All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en), October 31st
All Hallows Day/ All Saints Day, November 1st
All Souls Day, November 2nd
These festivals all have a common theme. They mark the coming of Winter, and the need for light and warmth as the nights get longer and the days colder. It is also a time for remembering. In this time, the Church remembers all those who have died, not just the great saints, but also those who are only remembered by their own families. Some of the acts of remembrance have their origins, or beginnings, in pre-Christian, or ‘pagan’ times.
Hallowe’en was the eve of the Celtic New Year, the Autumn festival in honour of the sun god, giving thanks for the harvest. The central part of the ceremony was the lighting of a bonfire celebrating Samhain, the lord of death, at the dying of the year, when he called together the souls of the ‘wicked’, or evil spirits, who were condemned to live in the bodies of animals. In Ireland, until recent times, the festival was a time for night walks and dressing up, wearing masks and telling stories about ghosts and witches. The games, still played today, included ‘bobbing for apples’, when children try to get apples out of a barrel of water using only their teeth. The parties are held by candlelight, with the candles shaded in lanterns made from vegetables which cast strange patterns against walls. Today, these are made from pumpkins, giving the celebrations the orange colours to go with the black. The lanterns were carried from door to door, with the children singing and dancing, rewarded for their efforts by a candle or a coin. This tradition survives in the ‘trick or treat’ custom, when the householder pays up to avoid having a trick played on them. The Irish people who settled in the USA took this custom with them, and it is still popular there today. It has also become a custom in Britain, where lantern-making and apple-bobbing were the main activities before.
All Saints Day is the one celebration, other than Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, which Catholics and Protestants have shared throughout the centuries in Britain and Ireland. Only the patron saints of the four countries are remembered on other days, but All Saints was a day for remembering all worthy Christians. On All Souls Day the Church remembers all those who have died. In the past, candles were lit and the home is made clean and tidy, so that the souls of the dead could visit. These days, in some churches, people give in the names of people they wish to be remembered in special prayers.
Bonfire Night comes at a good mid-way point between the end of Summer and Christmas as an excuse for a big bonfire and a lot of fun with fireworks and food, including burgers, sausages and hot potatoes with butter. Originally, an ‘effigy’ of Guy Fawkes was put on top of the fire and burnt to remember that on 4th November 1605 Guy, or Guido, was discovered underneath the House of Parliament with a large number of barrels of gunpowder. He later confessed, after torture, that he intended to use them to blow up the Palace of Westminster when the King was due to open Parliament the next morning, killing the King, his sons and his noble lords.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November;
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
I see no reason why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!”
‘Guy’ had been hired by a group of Catholic gentlemen from the Midlands, who were disappointed with King James for breaking his promise to allow them to worship in freedom. They planned to kill him and his sons and put his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, on the throne in his place. She was living at a house in the Midlands, near Coventry, with her tutor. The conspirators had to work in secret, of course, because they knew that many Catholics, as well as Protestants, would not support their ‘Plot’. Robert Catesby was the leader of the Catholic gentlemen in this. Guy Fawkes, a soldier, was the Gunpowder expert. He took the name of John Johnson and pretended to be a servant of Thomas Percy, who was renting a house next to the Parliament building, then a much smaller one than the one we know today. Percy was responsible for the action in London, while Catesby gathered the ‘gentry’ and their servants near Coventry and provided them with horses and weapons. However, in order to provide all this, too many people were told about the Plot, and Robert Cecil, James’ ‘spy-master’ found out about it from one of the Catholic lords, a relative of one of the plotters, who was warned to stay away from the opening of Parliament.
Just before midnight on the eve of November 5th, Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellar below Westminster Palace in London, and the gunpowder barrels were uncovered. Fawkes was carrying a lantern, which can still be seen in the University of Oxford’s Library. He was tortured in the Tower of London, but did not give the names of his fellow-conspirators. They went on with their plan to seize the Princess Elizabeth the next day, but she had already been moved into the walled city of Coventry for safe-keeping. They rode through the Midlands, desperately trying to get support, but the Sheriff of Worcester’s men eventually cornered them at Holbeach House. Making a heroic, but hopeless, last stand, they were either shot or captured. Those who survived were tried and executed, along with Fawkes, who had already confessed. They were all hung by the neck, cut down while still alive, dragged through the streets of London until dead, and their bodies were cut into quarters. This was what happened to those found guilty of ‘treason’ against their king. People everywhere in Britain were horrified when the news of the plot spread, and bonfires were lit everywhere in joy at the survival of the King, his children, and his Parliament.
Effigies of Guy Fawkes were burnt on the bonfires, beginning a tradition which has continued for four hundred years until quite recently. To this day, when the monarch opens Parliament, the royal guard make a thorough search of the buildings for any modern-day terrorist and explosives. ‘Guys’ are still made by children in the week before Bonfire Night, and are paraded in the streets where passers-by are asked for ‘a penny for the guy’. Firework manufacturers also do well at this time of year, but serious accidents have led to restrictions in recent years, and most people now attend safe, professional firework displays, rather than holding parties in their back gardens as they did before. The biggest danger now comes from the fires themselves, with smoke drifting across motorways and main roads. Most people have long ago given up the anti-Catholic purpose of the event. Now, it simply provides a welcome and warming opportunity for coming together at what can be a miserable time of year, as Winter weather, with cold winds and hard rain, takes hold. The smoky atmosphere of a bonfire is ideal for enjoying sizzling sausages and buttered potatoes ‘baked in the jacket’.
However, the British haven’t entirely forgotten the plan to blow up Parliament and steal the young Princess Elizabeth from her tutor’s house, eventually to be made Queen Elizabeth II, a queen who would tolerate Catholics. In fact, she was a strong Protestant herself by this time, and her tutor, Lord Harington, wrote a letter a few months later in which he reported that she often said:
“What a Queen I would have been by these means. I would rather have been with my Royal Father in the Parliament House, than wear his crown on such a condition.”
Eight years later, on Valentine’s Day 1613, aged sixteen, she was married from her apartments in Whitehall in London (in what is now Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister), to the German Protestant Prince Frederick, and went to live with him in his fairy-tale castle at Heidelberg. He had a whole new ‘wing’ of the castle specially built for her. They later became the King and Queen of Bohemia until they were forced to flee after just one winter on the throne by the invading Hapsburgs. When Frederick was killed in battle trying to regain his kingdom, Heidelberg was also reduced to ruins by the Emperor’s army, and Elizabeth was forced to find refuge with her Dutch relatives in the Hague, where she became known as ‘the Queen of Hearts’, because what she lacked in money she made up for in her love for all around her, and she was much-loved in return. She was unable to return to England when Civil War broke out there, but her sons, Maurice and Rupert, born in Germany, went back to fight as ‘cavaliers’ for her younger brother, Charles Stuart. King Charles I declared war on Parliament, eventually losing to Oliver Cromwell’s ‘roundheads’ in 1648. He was tried and beheaded in 1649. Elizabeth did eventually return following the restoration of the monarchy in England under her nephew, Charles II, in 1660. When the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, died in 1714, without children to succeed her, Elizabeth’s grandson, George I, became the first Hanoverian monarch of Great Britain. The current Queen, the real Elizabeth II, is directly descended from his German family.
Student Task (complete for homework):
Imagine you in England on a school trip in November and have just attended Bonfire Night with your English host family. Write an e-mail to your brother, sister, or best friend in English, telling them the story of the Gunpowder Plot. Then describe how you saw November 5th being celebrated. (250-400 words).
Robin Moore, A History of Coombe Abbey, Coventry, 1983
Alice Buchan, A Stuart Portrait, London, 1934
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