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!