At the very core of civilisations throughout history, there is a grim paradox that might generally be observed: namely, that within civilisation resides the morbid yearning for its antithesis. Nowhere is this more apparent than through cultural preoccupations with violent spectacle and in particular the phenomenon of public executions. Historically, such public forms of capital punishment not only provided the state with an opportunity to potently assert its authority over dissenting persons but also, by virtue of the general public being able to voluntarily attend these executions, it delivered a strikingly grotesque form of entertainment. On 31st January 1606, one such spectacle was partly frustrated. Having witnessed the seven remaining fellow conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot being hanged, drawn and quartered before his own ascent to the scaffold, Guy Fawkes was able to avoid the same fate through a final act of defiance, by jumping from the scaffold and breaking his neck. Undeterred by this slight setback to the proceedings, the executioner quartered his body and his remains were disseminated throughout the kingdom to serve as a powerful deterrent for other potential traitors.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a religiously motivated assassination attempt against James I by a group of Catholics, led by Robert Catesby. The increasing marginalisation of Catholicism and the penalties imposed upon Catholics under Elizabeth I and the failure of her successor, James I, to promote religious tolerance was the primary motivation for the attempted assassination. The plotters conspired to use gunpowder in order to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5th November 1605, with the aim of killing the king along with the Privy Council in order to restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. The plot was revealed through an anonymous letter to Baron Monteagle, resulting in the discovery of Guy Fawkes along with 36 barrels of gunpowder – enough to decimate the House of Lords. After extensive torture, Guy Fawkes revealed his co-conspirators and they were summarily hunted down and those who survived the ensuing altercations were put on trial.
The legacy of the public execution of Guy Fawkes and the frustrated revolutionary ambitions of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 remains a significant aspect of British cultural memory, commemorated throughout the United Kingdom and areas of the Commonwealth annually on November 5th. Originally conceived as a celebration of failed revolt and the opportunity for the public to partake in a form of state-approved mass condemnation, four centuries on Bonfire Night remains a means of expressing public denunciations of unpopular figures. One of the most recent choices was Harvey Weinstein, in the wake of a torrent of sexual abuse and harassment allegations from women, whose effigy was burned by the Edenbridge Bonfire Society in Kent this year. Other popular choices of guys this year were effigies of Theresa May, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un. Alongside these effigies, Guy Fawkes remains the prominent focus of ritualistic burning. Although this is clearly divorced from the suffering of the human being, it nevertheless morbidly re-enacts the spectacle of capital punishment in a way that highlights that perhaps the distant past isn’t quite so distant as it first appears.
Another way in which Bonfire Night’s widespread celebration betrays the persistence of past norms in the present day is the spectre of anti-Catholicism. In an age that appears to have moved past the sectarian religious divisions of early modern British history, Bonfire Night serves as a reminder that some of these issues still feature implicitly in our societal consciousness. In the years following Fawkes’s execution, the celebration was an unambiguous vehicle for the denunciation of Catholicism, and often formed a platform for sermons on this theme, along with the ritual burning of effigies of the Pope. Nowadays, it is unlikely that many people enjoying bonfire night will have specifically anti-Catholic reasons for doing so, or will even be particularly aware of the religious implications of the celebration. However, some organisers continue to court controversy on this front; Bonfire Night festivities in the East Sussex town of Lewes involve the burning of an effigy of Pope Paul V, the presiding Pope at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, and was also until recently the focus of criticism for the inclusion of racist Zulu warrior caricatures in their annual parade. It is easy to downplay the religious assumptions and complications of Bonfire Night, but conflict between Catholics and Protestants is not distant history—the Troubles in Northern Ireland saw violent sectarian conflict on religious grounds that only drew to an end in 1998, and their effects are still keenly felt in local communities to this day. As with other popular festivals in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, Bonfire Night is a cause for enjoyment, but its origins and its dogma also bear viewing through a critical lens, in a bid to ensure that current celebrations do not replicate past mistakes.
Hannah and Erin are both second-year PhD students at King’s College London and editors on the Still Point Journal team.