The Politics of Bonfire Night

Remember, Remember

By Gwydion M. Williams

Every 5th of November, people in Britain take part in a rather odd public ceremony. Formally speaking, it commemorates the failure of English Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes to blow up King James the First of England and his parliament back in 1605. But the matter has deeper roots than that, and wider ramifications.

Some sort of autumn festival, often involving fire, seems to have been part of British culture for a very long time. It was definitely one of the four seasonal feasts of the Celts, and may even go back before that It may reflect the simple fact that after summer growth it’s not a bad idea to burn up everything that isn’t needed for winter.

Coming to much more recent times there is the odd matter of ‘Pope Burnings’, where an effigy of the Pope was burnt as a demonstration of either Protestant power or Protestant protest. They became a key matter under the later Stewart kings. James the First was the only one of that dynasty to be solidly Protestant. Mary Queen of Scots was his mother – although she seems to have been more interested in power than religion, becoming a Catholic martyr only because her major rivals were Protestant. Charles the First married a Catholic princess and favoured moves that brought the Anglican church closer to Catholic practice. Charles the Second declared himself a Catholic on his death-bed, and his brother James the Second was a declared Catholic even before he became king. Pope Burnings were part of a protest against the apparent drift away from Protestantism. It was a displaced form of aggression against the royal dynasty.

Having thrown out King James in 1688, and survived serious attempts at a restoration in 1715 and 1745, opinions moderated. I don’t know just how far back the custom of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on the 5th of November goes, but it seems reasonable that it took over and moderated the feelings that had been expressed by Pope Burnings – at least some of which occurred in November.

Burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes was a good way of satisfying popular Protestant and democratic feeling without causing too much offence to either Catholics or nostalgic Jacobites. After all, Guy Fawkes had been a political traitor who had attempted regicide – and attempted it against a member of the Stuart dynasty. Moreover, his target had been monarch, lords and commons – the very forces that went to war with each other later in the 17th century. Reconciliations happened in the later 18th century, especially after the last Stuart claimant became a Cardinal, ensuring that there would be no heirs to carry on the line and continue the quarrel.

These days, it is just an excuse to have a bonfire and let off a few fireworks. People can enjoy it no matter what they believe in. But it is still a part of British history.

[Burn a Banker might be a popular modern alternative.]

This article was an item in Newsnotes for November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at