Professor of Early Modern History, Darren Oldridge, writes about the history of Bonfire Night and its roots in “Anti-Popery,” the perceived threat of Catholicism that dominated the political landscape before the English Civil Wars.
The first bonfire night was held in the streets of London on 5 November 1605. In a hastily written proclamation after the foiling of the plot to kill King James and his parliament, the royal council licenced the lighting of celebratory bonfires so long as it was done "without any danger or disorder".
As this suggests, bonfire nights in the early 1600s were raucous affairs. They were occasions as much for drunken jubilation as pious thanks for the king's deliverance. Above all, they gave fierce expression to anti-Catholicism, or "anti-popery", a popular sentiment with huge and unpredictable force.
English anti-popery dominated and unsettled seventeenth-century politics. It was a vital ingredient in the toxic brew that caused the English Civil Wars. To see how this was so, we need to appreciate how contemporaries understood the Catholic menace that “Gunpowder Treason Day” both commemorated and vilified.
What did the Catholic threat mean?
What did the Catholic threat mean? First, of course, it meant the possibility of violent insurrection. As the historian David Cannadine has noted, the success of the 1605 plot would have caused "a destructive carnage that might have surpassed that of 9/11 in terms of numbers killed, and would certainly have exceeded it in terms of the collective . . . power of those who had been taken out"
But for many English people, the menace of popery was far greater than this. It was perceived as a demonic crusade against God’s people. Devout English Protestants did not view Catholicism as merely an alternative version of Christianity. Rather, it was Antichristian, with a capital “A”. The Church of England inherited the medieval idea that the figure of Antichrist would reign in the time preceding the Last Judgement. Unlike the medieval doctrine of Antichrist, however, Protestants viewed him as an institution rather than an individual: “a whole succession of men in one state of devilish government”. This government, of course, was the Church of Rome.
At a more mundane level, popery was understood as a kind of spiritual decay that seeped subterraneously into public life. It was devious as well as deadly. This quality figured prominently in representations of the Gunpowder Plot itself. The Jesuit doctrine of "equivocation", whereby conscientious Catholics could give truthful but misleading answers to questions about their faith, was publicised widely after the trial of Father Henry Garnet, the gentle and heroic priest falsely implicated in the Gunpowder Plot in March 1606. Indeed, the practice of equivocation was mocked in the porter scene in Macbeth, performed shortly after Garnet's trial.
The insidious nature of popery made it a threat within public institutions as well as outside them. Indeed, the enemy within was in some ways the most terrible. It is in this context that we should consider the reign of Charles I. Charles' Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was an unusually energetic advocate of uniformity and ritual within the English church. It was under his leadership that communion tables were placed in the east end of parish churches and separated by a wooden rail. To many this innovation seemed to indicate “creeping popery”. What were once portable pieces of furniture now looked like Catholic altars.
At its heart the threat of popery was perceived as spiritual, but it also had non-religious aspects. Catholicism was often figured as foreign. The wars of the 1580s and 1590s had given English anti-popery a distinctly anti-Spanish taste. In towns such as Norwich and Salisbury, the defeat of the Armada was celebrated annually with the ringing of bells. And on the first bonfire night in London in 1605 the royal council had to prevent demonstrations outside the house of the Spanish ambassador. The opprobrium attached to Spanish Catholicism was demonstrated in 1623, with the collapse of the plan to marry the Prince of Wales to a Spanish infanta: this news was greeted by celebrations across the south of England, accompanied by the lighting of bonfires.
Religion and Politics
At the level of high politics, the desire of MPs to pursue an anti-Catholic (and anti-Spanish) foreign policy lay behind the turbulent parliaments of the 1620s. And when Charles I chose to govern without parliaments in 1629, this necessitated a neutral foreign policy that rankled with some of his Protestant subjects as religious wars engulfed the continent.
And finally, the simmering complaints about royal taxation also belonged to an anti-Catholic narrative. This was because popery was associated not only with a certain kind of foreign menace, but also with arbitrary and illegitimate forms of government. As the historian Johann Sommerville has written, "tyranny and liberty had religious overtones, since the Pope was seen as the quintessential tyrant, and popery as the logical opposite of liberty."
The various threads of anti-Catholicism united the opposition to Charles I in the parliament that met in November 1640. Rumours of creeping popery underpinned the attack on the king's "evil advisors": Archbishop Laud, Thomas Wentworth, and the Catholic queen Henrietta Maria. More fundamentally, anti-Catholicism combined resistance to the king's foreign policy, his allegedly illegal taxation, and reform of the church.
Charles was compelled to repudiate these policies, abandoning Laud and Wentworth and watching the parliament end his innovations in tax and religion. This meant that by the summer of 1641 the House of Commons itself was divided, with many MPs accepting the return of the status quo ante. And at this point anti-Catholicism, again, forged a still more lethal alliance: between those MPs and aristocrats who wanted to purge the remaining vestiges of popery from the established church and mobs on the streets of London.
In the febrile atmosphere of that summer, fears of a new gunpowder plot swept through Westminster. On 18 August 1641 MPs ordered a search for explosives in such "vaults and cellars as are near the upper house of parliament". This search, unlike the one in 1605, proved fruitless.
But two months later the worst fears of the parliament were confirmed by the rebellion of Catholics not in England, but in Ireland. This insurrection was a massive and genuine threat to the Protestant ascendancy in the British Isles; and it was accompanied, in England, by ghastly accounts of the slaughter of godly settlers.
An army had to be raised to quell the revolt – but who would command it? The leaders of the House of Commons did not trust the king and demanded control of the army. More moderate MPs resiled from this unprecedented demand. And it was this issue that ultimately divided the political nation into royalist and parliamentarian camps.
Less than forty years separated the Gunpowder Plot and the Irish rising of November 1641. In that time anti-Catholicism – encapsulated in the celebrations of 5 November – was one of the defining features of English political life. If Robert Catesby and his associates failed to destroy the Protestant monarchy in the plot of 1605, his legacy contributed to a very different and even bloodier overturning of the kingdom in the English Civil Wars.
Darren Oldridge is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Worcester. His recent publications include The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), and new editions of Strange Histories (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) and The Witchcraft Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2019). He is currently writing a study of English demonology.
All views expressed in this blog do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.