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Bonfire night histories

In this blog post, we uncover some of the interesting histories surrounding Bonfire Night with Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower History at the Tower of London.

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

English Folk Verse (about 1870)


Tower of London from Tower Hill

The Tower viewed from Tower Hill in about 1850. This photograph is one of the oldest surviving of the site, taken by Mr G Hilditch. In the foreground redundant cannon have been re-cycled into bollards, one acting as the base of a streetlight.

The Times, Friday 7 November 1851

THAMES – A great number of persons, among whom were several women, were brought before Mr. INGHAM, charged with discharging fireworks in the public thoroughfares on Wednesday evening in celebration of the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.The police did not interfere with the discharge of simple fireworks on the large open space on Tower-hill, but many persons commenced firing off pistols and small cannon mounted on very rude carriages and got up a mock bombardment of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace of the Tower of London, to the great amusement of the crowd. The fortress sustained no damage, and it was understood the only loss on the part of the besiegers was a boy’s finger blown off in firing a large horse pistol. The police soon interfered, captured the pistols and cannon with their owners, and lodged them in the station-house. There was a very large display of small arms and powder flasks, which were restored to their owners, who said they only used them on the Powder Plot day, and they were all fined 2s and 6d and 5s each, with the exception of the oldest of the party, who had to pay 10s.

The exuberant crowd that had gathered on Tower Hill on 5th November 1851 probably had little idea of the Tower’s close involvement in the original suppression of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and its aftermath. They were simply obeying government orders laid down by the Thanksgiving Act of 1606 and participating in the annual celebration of the nation’s deliverance as instructed by the intended victims of the plot – King James I and his Parliament.

From the beginning, the authorities faced a dilemma as to how best celebrate a plot that failed? They had to remind people of its potentially catastrophic consequences while not encouraging similar thoughts – or even worse, actions. James Howell in his mid-17th century poem “To the Knowing Reader”, part of his larger work “Epistolae Ho – Elianea”, set the scene:

Witness that fiery Pile, which would have blown
Up to the Clouds, Prince, People, Peers and Town,
Tribunals, Church and Chapel; and had dry’d
The Thames, tho’ swelling into her highest Pride,
And parboil’d the poor Fish, which from her sands
Had been toss’d up to the adjoining Lands
Had not the eagle’s letter brought to light
That subterranean horrid work of night

gunpowder treason

Guy Fawkes in action – an earlier illustration pasted into Hepworth Dixon’s ‘The Tower of London vol II’ (1890) to enliven the text.

King James and his ministers’ original vision was of nationwide, annual church services, accompanied by celebratory bell-ringing, and supportive sermons exalting positive aspects of Protestant rule. By the 1640s popular celebrations included a nocturnal bonfire often with an effigy of the Pope or the devil on top of it. Guy Fawkes, the explosives expert employed by the plotters, seems to have inherited the hot seat at the end of the 18th century and bestowed his name on the day, whatever The Times newspaper might say half a century later. Fireworks may or may not have been involved – certainly over the centuries there were many complaints that squibs and other such devices posed a risk and attempts were made to ban them long before the idea of ‘Health & Safety’ entered popular consciousness.

William III, ever the opportunist, took advantage of the established custom when he inaugurated a 2-day celebration. The 4th of November happened to be his birthday and he landed in England on the 5th in 1688 starting the Glorious Revolution and overthrow of his Catholic father-in-law James II in the process. Not unsurprisingly, the 2-day celebration stopped after his death in March 1702, and the 5th reigned supreme as the predominant English state commemoration.

By 1845 William Darton’s children’s series of London walks gathered in City Scenes dismissed Guy Fawkes day stating:

The people of England in general, of late years, have discouraged these processions and riots, and they have become so insignificant as to be noticed only by children.

Unfortunately, it had to be admitted: “…even in the present time some idle people will fire guns” – hardly our received picture of Victorian London.

Guy Fawkes’ imprisonment and torture in the Tower was well known. The return of the plotter’s powder, all 36 barrels, to government stores there, despite being officially described as “decayed”, perhaps less so. Meanwhile, the 1851 crowd was intent on exercising the right of free speech and action that Tower Hill traditionally afforded them. Considering the period, the authorities appear remarkably tolerant of their behaviour. Only 3 years earlier revolution had erupted throughout Europe ruffling the status quo and alarming the ruling elites. The shadow of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and its aftermath still lurked. Chartism had also peaked in 1848 – causing even the Tower itself to undertake defensive upgrades to counter the threat.

The ‘bombardment’ of 1851, reported in The Times, did not result in the storming of the Tower – although one has to question why cannon were to hand, however rude their carriages – or the overthrow of the Government. It did leave a number of Londoners poorer, if not wiser, and a victim of friendly fire. The affray also has relevance today when counteracting the threat of global terrorism raises questions about individual liberties.

The Thanksgiving Act was repealed on 25 March 1859.

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