05 Nov 2008

Guy Fawkes Day

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Procession of a Guy

From Robert Chambers, The Book of Days, 1869:

Till lately, a special service for the 5th of November formed part of the ritual of the English Book of Common Prayer; but by a recent ordinance of the Queen in Council, this service, along with those for the Martyrdom of Charles I, and the Restoration of Charles II, has been abolished. The appointment of this day, as a holiday, dates from an enactment of the British parliament passed in January 1606, shortly after the narrow escape made by the legislature from the machinations of Guy Fawkes and his confederates.

That the gunpowder treason, however, should pass into oblivion is not likely, as long as the well-known festival of Guy Fawkes’s Day is observed by English juveniles, who still regard the 5th of November as one of the most joyous days of the year. The universal mode of observance through all parts of England, is the dressing up of a scarecrow figure, in such cast-habiliments as can be procured (the head-piece, generally a paper-cap, painted and knotted with paper strips in imitation of ribbons), parading it in a chair through the streets, and at nightfall burning it with great solemnity in a huge bonfire. The image is supposed to represent Guy Fawkes, in accordance with which idea, it always carries a dark lantern in one hand, and a bunch of matches in the other. The procession visits the different houses in the neighbourhood in succession, repeating the time-honoured rhyme:

’ Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
There is no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!’

Numerous variations and additions are made in different parts of the country. Thus in Islip, Oxfordshire, the following lines, as quoted by Sir Henry Ellis in his edition of Brand’s Popular Antiquities, are chanted.

‘The fifth of November,
Since I can remember,
Gunpowder treason and plot:
This is the day that God did prevent,
To blow up his king and parliament.
A stick and a stake,
For Victoria’s sake;
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two:
The better for me,
And the worse for you.’

One invariable custom is always maintained on these occasions—that of soliciting money from the passers-by, in the formula, ‘Pray remember Guy!’ ‘Please to remember Guy!’ or ‘Please to remember the bonfire!’

In former times, in London, the burning of the effigy of Guy Fawkes on the 5th of November was a most important and portentous ceremony. The bonfire in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was conducted on an especially magnificent scale. Two hundred cart-loads of fuel would sometimes be consumed in feeding this single fire, while upwards of thirty ‘Guys’ would be suspended on gibbets and committed to the flames. Another tremendous pile was heaped up by the butchers in Clare Market, who on the same evening paraded through the streets in great force, serenading the citizens with the famed ‘marrow-bone-and-cleaver’ music. The uproar throughout the town from the shouts of the mob, the ringing of the bells in the churches, and the general confusion which prevailed, can but faintly be imagined by an individual of the present day.

The ferment occasioned throughout the country by the ‘Papal Aggression’ in 1850, gave a new direction to the genius of 5th of November revellers. Instead of Guy Fawkes, a figure of Cardinal Wiseman, then recently created ‘Archbishop of Westminster’ by the pope, was solemnly burned in effigy in London, amid demonstrations which certainly gave little evidence of any revolution in the feelings of the English people towards the Romish see. In 1857, a similar honour was accorded to Nana Sahib, whose atrocities at Cawnpore in the previous month of July, had excited such a cry of horror throughout the civilised world.

The opportunity also is frequently seized by many of that numerous class in London, who get their living no one exactly knows how, to earn a few pence by parading through the streets, on the 5th of November, gigantic figures of the leading celebrities of the day. These are sometimes rather ingeniously got up, and the curiosity of the passer-by, who stops to look at them, is generally taxed with the contribution of a copper.

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Sallie Parker

The whole Guy Fawkes conspiracy was a put-up job. The “plot” was known to agents of the Crown and abetted and maintained by them long after most of Fawkes’s associates had dropped out. The anti-Catholic faction in the Government feared that the new King James, with a Catholic wife and a beheaded Catholic mother, might be rather lenient on those who remained loyal the faith of there (and his) fathers. So they concocted this most convenient tale of the “Gunpowder Plot.”



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