Saturday night, I went to my first Bonfire Night celebration (a bit ahead of the usual date) with a club on campus called International Friends. From what I understand, their aim is to facilitate cultural exchange among international students, as well as to educate about English culture. The plan was to meet on campus before being whisked away to Bramley Town Hall to learn the history of the Bonfire Night tradition, then set off toward town to join the torch lighting, procession, and lighting of the bonfire. I was excited to attend because I’d heard mention of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot but didn’t really know the ins and outs of the event.
Here’s what I learned: In 1605 a group of Catholics, led by Robert Catesby planned to assassinate King James I, a Protestant who forbade the practice of any other religion but Protestant Christianity in England. They rented a room in the cellar of the House of Lords and filled it with barrels of gunpowder. When the day came, Guy Fawkes, Catesby’s right-hand man and the explosives expert of the group, was eventually discovered by soldiers in the cellar and arrested (soldiers who’d actually confronted him earlier in the day, but for some reason didn’t find the gunpowder during their first investigation). They tortured Fawkes, who claimed to regret nothing, on the rack until he gave up the names of the other men in the group. Then they arrested them all, hung them until just before they went unconscious, disemboweled them, beheaded them, and cut their bodies into quarters. Then, for good measure, they displayed each man’s head on a spike to make examples of them. Bonfire Night is a celebration of the Gunpowder Plot’s failure.
Everyone lit torches (which at this particular event could be purchased for £5) and paraded through town to a designated spot in the woods, where a mountain of wood was piled high and effigies of Guy Fawkes and the others sat on top. Once given the go-ahead, the folks with torches threw them onto the pile of wood, and everyone watched it burn. Despite my distance from the flames, the heat was insane! I actually put sunglasses on at one point. I can’t imagine what being burned alive must feel like, but I tried that night. It was like standing next to the Sun.
I couldn’t help likening the whole thing to being part of an angry mob — I also couldn’t help thinking of the many other times throughout the history of many nations, mine included, when people were publicly tortured, lynched, and burned, and the fact that this still goes on in some places. There were food stalls near the wood pile and children running around. I felt a bit strange inside.
After the fire burned down there was a fireworks show, which is also part of the tradition and a welcome reprieve from the grimness of everything else. It was a well-designed show that I kept my shades on for because once, when I was a kid at Disney World, I was sitting on my dad’s shoulders watching fireworks and a stray ember fell into my eye.
The Englishwoman who recounted the story of Guy Fawkes to us admitted she wasn’t quite sure how to feel about a tradition in which people pretend to burn a man, and at the end of the night I was in the same boat. She of course made the point that the same kinds of acts don’t occur (to real people) in present-day England, and that the Gunpowder Plot and its outcome were merely a particularly gruesome part of the nation’s history. And truly, as I mentioned above, every nation has had its moments of severe darkness — every person has, too — and there is value in putting yourself in the middle of a reenactment or symbolic tradition: it can remind you of the terrible things we’ve managed to leave behind, and make you come to terms with your own feelings about the history of your home, whether it’s been home all your life or you’ve only recently adopted it.
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, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
*All photos are mine*