What Explains the Enduring Fervor for Guy Fawkes Night?Historians in the News
tags: English history, Guy Fawkes Night, Festivals, Anticatholicism
‘The newly Protestant nation was remarkably bare of regular festivity’
Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol
Guy Fawkes’ Night, the ‘Fifth of November’, has been popular and long-lived for two different reasons. The first is the spectacular nature of the event that it commemorated. Had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded, it would have killed the majority of the English political nation of the time, including most of the royal family, aristocracy and leading gentry and many merchants, as well as demolishing Westminster Palace and much of the Abbey and surrounding houses. It was intended not just to overthrow the existing monarch and central and local government, but the Church of England, as established since the Reformation, and the Protestant faith dominant in England. In its place the plotters planned to restore the Roman Catholic religion and enthrone a puppet princess.
Virtually all people believed the government message that this had only been averted at the last minute by providential good luck: so an explosion of relief and rejoicing was both inevitable and appropriate.
There was however another reason for the success of the new festival that lay in the fact that one of the victims of the Reformation had been the very rich festive calendar of religious and secular seasonal celebration developed during the Middle Ages and commonly remembered as ‘Merry England’. The newly Protestant nation was remarkably bare of regular festivity. Celebration of delivery from the plot provided not only an expression of hatred of Catholicism and loyalty to the reformed faith, but a major annual opportunity for merrymaking.
It came, moreover, at just the right moment: the onset of winter, when a lift to the spirits was badly needed and the accompanying use of bonfires and fireworks embodied the primeval human joy of raising fire against the night. That element’s heartening associations of light and warmth functioned as a cathartic response to the encroaching darkness and cold of the season, enabling the English to go into them without fear. The result was a cocktail of benefits, combining patriotism, communal solidarity and a visceral seasonal need to produce a festival of exceptional emotional resonance, flexibility and staying power.
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