Bonfire night was originally an English government celebration to mark the defeat of an alleged terrorist organisation, the members of which plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. This non-event never took place more than four hundred years ago. The plotters were all captured and state-murdered. Since that time there have been many other plots, some real, some devised by the government and police to cast derogatory aspersions against certain groups and sectors of society with which these power institutions may not generally see eye to eye. If all these were celebrated with bonfires there would be a bonfire every night of the week, and some more than once a night. So what made this event of November 5th so special and so long lasting?
Certainly members of parliament would not want such an event to be attempted again especially while they were in office. The action taken was to show those who could not read and write what happened to Catholic traitors, plotters and anti-government schemers. To add dread and fear an effigy of the leader of this terrorist group, Guido Fawkes, was burnt atop a bonfire every November 5 subsequent to the original plot. To give the penalty more cogency it was further endorsed by a schoolchildren’s chant written especially as a mnemonic to press home the government warning.
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
The history is not quite like that, and Guido Fawkes was no worse than any other group leader who wished to oppose a government by forceful means. His cause was in many ways just. His confession was extracted under torture. Where have we heard that recently? He escaped being hanged, drawn and quartered by hurling himself off the scaffold, an act which broke his neck.
Up to the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century there had been some 1,000 years of Roman Catholicism in England. Tearing down the monasteries enabled the lecherous Henry VIII to set up his own church, the Church of England, to marry, and in some cases have executed, a succession of brides who took his fancy. After dissolution of the monasteries anyone caught practising Roman Catholicism was dealt with most severely. Roman Catholicism was driven underground and all Guy Fawkes wanted to do was to see England return to what it had been before.
We continue to burn effigies of this historical figure when there are so many leaders alive today much more worthy of being burnt in effigy form. From the 1960s capital punishment, or state murder, has no longer existed in England, a piece of parliamentary legislation of which I am particularly proud. It makes, however, the annual burning of Guy Fawkes laughable. People gather round bonfires with a guy placed on top, not really aware of the historical significance, and most seem oblivious to the fact that we no longer practise capital punishment other than on effigies.
Putting the historical nonsense aside there are a lot of accidents directly concerned with bonfire night and some are fatal. Last year on bonfire night an M5 motorway pile-up was blamed on a rugby club fireworks display and it was the biggest motorway crash ever, killing 7 and injuring 51 people. While this was not the norm it demonstrates the serious nature of November 5th celebrations. Organised displays have reduced the number of casualties in general but fire-stations and ambulance crews are unnecessarily stretched at this time of year coping with accidents and out-of-control fires that but for this outdated historical celebration would not have occurred. Finding figures for animal deaths and injuries is not possible but judging from the reactions of my dogs to loud explosions and bursts of multi-coloured lights in the sky there must be some terrified animals out there in the wild.