Saturday is Catholic-burning day in the UK.

Hard-Luck Henry
I bet that got your attention.

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
we see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot."

You've had your Hallowe'en bash, now it's our turn to celebrate the macabre; This week sees "Guy Fawkes Night" or, more commonly now, given our youth's lack of any sense of history, "Bonfire Night".
Young children learn the poem, but don't really understand what it's all about - Guy Fawkes is portrayed as a generic 'bogeyman' figure.

I'm a bit sketchy on this but, keeping it brief, here's my take on the story:

It's 1603, and the context is the so-called "wars of religion", which dominated European politics at the time. In England, it's the end of an era; Queen Elizabeth I was dying, and next in line was James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had had beheaded years earlier.

English Catholics were hopeful; they had suffered persecution under Elizabeth, but James was rumoured to be more warmly disposed to the catholic faith. Upon his accession as James I of England, the new king rescinded some of the harsh laws imposed on Catholics, but political pressure from the Puritan establishment meant James I soon returned England to a state of open hostility towards catholicism.

Hopes dashed, the English Catholics turned to sedition. And thus began The Gunpowder Plot ...

In March, 1605, a group of conspirators took out a lease on a cellar. The cellar lay directly beneath The House of Lords, and over the following months 36 barrels of gunpowder were moved in - enough to blow up The HoL and everyone who was in it at the time.

To cut a long story short; the plot was rumbled by English spies and the plotters rounded up, tortured, and then killed in a particularly gruesome manner reserved especially for those sentenced for High Treason - "That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure." (Hung, drawn and quartered).

The Bonfire Night tradition acually began in the same year in which the failed coup it celebrates took place (ie 1605). When the plot was foiled, bonfires were lit and effigies burned, with fireworks adding to the celebration. The most popular effigies thrown to the flames were those The Pope and, of course, Guy Fawkes; allegedly a key conspirator in the plot, infamous as the man who intended to light the fuse which blew up Parliament and killed the King, along with the entire English elite. It makes for one of the great "what if ... ?" moments of British history.

Having said that, we don't actually celebrate anything on bonfire night, nowadays. Guy Fawkes still gets set on top of a bonfire, but it's not a religious statement, as I say, he's just a bogeyman; it's more about national identity, or nothing at all. It's largely become a meaningless tradition that provides an excuse for us boys to light fires and play with fireworks, if one were needed. (Unless you happen to live in the North of Ireland, of course, but that's a another story ... )
The real reason there aren't many fires set on the night is your lovely misty English weather
Ack, there's nothin like a good ole fashioned Catholic burnin.

Ahhh, memories of my youth.
We always brought the weinies and marshmallows to ours Why waste a good burnin'?
Vanni Fucci
Some friends and I used to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, by hanging a scarecrow from a street light, and burning it in effigy...but it didn't catch on in my home town...and the local constabulary was convinced we were practicing some satanic ritual...and the neighbours were just pissed off that I kept stealing their scarecrow...

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