Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
On the fifth day of November 1605, after an anonymous tip-off, a man was found in the House of Lords keeping watch over 36 barrels of explosives. That man was of course Guy Fawkes, the most famous of the thirteen Catholic conspirators who attempted to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland.
King James I of England & VI of Scotland
They were not doing out of sheer spite, you understand, in fact they had pretty good reason to do it. James was a Protestant, as was Elizabeth I before him. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, after becoming sick of being told what to do by the Roman Catholic Church, essentially created Protestantism so he could do anything – or anyone – he liked. This made him the Head of the Church rather than the Pope – something that still exists to this day. In fact, it will be this year – 2011 – where a long-time law will eventually be dropped allowing members of the royal family to marry Roman Catholics. Anyway to be Catholic was to be hated – you had no few rights and any public servant or member of the Church Office had to swear an allegiance to the Church of England. Several attempts to assassinate the monarch previously had been unsuccessful, but the Gunpowder Plot was the closest anyone had ever got to getting the job done.
A contemporary depiction of some of the conspirators
Guy Fawkes is the third from the right
Guy Fawkes may be the best known of the conspirators, but he was certainly not the ringleader – that was a man called Robert Catesby. No, Fawkes was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and because he was caught red-handed, it was he that was made an example of. Even though he was caught and arrested, he only confessed to the full crimes after three days of torture. Eights of the conspirators were caught and hung, drawn and quartered.
Fawkes’s signature before torture…
Of course anyone who was a Protestant celebrated this fact and it soon became customary to build bonfires on the fifth of November and in its early days it was used as another excuse to persecute any Catholics that may be living in your neighbourhood. However, the decades and centuries passed, and for most people Guy Fawkes Night is simply a great British custom where we get to huddle round a big bonfire, set off our fireworks – and most important of all – eat some food.
British celebrations always have feasts, or at least certain foods, associated with them and Bonfire Night is no exception. It may not have a very long list, but they are some of the most delicious foods. I think it is because it is associated with cosiness – big coats, big scarves and big hunks of cake and toffee, all washed down with a big mug of tea.
One of the most exciting things for me as a child was baking potatoes in the bonfire. The potatoes were wrapped in aluminium foil and gingerly placed in the white-hot embers with the use of a stick and left there for an hour or so to cook before being fished out and eaten greedily with lots of melted butter. There is no better baked potato than a bonfire-baked potato let me tell you. If you are having a bonfire, give them a go, you will not be disappointed.
This time of year is the best for cakes and toffees – they are commonly heavily flavoured with black treacle and spices, all very provocative and medieval-feeling. The four that spring to mind are Yorkshire parkin, bonfire toffee, cinder toffee and toffee apples. It is these autumn and winter foods that I love the most, and miss the most. I am hunting down the ingredients to make some of these myself whilst I am here in the USA – the recipes will follow of course.
One last thing: if you are having a bonfire, don’t forget to check it before you light it, just in case a little hedgehog has made its little hibernation home in there. Roasted hedgehog should certainly not be on the menu…