Blazing fireworks shatter an otherwise peaceful night sky, pin-wheeling and bursting with a resounding boom. Flames lick the air, sparking playfully around the feigned figure of a man, Guy Fawkes.
While such fiery festivities are not a likely spectacle on the Albion College campus, the school’s famous rock may feature a large V within the first week of November in recognition of Guy Fawkes Day and the 2005 film V for Vendetta, which loosely draws from it. Other than this casual gesture, any formal celebration will surely find itself overshadowed by Halloween.
This Nov. 5 marks the 408th anniversary of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which an assassination attempt was made against King James I of England and VI of Scotland. 13 English Catholics planned to demolish the House of Lords during Parliament’s State Opening, aiming to kill the king and replace him with a Catholic head of state. Around midnight on Nov. 4, however, authorities found Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder and arrested him immediately. In total nine plot members, Fawkes among them, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
Londoners lit celebratory bonfires in recognition of the king’s survival, credited to divine intervention. This practice achieved greater social significance through the January 1606 passage of the Thanksgiving Act, which enforced acknowledgment of James I’s escape from the fatal intentions of particularly rebellious Englishmen.
Known in the early 17th century as Gunpowder Treason Day, the occasion is laced with distinctly religious overtones of anti-Catholic sentiment. Considerably spiritual in nature, the event channeled Protestant pride into demonstrations against such Catholic figures such as the pope.
The anti-Catholic theme at the heart of the festival fluctuated throughout the 19th century, eventually reaching moderate insignificance. Following the 1800 union of Great Britain and Ireland, tremendous civil disorder necessitated the 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act, granting Catholics greater rights. This generally lessened public condemnation, though the holiday experienced a resurgence following the pope’s 1850 renewal of the English Catholic hierarchy. Protests gradually fell out of popularity and in March 1859 the Thanksgiving Act was repealed, removing the obligation to honor the former king’s brush with death.
The image of Fawkes was thereafter rehabilitated, acquiring a more sympathetic quality. Albion College’s associate professor of European history, Chris Hagerman, attributes this to the lessening of the holiday’s religious component in favor of its anarchist implications.
Burning hate-figures soon substituted Fawkes effigies, placing what may seem an irrelevant and outdated practice in a contemporary setting. The 1970s and 80s gave rise to effigies of Margaret Thatcher, whose policies were deeply unpopular amongst the working class.
Hagerman explains that Fawkes, “was this evil incarnate, so you had a wonderful ritual where you got to set off fireworks and burn him every year. That boogeyman status can be transferred to whatever your present-day boogeyman is.”
The fun of watching tongues of flame curl feverishly around the model of a detested individual transcends time. It is a ritual which boldly tests the boundaries of what’s acceptable.
“Participation in these rituals can act as a kind of safety valve,” Hagerman asserts. “It allows us to blow off the steam that builds up in our lives. You do kind of sketchy things, and that allows you to carry on with your regular life without having a major revolution.”
Though Guy Fawkes Day and its original historical significance – a failed attempt to overturn Protestant supremacy and restore Catholic monarchy – have mostly faded into irrelevance, there are occasions which call for the holiday’s revival. Now a medium of political dissatisfaction, demonstrations of social unrest persist.
Hagerman even alludes that “you might find them burning David Cameron in effigy next year.”
Despite the permanency of its political sway in England, Guy Fawkes Day usually passes unobserved in America. Albion College is no exception, especially considering the relative enormity of Halloween celebrations on campus. Hagerman agrees that Guy Fawkes Day is a parochial holiday, “pushed aside in favor of chocolate and ghosts.”
Portrait photo by Emma Planet
Guy Fawkes photo courtesy of wikipedia.org
Albion rock photo courtesy of Dannie Fountain