The Fifth of November.
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason,
Why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
seems few people outside the UK & Commonwealth know about 5th November: Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. Some of my international friends are familiar with so many other British traditions but curiously, rarely are they familiar with this one.
What is Bonfire Night?
The tl;dr version is — it’s a night where families dress up in warm clothes and go outside or to a public/semi-public place to watch fireworks, bathe in the warmth of a bonfire, drink hot chocolate, and eat seasonal foods like candy floss, toffee apples, and more recently — cinnamon doughnuts.
Most public displays usually have fairground rides or other traditional stalls.
Oh, and to celebrate the execution of religious extremists.
Oh, you weren’t expecting that bit? I guess before we go any further, I should tell you where it all started…
What Happened in 1605?
In the early hours of 5th November 1605, a group of guards acting on a tip off entered the tunnels beneath the Houses of Parliament (not the modern building, that came much later). There, they discovered a man along with a pile of barrels all filled with gunpowder.
That man was Guy Fawkes. He was promptly arrested and, under torture, confessed that he along with a group of co-conspirators planned to blow up the building while King James I and all the major nobles were assembled there for the state opening of parliament.
Fawkes was a mercenary (quite literally) and a Catholic convert who conspired along with the others to kill James. Once they achieved this, the idea was to put James’ young daughter Elizabeth Stuart on the throne and bring her up in the Catholic faith.
This was a bitter period of conflict between Catholic and Protestant. Somehow, James I government policies ended up more cruel than anything under Elizabeth I.
If you’re wondering whether they were fighting for freedom, or for greater tolerance, think again. They were not motivated by the demand for rights, but to replace one religiously intolerant regime with another.
The ringleaders were rounded up, convicted, and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. The brains behind it— one Robert Catesby — was already dead at this point having received a fatal gunshot during battle.
Fawkes too avoided this fate. He fell (or jumped) and broke his neck while climbing the ladder to the gallows.
Hanging, drawing and quartering are horrific. The condemned were hung to within an inch of their lives, but not until dead. I’ll leave you to Google the other gruesome details of this punishment normally reserved for treachery.
In “honour” of foiling the plot, Parliament declared a kind of Thanksgiving and set out a number of mandatory measures with an Act of Parliament. It led to a couple of centuries of state mandated oppression of Catholics. Back then, it was used to whip up anti-Catholic frenzy.
In the 1850s, the November 5th Act was repealed when the government realised that systemic anti-Catholic violence is, perhaps, something one should not encourage in more enlightened times.
How Did You Get from a War On Terror to Toffee Apples and Hot Chocolate?
Once the law was repealed and people were no longer required to indulge in state sponsored Catholic bashing, it seemed people still liked bonfires and the new brightly coloured banging things called fireworks.
They stayed, and consequently so did the festival. Secularism is a broad non-church and the main way it gets any of us to continue (or take up) traditions is through our stomachs.
Autumn is a great culinary period with so many wonderful scents and flavours. It’s the season of the harvest, and of spices, a feast for the senses. Even now that our food supply isn’t as precarious as it was in pre-industrial societies, we still associate the season with many of the same produce and abundance.
Apples are an autumn harvest fruit, so we cover it in caramelised sugar. We also make other caramelised sugar things like toffee. There are so many variations on this I think it would take a whole other article to list them.
Deep down, we still have a mindset of storing energy for the winter. 150 years of industrialisation doesn’t easily overcome hundreds of thousands of subsistence farming and agriculture that depends so heavily on seasonal weather.
“Yeah! I have to stuff all these toffee apples, candy floss, marshmallows, and cinnamon doughnuts now to ensure I store enough fat to get me through winter.”
Tis The Season
Jump ahead seven weeks after Bonfire Night and you’re at Christmas Eve. This has not escaped anyone’s notice. Bonfire Night food is not Christmas food. If anything, it mixes both summer and winter traditions to create something unique. Candy floss is quite summery, as are doughnuts, but the spices are autumnal and heavily used in Christmas food.
Nevertheless, we link the two for several reasons. Firstly, those who make their own Christmas Pudding (I’m one of them) traditionally begin the process on Bonfire Night. I start steeping the fruit and do the steaming about a week later. The Christmas Pudding then goes into storage.
In more recent years, in the week immediately following Bonfire Night, the bulk of the Christmas markets open across the country. Originally a continental Europe thing, they are now very much an integral part of the retail experience. They’re great places to find local business and get some seasonal street food.
You could say that Bonfire Night is essentially the start of the Christmas season, or a “taster.” I know I feel Christmassy from Bonfire Night, not least of all because it’s when I start making the Christmas Pudding.
Autumn is an increasingly dark and cold time. The nights are still drawing in, the temperature dropping. We need these moments as lights in the dark.
I’m Matt, pen name MG Mason. I write here primarily about British history and archaeology though sometimes other areas of Europe too. My main areas of passion include medieval history, and Roman Britain. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Archaeology and a Master of Arts in Landscape Archaeology, both from University of Exeter.