The Gunpowder Treason of November 1605 was an attempt by a group of Catholic plotters to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plot was defeated when Guy Fawkes was discovered in the Parliament cellars with a huge quantity of explosives. Those of the group who survived arrest were sent to the Tower and executed. This event has reverberated through history as Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, which takes place every year on 5th November. Fireworks are let off and bonfires are lit. On some bonfires effigies of Guy are still thrown.
It is interesting to ask why the Gunpowder Plot has had such a resonance down the years. My own personal theory is that Guy Fawkes Night fulfills the desire to welcome the new without saying goodbye to the old. People want change, while they also seek stability, and Guy Fawkes Night manages the trick of celebrating both simultaneously. Guy Fawkes is thrown onto a bonfire and every year his plot is defeated. But then fireworks bursting in the night sky and bonfires blazing are an enactment of what would have happened if Guy Fawkes had been successful and the Houses of Parliament really had been blown up. That explosion would have echoed down every street in the land, just as fireworks now do. This is a celebration of the defeat of a revolution, and the enactment of a huge explosion blowing away the old order. Neither change nor stability can answer human needs on their own, and Bonfire Night has survived so long because it is a celebration of both.
The British seem particularly fond of this kind of revolution which is designed to keep things the same. In 1258 Henry III was deposed by nobles who felt they weren't overthrowing the king so much as saving him from the evil advice of foreign councilors; and in 1688 the catholic James II was deposed by a parliament which persuaded itself that rather than a monarch being overthrown, the country was being saved from a catholic revolution.
In recent years there has been a slight change to the Bonfire Night celebrations in that effigies of unpopular celebrities of one kind or another are thrown on bonfires or blown up with fireworks. Tony Blair has gone up in smoke, as has John Prescott. No one of course takes this seriously, and that is perhaps the point. We can have a revolution, overthrow the prime minister on 5th of November, and yet the whole thing makes light of such rebellion and makes us all feel a bit safer.
Bonfire Night meets the universal need for change which somehow doesn't leave behind the world we know. This is a universal human need, but it is also seems peculiarly British.
(Photographs by Julian Jones)