Wednesday, 5 November 2008

And Now, a Little History Lesson

We turned the clocks back last weekend so it is lighter in the morning and dark earlier. What is the use of that, I don't know, but the kids do: time for firecrackers! They have to practice, you know, get warmed up for the real event: Guy Fawkes Night, the 5th of November. Oh, right, you say. OK. Here's the background:

I think most people are vaguely aware that Henry the VIIIth established the Protestant church so he (and millions of men ever after) could dump his older wife and replace her with a newer model. Consequently, with the new church with the King as the head of that church, it wasn't really a good time to be Catholic. Though his daughter, Elizabeth I, was perhaps a bit more tolerant having lived through scary times herself, it was definitely healthier during her reign to be a Protestant.

Being the 'Virgin Queen' and never having any children, she arranged for her successor to be James I (of England) / VI (of Scotland), also a Protestant in spite of the fact that his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was Catholic. Elizabeth died in 1604 and in 1605, there was a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament because they were unhappy about James I not being nicer to them than he was.

Though he was not the leading conspirator, Guy Fawkes was caught guarding the 36 barrels and thus the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. Guy Fawkes was hung, drawn and quartered, and thanks to the movie Braveheart we all know just what that means. Strangely, it was a long time before I understood exactly what the celebration meant, as Guy Fawkes' name doesn't seem to provoke any sense of him being a bad guy. In fact, kids go around asking for a 'penny for the Guy', something like American kids ask for candy on Halloween. Strictly speaking they should be with their effigy of Guy Fawkes, but the few I've seen had painted faces and some sort of scrappy costume.

5 November celebrations used to be about collecting wood and debris and building huge bonfires. One of my first trips to London after moving here in September was on a train the night of Bonfire Night. It was eerie seeing all the towering fires along the railway line and it felt as though a modern day revolution was being undertaken. Effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned on the bonfires (I don't know if he gets hung drawn and quartered first), but I read that other effigies are sometimes burned in current day celebrations (depending upon the politics of the pyromaniac in charge).

So, the celebration is that the Gunpowder Plot failed and that King James I (yes, the one gave us a version of the Bible) and Parliament did
not get blown up and everyone in the UK (and some of the other Commonwealth countries) is happy about that. In fact, up until 1859, there was a Royal Decree making it compulsory for people in the UK to be happy about that. Apparently someone during Queen Victoria's reign though it was OK to lighten up about it. More recently, the fire department goes around putting out bonfires and the Environment Agency says that people shouldn't use the occasion for burning toxic rubbish (duh). Air quality isn't so great with all those fires either.

At some point it looks like the Halloween thing (which Bill reminds me has European roots, not American) and Guy Fawkes got caught up with New Years Eve's fireworks. Perhaps fireworks are considered ecologically (or economically) superior to big bonfires. Or maybe they just need to get in a lot of practice for the New Year thing.

1 comment:

Rick Stone said...

Isn't it wrong to shoot fireworks at anytime other than July 4th. Oh, I guess that is not a holiday over there, huh? ;->