5th November 1605. A day that would live on in a nation’s memory for centuries, encapsulated by a rhyme which few remember ever being taught:
Remember, remember the fifth of November.
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
Supposedly the nursery rhyme goes beyond these two sentences, however the passage of time has determined that only the first two are the most important.
For what is a rather macabre celebration, if you think too much into it, Bonfire Night is an incredibly fun night. Modern celebrations now revolve mostly around dramatic firework displays, at least this is the case in Oxford, but the bonfires remain. Over the years it has developed into one of Britain’s biggest commemorations, celebrated by children and adults equally.
We all know the story, how Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellar, about to light the barrels of gunpowder, hoping to assassinate both King and Parliament. Following his arrest and the discovery of the plot, King James I (and VI) declared the 5th November to be a day of Thanksgiving to celebrate their escape from annihilation. And so, the tradition began. Guys in prams as children called ‘a penny for the guy’, homemade Guys placed onto bonfires to be lit, fireworks and sparklers.
Such events are a far cry from a locked shelf on the bottom floor of the Law Library, where the Journals of the House of Commons describe those hallowed events of November 4th/5th, 1605 .
It describes the arrest, as they discovered ‘One Johnson, Servant to Mr Thomas Percy’. John Johnson was the pseudonym which Guy Fawkes had picked (no relation to the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera held by the Bodleian Library, although we would encourage you check that out!) . It was picked because it was British and commonplace – one look at the Wikipedia page for ‘John Johnson’ and you will see he chose rightly. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found underneath the House of Commons with the intention of blowing up the ‘King, and the whole Company, when they should there assemble’. The origins of ‘The Plot’.
The House of Commons Journals are not the only contemporary artefact of the Plot nearby, as on another Oxford ground floor, only 15 minutes away, the Ashmolean Museum holds the iron lantern supposedly carried by Guy Fawkes the night of his arrest . The lantern was gifted to the University in 1641, by Robert Heywood, whose brother Peter was one of those who discovered Guy Fawkes in the undercroft and, as the story goes, took the lantern off him, preventing him from setting off the gunpowder.
It was not the first of such attempts by Catholic conspirators to assassinate the Protestant King James, but perhaps it was how close they were to success that led James to proclaim a day of Thanksgiving. A celebration of his escape from death, but a warning too, to any conspirators who may follow.
The events of the night of the 4th/5th of November 1605 and those of 21st century Bonfire Night are hard to reconcile. While reading the Journals of the House of Commons, one cannot help but muse on the development of tradition.
What if you’d told Guy Fawkes in October 1605, that his own name, not his pseudonym, would become a part of everyday conversation? Or, that he was the namesake of one of Britain’s most enduring holidays? He would surely assume it was for entirely different reasons than we remember.
The concept now, of celebrating a failed assassination attempt with bonfires and fireworks, is albeit an odd idea, but one only has to ask around the Oxford colleges to learn how much odder traditions survive. Such traditions are captured moments in time, perhaps not of the authentic activities, but of how societies viewed themselves. Libraries hold a fundamental role in the safeguarding of tradition and staring at the House of Commons Journals brings a reminder of the vital role of information preservation in our world. Bonfire Night is a fascinating snapshot of what our ancestors believed would be important for our generations to remember. One wonders, in another 400 years, in another library, what events from our day will be written on the pages of tradition.
The Official Papers Collection is housed on the ground floor of the Bodleian Law Library.
 5th November 1605, Journals of the House of Commons, Vol. 1 1547 – 1623, pp. 256 – 7, Official Papers, Bodleian Law Library.