There was a story circulating around my old University York that the distinguished historian Gerald Aymler one November evening was stopped by children to ask for a “ penny for the guy”?. Professor Aylmer’s speciality was 17th century English History and so he answered humorously that if the children went away and came back to tell him about Guy Fawkes then he would give them a pound. A pound in 1976 is about the equivalent of a fiver today. If the children had done their home work they would have discovered that Fawkes was a local lad who was born in High Petergate in 1570. A soldier Fawkes spent much time in what is now Holland fighting against the Dutch who wished to free themselves from the yoke of Spanish power. They would have also found out that many of the plotters in the Gunpowder Plot were Midlanders with homes in Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire. In fact the last stand of the conspirators was at Holbeche House in Staffordshire after the plot had been discovered. The plot they would have researched was a desperate attempt by leading Catholics to assassinate King James 1st as he opened Parliament on the 5th November 1605 by packing a cellar under the building with gunpowder. Of course the attempt on the Kings life was revealed when the shadowy Lord Monteagle was tipped off and Fawkes captured as he made ready to lay the fuse.
Since then the exposure of the plot has been commemorated by bonfires and fireworks, but the people lighting fires this evening are perhaps unaware that the object of Bonfire Night in the past was a brutal assertion of Protestant Ascendency over Roman Catholicism. The date November 5th has another significance as it is the date that William of Orange later William III landed at Torbay in 1688 to wrestle the crown from Catholic James II. To complete the Protestant triple whammy of key dates in November, the 17th was the date that Elizabeth 1st the person who established the Church of England succeeded to the throne in 1558 after the death of her Catholic half sister Mary.
The sectarian nature of Bonfire Night was especially marked in the past. In 1827 in Coventry a newspaper account records that the fires along roads were so great that coaches had to zigzag through the bonfires “ amidst the bursting of fireworks and showers of serpents- it is truly astonishing that no serious event took place. We have heard of the horses of a wagon taking fright, which only stimulated the lads to a more energetic assault of fireworks, but the poor animals did no damage to themselves or others”. In Preston the following year the discovery of the Popish Plot “was celebrated with much spirit”. In Reading a strong “Church and King “town, the Guy was committed to the flames “with exultant shouts and the explosion of squibs, crackers and rockets” In Chester the Cathedral bells were rung and the garrison cannon fired. And finally closer to home in Macclesfield the police fought a losing battle with a mob determined to celebrate the discovery of the “detestable conspiracy” with displays of fireworks and the discharge of guns.
It is worth noting that during this time the Tory Government led by Wellington struggled against fierce opposition to remove 17th century laws applied to Roman Catholics denying them full citizenship and passed at a time when Catholics were regarded with suspicion following incidents such as the Gunpowder Plot.