Bonfire night is probably my favourite night of the year. Three years ago I had just moved to France and it suddenly dawned on me that I would be missing it for the first time in my life. A little voice in my head said, “What? No bonfire night?! Why not?” and then another voice in my head replied, “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would the French celebrate the failure of a Catholic plot to assassinate the King of England and blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605?”
Bonfire night is ridiculous, and for obvious reasons, uniquely British.
For those of you not in the know, here is the story. In the 1500s, King Henry VIII decided he wanted to divorce his Spanish wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused to grant him a divorce, so he took the rather extreme measure of rejecting the Roman Catholic church and setting up a new Church of England, with himself as its head. (Shortly afterwards, when he got tired of his new wife, he had her beheaded and went on to marry the third of his six wives.)
His actions started a period in English history which was fraught with violence and religious persecution. For two hundred years there was a constant struggle for power between Catholics and Protestants which eventually resulted in a brutal and bloody civil war.
In 1605, during the reign of King James I, a group of English Catholics hatched a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the state opening of parliament on 5th November. The plan was to assassinate the King and all the most powerful men in the country (who would all be in the building for the opening of parliament) and replace the King with a new, Catholic monarch. However, the plot was revealed by an anonymous letter and on the night of 4th November 1605 the authorities raided the cellars of the Houses of Parliament and discovered one of the plotters, a man named Guy Fawkes, along with 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Fawkes and seven of his co-conspirators were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. This was a particularly gruesome form of execution which involved the victim being hung until they were almost dead, then dismembered, disembowelled and beheaded. Their remains were then displayed in prominent places around the city to warn others about what would happen to them if they were ever caught plotting to commit treason.
Every year in the UK, on or around 5th November, we like to commemorate these events with firework displays and bonfires. Many people create effigies of Guy Fawkes out of newspaper and old clothes, to burn on the bonfire. Some people make effigies resembling other people, such as a particularly hated politician or celebrity, but I think that’s a step too far. I believe there is one village somewhere in the south of England that actually burns an effigy of the Pope, but that’s quite extreme. Many people, however, are happy to just have a party with a bonfire and fireworks and lots of food.
In the town where I live, the main firework display is on the top of a big hill. Each year 10,000 people gather in the town centre and light torches, then they march up the hill (led by a band playing bagpipes) and then when they get to the top of the hill they put their torches on the bonfire and watch the firework display. My family usually goes into town to watch the torch-lit procession and then we head over to our friends Jim and Sarah’s house, because every year they have an awesome firework party in their garden.
Last year, Olivier was over from France and he came with us. I explained the historical significance, concluding that it is basically a celebration of the brutal execution of a bunch of Catholics over 400 years ago, and we ritually burn effigies of Catholic conspirators on a bonfire. He was pretty horrified, being a Catholic himself.
Bonfire night is pretty silly, but it’s also really fun. Our friends don’t actually burn an effigy because Sarah thinks it’s too creepy (although plenty of people across the country definitely still do).
I know the Americans have 4th July, and the French have 14th July, but I just love fireworks in winter. There’s just something magical about standing round the bonfire, eating a burger, with feet like blocks of ice and a face you could fry an egg on. It’s also the perfect opportunity to strike up random conversations with strangers.
Last night, for example, I met a delightful man called Roger, who told me that he always wanted to take his wife’s surname when he got married because he disliked his own so much, but he couldn’t because the woman he ended up marrying had a brother who was also called Roger, and it would have been too confusing for everyone if her husband and brother both had the same first and last name. I asked him what his surname was (fully expecting it to be something like “Fartbottom”) and he said “Clark”, with a gloomy expression on his face. I asked what was so wrong with that, and he said, “It’s an awful name! It sounds like a duck that’s having trouble laying an egg!”
You meet all sorts on bonfire night. Maybe all that standing around in the dark drinking mulled wine makes people say things they’d never say otherwise.
So, to all non-Brits out there, hopefully you’ll have learned something new about one of our best and most bizarre customs. And to all Brits, I wish you a very happy bonfire night.