As children, we were often not sure why we were standing around bonfires or watching fireworks on November 5th; on a cold, clear night it seemed a fun thing to do. Ancient Celtic celebrations marked this time of year as it moved from light summer to dark winter with a fire festival, but the origins of the English “Bonfire Night” are somewhat more serious and not quite such fun.
On the 5 November 1605, a man called Guy Fawkes was guarding explosives that had been placed beneath the House of Lords in London with a view to blowing it up. James I had recently become King of England following the death of Elizabeth I two years earlier and British politics were dominated by religious dissent. The plot was discovered and the Catholic insurgents – Fawkes and his companions – were arrested. Ironically, James I’s speech to his first English Parliament had detailed his desire to avoid religious persecution and further confrontation but it was a deeply divided country, marked by martyrdom and distrust, and the rebels were promptly executed.
People lit bonfires around London to celebrate the failure of the plot and King James I introduced a compulsory observance and thanksgiving holiday to celebrate the failure of the plot – the 5th November Act. This holiday created a focal point for anti-Catholic feeling with effigies of Guy Fawkes, or indeed the Pope, being burnt on ceremonial bonfires. This practice and the holiday continued with renewed fervour when King Charles I (son of James I) married a Roman Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria of France and further fuel was added, so to speak, when the Protestant William of Orange, who was chosen to become King of England following the deposition of the Catholic James II in 1688, arrived in Britain on November 5th.
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made ’em all run.
And stole all their Bonfire away
Anti-Catholic feelings continued to rumble on until, eventually, the public holiday element of November 5th was removed in 1859, though the fireworks and bonfires continue to this day.
We have not had bonfire parties here at Highclere on 5th November for many years, mainly through reason of “Health and Safety” but I have never really liked the idea of putting a “Guy” on the top. However, like everyone else, I love watching fireworks. Rather than have them in November, instead we have a great firework concert here every year on the first Saturday evening of August. It is called the Battle Proms and has plenty of fireworks and cannon and guns going off but it does not involve bonfires or a gunpowder plot. Hopefully, though one can never be certain in England, it is also a good deal warmer than November.
The Houses of Parliament survived another two hundred years until October 16th, 1834, when the clerk of works decided to dispose of obsolete accounts in two underfloor stoves in the basement of the House of Lords. This led to a massive fire which destroyed most of the buildings.
Two years later, architect Sir Charles Barry won the commission to rebuild the Houses of Parliament to the well-known design we see today.
Then in 1838, the same architect began to work on sketches for a new Highclere House, with the first stone laid in 1842. It was apparently one of his happiest projects; a “splendid and pleasing” design which I think still looks beautiful today from every angle.
I know that many visitors and guests are drawn to Highclere by the world depicted in “Downton Abbey”, for which I am ever grateful. However, just for a change, I thought next May at Highclere I would explore the wider world of Architecture and Art, just for a week, to think about the glorious space and paintings which we enjoy here, before taking visitors off on tours around a building that will soon not just be recognisable from a television series, but which will also feature on the silver screen!
Hello Lady Carnarvon,
I was with the group of ladies who enjoyed a private visit of your lovely home on Oct. 8. The Cooking School Ladies from the USA! We all enjoyed meeting you and most have signed up for your Blogs and have purchased your books online or in the Highclere gift shop. We spoke of coming back to do cooking classes at Highclere with you! Please keep in touch so we can make that happen, and meanwhile, thank you for your educational and entertaining blogs! Rosie Flanagan
I am so glad you enjoyed your visit.
Beautiful beautiful pictures and someday I would love to visit Highclere Castle. Hopefully I make it before the end of my days ❤️
I hope so too!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Highclere is filled with so many treasures from generations of collectors; wouldn’t another book featuring the history and stories behind the furnishings, paintings and Objet d’ art be wonderful!
Thank you for your Monday morning blogs, such a lovely way to begin each week….
There are a series of books it would be fun to write!
I think doing an event with an architecture and art is wonderful. Our experience when we came to Highclere was enlightening. When we arrived our focus at first was seeing the home in Downton Abbey and reliving some of the scenes. In a very short period of time it changed to learning of all the important events that happened there historically, and honestly, learning about the Carnarvon history.
The castle is rich with architectural and historical detail. The landscape architecture is likely my favorite in the world.
The King Tut exhibition is breathtaking.
I love the Downton aspect, but the “real” history, architecture and art taught me so much.
Thank you – I am so glad you enjoyed it.
Thank you, Lady Carnarvon
What a LONG history Britain has. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
The excitement of fireworks for a celebration has always been a favorite way for all to be included, I like how you brought the story around to a favorite event.
I would enjoy seeing and reading about your beautiful castles long Architectural and Art history. Please do consider doing as you said sometime next year.
It will be the week commencing 12th May 2019
Beautiful words written to acknowledge Charles Barry.
Hello Lady Carnarvon,
Have you decided what week in May you will be having the Architecture and Art event? I’m going to be touring England in May and would love to partake in it. It’s my first trip to England so of course I’m very excited to take in all of your beauty, culture and food!
It will be the week beginning 12th May next year
Thank you for the facinating history lesson.
Hello Lady Carnarvon,
Thank you for sharing the spectacular fireworks photos and the historical insights! An art and architecture event at Highclere would be an incredible experience. While I thoroughly enjoyed Downton Abbey (I love a great story!), I have always been drawn to Highclere’s stunning architecture and art. I dream of visiting the castle, drinking a cup of tea, and meeting your horses. Please keep us posted.
The Woodlands, Texas
I hope you will come here
Oh what good news, an event with the architectural and art history of Highclere! I shall try to come in May. During my visit back in 2015, I was most interested in the Van Dyke, Joshua Reynolds, etc. art treasures that are at Highclere, more so than following our guide around the “Downton” sights. Ok, well, that was fun, too. Hoping to one day see a book about the art treasures of Highclere Castle!
Thank you for this blog, as I always wonder why it was called “Bonfire Day” in “Bridget Jones’ Diary”.
And that is a stunning photo of Highclere with the fireworks!
Interesting read, thanks for sharing it. Our wonderful PBS shared your film about your home and estate, it was wonderful. Of course Downton Abbey is the best ever. Thank you.
Being married to an architect I have learned to appreciate structures and what it takes to design them along with the engineering of load bearing walls etc. it amazes me how a building remains upright and does’t wiggle! Highclere is an amazing structure that an architect in the 1800’s had the knowledge to design sand still stands today. This is not even saying anything about the gorgeous interiors along with the art.
Thank you for the history lesson —
I am glad it does not wiggle too much !
I spent 6 yrs of my childhood in the UK as the dependent of my Father who was in the Air Force. I have many fond memories of the November 5th bonfires. You are right about mostly not knowing what it was all about. I just knew that the neighborhood got together for an event that was exciting and seemed to be a bonding agent among us all. The building of the bonfire and lighting it and watching it dwindle away while bathed in its warmth is a memory I will treasure. Thanks for the reminder, you made me smile.
I enjoyed your blog this week and especially the photo! I am an art lover and look forward to the architecture and art blog, as I pay particular attention to all the paintings when I watch Downton Abbey reruns.
Thank you for another interesting history lesson. I have heard of Guy Fawkes but didn’t know what made him famous or should I say infamous. Today, I also learned that Charles Barry was the architect who designed both the Houses of Parliament and your beautiful home, Highclere Castle.
I look forward to reading your blogs every Monday. Thank you for keeping in touch.
MY DEAR LADY CARNARVON,
WHAT BOOK IN ENGLISH YOU WOULD INDICATE ABOUT ARCHITECTURE AND THE ARTS FOR AN EQUA LAYWOMAN I WOULD LEARNED A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE ARTS MENTIONED HERE THANK YOU EN ADVANCE FOR YOUR ATTENTION AND AFFECTION.
MARIA AUGUSTA PINHEIRO VILA ALEMÃ RIO CLARO SP BRAZIL.
I might try to put together a booklet for the May week – again I am thinking about the space, the home which is both that of Highclere asn yet where Downton is filmed and the architecture plays a role in the TV/film as well. I hope the week will interest many people with different aspects
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
At a relatively young age, we were taught (in Sydney) about Guy Fawkes and the 5th November. However, it wasn’t celebrated here as our ‘fireworks day” (or as more commonly referred to during my youth as “cracker night”).
Up until my final year in Infants School, we celebrated “cracker night” in Sydney on Empire Day, which fell on 24th May; being the birthday of Queen Victoria.
School children received a half day holiday. At my (infants) school, the morning at school was a “toffee day”. So it was basically a full day (and night) of fun.
All the mums and grandmothers would cook a batch of toffee treats the night before and they would be delivered to the school and then sold to the students for twopence or threepence. (In 1967, Australia converted to dollars and cents.)
The celebration of Empire Day faded and our “cracker night” was changed to the second weekend in June. That is when we celebrate the Queen’s Birthday by having a long weekend, despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s Birthday actually falls on 21st April.
Initially, my father purchased fireworks for the family but I am certain that by my 8th birthday, if not earlier, I was able to purchase all manner of fireworks. It’s quite astonishing that children that young were able to buy what amounted to ‘explosives’.
But weren’t they magnificent!
Bungers, rockets, throw-downs, double-happys, Roman candles, Catherine wheels, sparklers, halfpenny bungers, Tom-thumbs and the big double-bunger. Basically a pre-teen with enough pocket-money could aquire an entire arsenal!
As my brother and I grew older we joined with other neighbourhood children in erecting our own bonfires in a nearby paddock. We never topped it with a ‘Guy Fawkes effigy’. I Carta only was unaware of that ‘tradition’. Also, old tyres doused in kerosene burnt much better!
Although we avoided any serious accidents – possibly through good fortune rather than good management- amongst the general public there were too many burn victims and eye injuries that occurred every cracker night, not to mention the frightening night that it posed for family cats and dogs.
Eventually a ban was placed on the individual purchase of fireworks and Sydney’s last “cracker night”, as I had known it as a child, took place in
Fireworks displays still take place over the Queen’s Birthday weekend but they are usually managed by Local Councils or groups with special permission.
Sydney’s biggest fireworks display now takes place on New Years Eve. It focuses on and around our Harbour.
Numerous pontoons full of fireworks are staggered strategically along the harbour and with precise synchronisation they produce a uniform display down the harbour which is spectacular. The Harbour Bridge and Sydney Tower also serve as “launching pads” with the Bridge always conveying a message for the New Year.
An early fireworks display – mainly for the benefit of families with young children, but which is enjoyed by all – takes place a few hours before the main display at midnight, which now lasts for about 10 minutes. In past years, it was considerably longer.
Another good display of fireworks takes place in Sydney on Australia Day, 26th January. One also will come across bursts of fireworks displays in Sydney at other times of year – particularly over Summer, when the whole City is generally in party mode.
I hope that one day you and all readers of your blog get to experience a New Year’s Eve in Sydney.
Regards & best wishes,
Dear Jeffery, again, a wonderful comment, stirring many memories for me of thrillingly scary Cracker Nights of my childhood in Caringbah, NSW.
Last night I stood with friends to watch a magnificent Bonfire Night display in Bridgnorth, Shropshire.
This morning will be the Remembrance Day service traditions in the town.
Kind regards, Kim
That is such a lovely blog about November the 5th. We always had the shivers about burning Guy Fawkes too. A bit too near home! How much nicer to have fireworks away from the anniversary of that dreadful time. My most vivid memory is of a cold November night , husband away , sparklers in the kitchen yard, trying to grill sausages on a tiny tin grill and my little boys face peeping out of an anorak hood. I like the Fourth of July here in Texas much better, the grill is better too !
I enjoyed the piece of history! What was Highclere before the actual building? Would you have any pictures of it?
The first picture is beautiful, I can only imagine how spectacular and magic it is to have fireworks at Highclere! Another reason to wish to go back!!! (c ;
I have sort of plans from the 13th century and can mark the bounds from 749AD
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I am hoping before taking my Last Tea, to visit your beautiful home! It has been a wish of mine since the Downton Abbey days. I love reading your stories and comings and goings through the year. Your love for this wonderful place makes me smile. My dear Grandma always told me to hold dear to my heart, the things that I love…and those things will last forever.
Happy Christmas to you and Your Family!
I’m really looking forward to visiting next May! We have bonfires in the winter and I just love sitting around them, but I never knew the origins in England. The persecution still exists today where religion still divides us – Anti-catholic or Anti-Semetic – the recent killings at the Synagogue just show that people still hate. Mr. Trump goes on about immigrants ruining our country , but every mass shooting we have had is a white supremist, which is killing people in our country – not immigrants – my point being we have not seen very much progress in our history. I love history and the way you incorporate it into your blog – God Bless Everyone –
People don’t seem change, but we always hope – I always hope
Excellent post today. I, as always look forward to your reflections and hope to one day again visit your lovely home.
I’m so sorry to miss the architecture and art event. I just made plans and will be visiting on May 28 for the first time. If you do put together a booklet I hope they will still be available.
Interesting story on November 5th bonfires. I have to say the 1838 sketch of the Castle is absolutely beautiful. I am sure that in the movie Highclere Castle will look as lovely as it always does.
Thank you – I think it will look stunning !! It has been very interesting watching…
Totally agree that a book or a series of books detailing the architecture, paintings etc is an excellent idea. In addition, I’ll be waiting excitedly to purchase it, if and when it becomes a reality.
I also feel that a video detailing the architecture would be great to watch for those who for whatever reason can’t make it to Highclere.
I have to say I prefer
Please to remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot
There are many versions, some quiet unpleasant!
Excellent blog with wonderful explanation of the “Bonfire”. I was introduced to the event in Scottsdale AZ. I also met, tasted and realized that mushy peas, bangers and mash were to be a one-time experience for me. Someone played the (bag)pipes and a grand time was had by all. My dear friend who had invited me later received a treat of my childhood dishes. She was polite about the dishes which were well-seasoned. Alligator just didn’t appeal to her.
I enjoy your sharing the history and experiences that developed Highclere into the presence it is today and the joy it brings to so many.
Be well. Thank you.
Thank you. Bangers and mash are always a great favourite on Bonfire night.
When does the movie come on the silver screen.
Weill it also be available to PBS??
Hope so as I do not go to the movies any more.
Thanks again for the sparkling Blogs.
Still waiting for you to send me your address in Newberry.
Looking forward to hearing from you.
The film comes out on 13th September 2019 in the UK and 20th September 2019 in the US.
Our address is:
I can only enjoy the Downton Abbey movie from the comfort my sanctuary….my bedroom! So I’m hopeful that the movie will be available on DVD soon after release! BTW….I own the series which I am currently viewing for the 35th time!♥️ I can’t wait to visit your magnificent home during my next trip to the UK! Cheers!
Hope you can come here !!
I had the amazing opportunity to visit Highclere Oct 13, 2018 and appreciated so much meeting you walking the new puppies and having a few words. I kept saying to myself as I walked up the drive ‘ “I am really here!” as the beauty of the castle and grounds is beyond compare.
Your introduction to the castle, the wonderful tour, and nice lunch was a highlight of my 6 month trip in Europe. I have since caught up reading most of your blog, read the book on Lady Almina, and look so forward to more of your writings and insight into the history of Highclere.
You are doing so much to bring the history and daily life of your home to the awareness of others. Downtown Abby is the place we all feel we know, but the real Highclere Castle’s history will forever be a source of great interest due to your hard work to bring it to light.
You are very kind – thank you.
Hi Lady Carnarvon,
I was very excited to visit Highclere with my daughter in May, and even more so excited to meet you. I’ve purchased two Highclere Christmas baubles which will take pride of place in the entry to my highly decorated house at Christmas. Enjoy the blogs, please keep them going. Cheers from Margaret (Brisbane, Australia)
Wonderful – thank you!
I love the fact that so many of your posts often include a mini history lesson!!
Thank you. I am a life-long history scholar