Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason, and plot!
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should e'er be forgot!
Okay, so that's a modern poem about what the English call "Guy Fawkes Day" or "Bonfire Night." But before we get to the colonial American version of the holiday, which we celebrated in good fashion here at the Frontier Culture Museum, we will answer the question, just who is Guy Fawkes?
In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a group of English Catholic conspirators had finished digging an underground tunnel from their tenant house to the nearby House of Lords. They filled the end of the tunnel with many barrels of gunpowder, with the intention of blowing up Parliament. However, their group had some fellow Catholic friends in Parliament, and a conspirator sent one of the Catholic lords an anonymous letter, warning him to stay away from Parliament for the start of the new session. The lord brought the letter to King James, who ordered a search below the building very early on November 5th, shortly before they planned to light the fuse. The gunpowder was discovered, and Guy Fawkes had been the unlucky conspirator on watch that evening. He was arrested, tortured, tried, and he and his fellow conspirators were found guilty of high treason. The men were hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Since then, England has celebrated the King James' assassination survival, and that Guy Fawkes and his Catholic conspirators failed to blow up Parliament. While initially a small observation in London, it became so widely celebrated across the British colonies that by the 1660s, King Charles II announced it a holiday. The event continues to be celebrated today in England, marked with fireworks, bonfires, and parades.
So why did the American colonies pick up and celebrate the tradition? The English-dominated colony in the 17th century was more than happy to join in a holiday that involved bonfires, parades, burning effigies, shooting off guns, and drinking to the health of the King and Parliament. Moreso, according to historian Brendan McConville, the British frequently viewed the American colonists as inferior, and so colonists spent nearly two centuries trying to prove themselves every bit as British as the mother country. The colonists took to obsessively adopting British customs, fashions, and holidays, with overseas travelers penning down their dismay at the ladies in Williamsburg dressing in finer clothes daily than their wives in England do on Sundays. British soldiers during the French & Indian War tromping through the backcountry were shocked to discover fine porcelain on the shelves in small rustic cabins. Historian Timothy Breen remarks that the common British subject knew fairly little about the colonists, and held stereotypical beliefs of Americans. A New England preacher, Reverend John Barnard, went to visit London, and conversed with a local gentlewoman after a church service, who was surprised that his skin was white and that he spoke English, for she supposed all Americans to be natives. With such false beliefs circulating, who can blame the colonists for their obsessive Anglicism?
The early/mid 18th century saw non-English waves of immigrants reach American shores. The Germans and the Northern Irish came to America, escaping deteriorating conditions in Europe, and seeking the opportunity and promises of land America offered. They had no reason to care for the health of bygone English kings or Parliament. And yet, they enthusiastically picked up the celebration in America with their English neighbors! WHY? One simple reason. Guy Fawkes was Catholic, and the holiday had picked up a decidedly anti-Catholic tone. They not only burned an effigy of Guy Fawkes, but of the Pope! And the uber Protestant Germans and devoutly Presbyterian Northern Irish could easily get behind an anti-Catholic movement.
The holiday spread from New England to Charleston, SC, referred to as "Gunpowder Treason Day," but perhaps most commonly as "Pope Day." As mentioned, Americans held parades, made large bonfires, shot off guns, and drank. They burned effigies of the Pope (Clement XII from 1730-40, and Benedict XIV starting 1740). They occasionally threw in Guy Fawkes, and sometimes The Pretender (from the Tudor/Stuart dynasty who claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne after William & Mary took over). But the main feature seemed to be the Pope. The holiday was one of few that nearly all the major groups of immigrants could bond together to celebrate, and helped unite us under the British monarch.
Whew. So this past Monday, November 5th, our 1740s staff showed visitors and school groups a jolly good patriotic time. We shot off the smooth-bore, built a bonfire, had school kids find a good-sized stick, lined them up, and had them yell, "GOD SAVE THE KING!" as they threw their stick into the bonfire. I couldn't get photos of that, but here is the excitement of building the bonfire, and burning our "effigies."
We put the bonfire in the center of our cornfield. Our intention is to spread the ashes through the soil. We decided to leave two cornstalks in our field, and built the fire around them. They represented Benedict XIV and The Pretender.We didn't have time to make a real effigy.
So there it is. Guy Fawkes Day, Pope Day, Gunpowder Treason Day. Whether British or American colonist, let's all be glad that that no one blew up Parliament.
Don't you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
'Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made 'em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away. (1742)