It has become customary to think of Bonfire Night – the anniversary of the foiling of the plot by English Catholics to blow up Parliament in 1605 – as an English tradition in decline. In fact, predictions of its imminent demise date back many centuries. As the London Morning Chronicle lamented in November 1822, ‘Guy Fawkeses are not what Guy Fawkeses were in former days … from year to year – the number of effigies has decreased … All these signs give us too much reason to believe that, in a few short centuries, the celebration of the 5th November will have fallen entirely into disuse.’ And yet, nearly two centuries on, the anniversary is still very much with us.
As various studies published to coincide with the quartercentenary of the gunpowder plot in 2005 demonstrated, the anniversary has changed enormously over the centuries, as political, social, and religious circumstances have evolved. By the late eighteenth century the anniversary had fallen into something of a decline. But less than a decade after the Morning Chronicle’s gloomy prediction, the Fifth was given a fill-up by the passing of Catholic emancipation in 1829, and this confessional dynamic was again evident on 5 November 1850, as ordinary people across England demonstrated their hostility towards so-called ‘Catholic aggression’ (the reconstitution of the English Catholic hierarchy) by burning effigies and lighting bonfires.
But while anti-Catholicism remained an important aspect of English gunpowder commemoration well into the nineteenth century, it was far from being the only factor in determining the anniversary’s continued popularity. In southern and eastern England the anniversary often witnessed the symbolic reversal of traditional social relations, ritualized disorder, and demonstrations of popular justice. With the withdrawal of elite patronage from the anniversary in response to this disorder, bonfire gangs often took ownership of the tradition, periodically clashing with local authorities in the process. In response, local elites often sought to dampen the popular rites associated with the day and to contain the uncontrolled enthusiasm of the gangs. By the 1870s and 1880s these efforts – augmented by those of respectable working class elements – were proving increasingly successful and gradually a degree of social order and respectability was imposed on such unruly plebeian gunpowder celebrations. This eventually led over time to the council-run firework displays still familiar in many areas of England today.
The story of Bonfire Night then is one of change and fluctuation over time, but it is also one that cannot be told without reference to the anniversary’s fortunes far beyond England itself. After all, even in our own day, this coming 5 November 2011 will see bonfires illuminating not only many parts of England but gatherings in far-distant Canadian Newfoundland. Indeed, not only was the gunpowder anniversary once celebrated very widely across modern-day Canada, but in the guise of ‘Pope’s Day’ it was also celebrated in colonial New England before the American Revolution. Nor was it confined to what scholars now call the Atlantic World. 5 November was celebrated in nineteenth century Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Grenada (where in 1885 the residents of St George’s actually rioted when attempts were made to curtail their gunpowder celebrations). And it was also observed in Ireland from the seventeenth century to the First World War. Arguably, ideas of Englishness were core to many of these celebrations, but over the course of successive centuries, the anniversary in its many non-English settings increasingly took on distinctive local characteristics so that in some places it came to highlight differences between England and the sites of English settlement as much as their shared cultural heritage.
So, as we attend council-run fireworks and family-organised bonfires this 5 November, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Bonfire Night is not only an old English folk tradition which has adapted and changed enormously over the centuries, but also part of the cultural heritage of the English diaspora and the diverse experiences of those who inhabited it.