The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason
The gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
That poem probably doesn’t mean much to you unless you have an interest in British history or you saw the 2006 movie V for Vendetta, although the film has very little connection to the origins of the poem. November 5th is known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night. The holiday commemorates the events of November 5, 1605 when a plot to blow up the British Parliament, led by Robert Catesby, failed. Catesby, Guy Fawkes, and seven other conspirators were rebelling against the oppression of Catholics by the British government.
At this time in British history, there was a lot of conflict between Catholics and Anglicans. The Anglican Church had become the state religion of England when Henry VIII wanted a divorce and broke with the Catholic Church to get it. In the 16th and 17th century, and beyond, Catholics faced heavy repression from the English monarchy.
But why is it called Guy Fawkes day if Robert Catesby was the leader?
Well, Fawkes became the face of the conspiracy because he was the one who got caught in the basement under the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder. The plan was the blow up the aristocratic house of Parliament from underneath, but Fawkes was discovered before the plan could be executed.
When the British public heard about the failed attempt, they took to the streets to celebrate the foiling of this Catholic plot. As a part of the revels, they burned effigies of Fawkes or the pope in the streets.
The conspiracy was really quite small, and it seems like it should only be a footnote in history. For some reason, though, this spontaneous celebration gave birth to a tradition of lighting bonfires and burning effigies each year on November 5th, a tradition that continues to this day. Bonfire Night spread far beyond the British Isles, and even reached the shores of Colonial America.
Okay, but what to Guy Fawkes Day and Virginia have in common?
Virginia’s own General George Washington was definitely not a fan of this tradition. In 1775 he condemned the celebration and scolded soldiers and officers who took part in it, calling them “void of common sense.” His disapproval may have been more political than personal, though. At that time he was working to win Catholic French-Canadians over to the cause of the American Revolution. The distinctly anti-Catholic roots of the tradition would certainly not help his case.
Despite Washington’s disapproval, though, the tradition continued in the new United States and is still celebrated today, even if it is only by a few dedicated souls. If you want to “remember, remember the fifth of November” for yourself, you can join the Guy Fawkes Day festivities at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia. The event takes place this Saturday, November 7th (two days late, but who’s counting) 10 AM to 8 PM. In addition to the traditional bonfires, you can enjoy some 18th century fun, including a cricket match.
Guy Fawkes Day is one of the more puzzling holidays on the calendar, but maybe it’s stuck around because everyone just loves a good bonfire.
George Washington didn’t like it, but you should. And don’t forget to share too!