By Sarah Pridgeon
“Remember, remember the fifth of November – gunpowder, treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
Though I’m sure you have never before heard this curious rhyme, the English have been successfully not forgetting the date for centuries – and I am wondering if you might be persuaded to join us. Bear with me, I have a logical argument to make…
Across the pond, we don’t observe Independence Day (for presumably obvious reasons). This removes the most unambiguous opportunity for firework displays from Britain’s calendar, which would be very sad if we did not already have a designated date for them. For the English, November 5 is a time to light bonfires, chew toffee and watch the sky ignite with color.
Like most traditions that have passed down over centuries, the reason for this festival of illumination is a little peculiar. In essence, we are making merry because a king did not get blown up with gunpowder some 400 years ago.
Commonly known as Bonfire Night, the roots of the event can be found in a failed assassination attempt by a certain Guy Fawkes and his Catholic associates, who tunneled under the Houses of Parliament with an eye to blowing its occupants to kingdom come. Some call him “the last person to enter Parliament with honest intentions.”
His plan was to reduce the Protestant monarch to smoking smithereens and replace him with his Catholic daughter – all part of the religion-hopping angst that plagued our land back then. No matter the faith of the monarch, somebody was bound to be unhappy about it and the usual response was to scroll down the list of heirs until they found a palatable replacement.
It was all the fault of Henry VIII, who reacted with petulance to the Pope’s decision to not grant him a divorce so that he could move on to wife two of six. Henry said “bugger it,” to paraphrase, and made up his own church instead. He assigned himself as head of that church and graciously granted himself permission to shelve one spouse in favor of his most infamous: Anne Boleyn.
After Henry got bored with wife-snuffing and subsequently expired, the country went back and forth between religions until we cottoned on to the concept of freedom of worship. Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter eventually inherited the crown, but upon her death it passed to Elizabeth I, who was a Protestant. James I was her successor and he, too, was a Protestant, thwarting the hopes of those who had been plotting to replace Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots (who was also James’ mother, because the situation wasn’t nearly confusing enough).
Let’s put it this way: there’s a reason that every period drama involving a royal family features at least three characters whose main pastime is coming up with cunning plans to unseat the monarch. Back then, before golf was invented, it was considered an acceptable hobby.
Not content to lurk in the background with a bottle of arsenic, Guy Fawkes and his 12 companions took monarch-meddling to a whole new level. According to the tale, they took it upon themselves to tunnel under the city, all the way to Parliament.
As they scratched determinedly through the dirt, they are said to have heard a noise that led them to discover a newly vacated undercroft, conveniently situated beneath the House of Lords. As evidence of the tunnel has never been found, some say it was never built. Either way, they opted instead to fill that undercroft with copious barrels of gunpowder.
Sadly for Fawkes, one of his associates wrote an anonymous letter of warning to a cousin who would have been in Parliament when the explosion took place. The area was searched and the would-be assassin discovered, hunched jealously over his mountain of explosives.
Fawkes was convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, because the authorities saw no reason to limit themselves to one execution when they could just as easily have three. He rather spoiled the spectacle, however, when he leaped from the scaffold and broke his own neck.
The monarch was intact, as were the politicians, and the country was told to rejoice. Londoners were instructed to light bonfires and November 5 was designated a day of thanksgiving for his deliverance. The tradition stuck and Fawkes’s memory passed down through the ages – though perhaps not for the reason he had hoped.
Today, we celebrate Bonfire Night with many of the same trappings but little of the original sentiment. We don our hats and gloves, burn effigies of Fawkes on the bonfire and share traditional treats such as toffee apples, hearty soups and potatoes and sausages cooked in the flames. Meanwhile, fireworks fill the sky and children light up the darkness with their sparklers. It is a time of joy and celebration for all ages – much like July 4.
Which brings me to my logical argument. On this side of the pond, fireworks are largely reserved for a time of year at which they are often banned, because the ground is too parched to ignore the sparks from a rocket. This is frustrating for us merrymakers, but I believe Bonfire Night to be the answer.
I propose that, if the summer is hot and the rain has stayed away, the fireworks be moved to November 5, when the ground is much wetter and the night draws in sooner, extending the available celebration time. Rather than a replacement for this nation’s most important holiday, it could instead be considered a stand-by date for worst-case weather scenarios.
I understand that your immediate reaction will be to wonder why you would ever feel compelled to care about the survival of a centuries-old king, but for this I have prepared two additional arguments. Firstly, it is worth celebrating because there would have been nobody to seek independence from if they had succeeded in setting fire to our monarch, so there would be no fireworks on July 4 either. And secondly, because you care about James I about as much as the English do: few of us could answer a trivia question about him, but we need only the flimsiest of excuses to light a Roman candle.