Saturday, 5 November 2011

Banging All Night

I come from a large family. One of the highlights of the year was always Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. We had a large garden and orchard, and my Dad and Grandad would build a huge bonfire on the old potato patch and make a “Guy”. On Bonfire Night aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides of the family would gather and we’d have an amazingly good time, with dozens of traditions fireworks and lots of jacket potatoes and soup. I don’t remember many times when there were less than 15 of us. Happy Days.

The reason for Bonfire Night is, of course, the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up king and parliament on 5th November 1605. Bonfires were often lit at this time of year. Going back to the Stone Age animals were slaughtered for their meat so that they didn’t have to be fed through the winter. The stripped carcasses – the bones – were burnt on hugs fires. That is where the word bonfire comes from – bone fires.

The king Guy Fawkes wanted to blow to bits was James I of Great Britain. The reasons were the old familiar ones of religion and politics. Catholics and Protestants alike had been killing each other for over 50 years. First one group then the other came to power. King James was raised as a Protestant, even though his mother Mary, Queen of Scots was Catholic.

When James arrived in England to take up the throne he inherited from Elizabeth I, his reputation came with him. James had several close relationships with men during his life and pamphlets were printed in London which proclaimed “Elizabeth was king, now James is queen”. It is said that when he travelled around the country some crowds would shout “God bless Queen James”.

Guy Fawkes was one of many Catholics who thought James had gone too far in constricting catholic practice. Fawkes was recruited by a group of Catholic gentry to help get rid of the whole of parliament. They would have been replaced by a Catholic government and ruler. Had it succeeded “Queen” James’s little daughter Elizabeth would have become the first Queen Elizabeth II (technically, though, she’d actually have been Elizabeth III).

Celebrations of the discovery and defeat of the Gunpowder Plot started almost immediately. Even as the plotters were being executed for treason the government passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605.

People began celebrating with bonfires and fireworks, and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, in 1606, turning him into a popular folk villain. Ever since then people have been burning effigies of other villains on Bonfire Night in response to various national and world events – Hitler, Mrs. Thatcher, Sadam Hussain, Osama bin Laden, the Pope, even Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Perhaps somewhere in the UK there’s a group of lgbt people gathering to celebrate Bonfire Night by burning an effigy of a modern homophobic villain.

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