Fire over England

Tonight is Bonfire Night, the age-old celebration of the thwarting of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a native Catholic conspiracy to blow up the entire English government–King James I and VI and the royal family, attendant Lords and legislators–at the opening of Parliament. Plans of the plot leaked out, and Guido (or Guy) Fawkes, the man who has come to symbolize the Plot and recently so much more, was found in the basement of Parliament with 36 kegs of gunpowder. In the days that followed, he confessed to the Plot (both under torture and afterwards) and named the others involved. Not long after 1605, the relatively new art of fireworks was merged with the traditional celebratory British bonfire and burning Guy effigies to create a truly incendiary evening.  And the tradition has continued for over 400 years–it looks like they already started this weekend.

Celebrating the “wonderfull deliverance” in 1605 and last year.

The Plot and its aftermath have so many interesting dimensions:  historical, cultural, political.  I’m going to focus on just a few in this short blog post, but obviously books can and have been written. For teaching purposes, nothing demonstrates burgeoning popular anti-Catholicism in England better than the Plot and all of the diverse reactions and expressions that came after, as demonstrated particularly by the broadside below, which connects the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 with the Plot through a nefarious council jointly overseen by the Pope and the Devil. Religious propaganda in seventeenth century England was not subtle, but subtlety is not what you need to convey religious intensity, both negative and positive, to twenty-first century college students.

And then there is the culture of remembrance and the shaping of national identity. Modern historians have focused on this trend, particularly in relation to the Civil War in America and the First World War in Europe, but I think we can push it back into the early modern era. The Fifth of November was definitely and deliberately cultivated as a day of national deliverance and remembrance in England, and later in Great Britain, the Empire, and the Commonwealth. Here in New England, the 5th of November was celebrated as “Pope-Night” until the onset of the Revolution, and then it had to stop, or change, as it was just too British. Being British meant remembering the 5th of November, even if it was increasingly shed of its specific religious associations.

Illustrations from George Carleton‘s A Thankfull Remembrance of Gods Mercy, London, 1627, British Museum and from Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night, Boston, 1769, Library of Congress.

Obviously it’s all about Guy Fawkes, then and now:  Bonfire Night is Guy Fawkes night.  As I wrote about in last year’s November 5th post, Fawkes has gone through an amazing transition, from terrorist to liberator, due to his central role in the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta and his adoption by the global Occupy movement. Guy miraculously became an advocate for freedom and an avatar for the 99%, with Shepard Fairey reworking his famous Hope poster with the mask of Fawkes replacing Obama. This transition seemed rather abrupt to me a year ago, but I’ve looked at Guy’s evolution over the centuries a bit and now I think I understand:  he has lost his context. Shed of the conspiratorial motivations and details, he became an increasingly iconic image, and also somewhat of a dashing cavalier.

Guy through the ages:  a Gunpowder Plot card from a deck of “Popish plot” cards, 1672, British Museum; an actor in character and costume as Guy, 1830s, Museum of London; cigarette cards from the 1920s and 1930s and a W.W. Denslow poster from the turn of the century, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; boys in Camden Town, London, with their Guy effigy, c. 1970, Museum of London; putting finishing touches on a Guy effigy this past weekend, Reuters.


7 responses to “Fire over England

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