established than in the old country.

US election timings in early November coincide with the Fireworks Night week - a reflection perhaps of the significance of the date? Possibly more significant is the timing of Samhein at the end of the old year, after the harvest and before winter.  In British traditions, the Yeoman of the Guard (not to be confused with the Beefeaters  or Yeoman Wardens at the Tower of London) ceremonially "search" the Palace of Westminster before the annual State Opening of Parliament by the monarch. This "anti terrorist precaution" dates back to Fawkes.


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Originally posted to Lib Dem FoP on Tue Nov 05, 2013 at 10:12 AM PST.

Also republished by Anonymous Dkos and Community Spotlight.

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