November 5: Guy Fawkes Day (“Pope Night”)

The Puritans who settled Massachusetts abhorred holidays, but they turned a blind eye to Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, a British tradition which celebrated the failed attempt by Guy Hawkes, a Catholic, to blow up the king and members of Parliament and thus remove Protestants from government.

Arrest of Guy Fawkes
“Discovery of Gunpowder Plot and the Taking of Guy Fawkes,” by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823

On the evening of November 5, 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, spotted Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar of the Parliament building. Fawkes was detained and arrested after a search of the building discovered 36 barrels of gunpowder he and his fellow conspirators had loaded in the basement. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered in London. The hangings began on January 30, and the next day Fawkes was brought to the gallows to meet his fate. While climbing to the hanging platform, he jumped and broke his neck, dying instantly. His body was quartered, and sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to other Catholics.

The story gained renewed interest in the late 1600s, and effigies of Guy Fawkes were burned every year on Nov. 5, accompanied by a day of bizarre activities. The tradition was carried with the English settlers in America. Esther Forbes wrote in her book, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In: “For twenty-four hours Boston was in the hands of a mob which custom, if not law, had legalized.” The Guy Fawkes festivities in New England were also called “Pope Night,” and “Gunpowder Day.” The annual celebration continues in England, where it is known as “Bonfire Night.

The following story is from Joshua Coffin’s “A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury” (1835)

“The town of Newburyport voted, October twenty-fourth, 1774, that no effigies be carried about or exhibited on the fifth of November, only in the daytime.’ Motives of policy afterward induced the discontinuance of this custom, which has now become obsolete.

In the daytime, companies of little boys might be seen, in various parts of the town, with their little popes, dressed up in the most grotesque and fantastic manner, which they carried about, some on boards, and some on little carriages, for their own and others’ amusement.

But the great exhibition was reserved for the night, in which young men, as well as boys, participated. They first constructed a huge vehicle, varying at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the lights, five or six persons. Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope, and several other personages, monks, friars and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could desire.

Their next step, after they had mounted their ponderous vehicle on four wheels, chosen their officers, captain, first and second lieutenant, purser and so forth, placed a boy under the platform, to elevate and move round, at proper intervals, the moveable head of the pope, and attached ropes to the front part of the machine, was, to take up their line of march through the principal streets of the town.

Some times in addition to the images of the pope and his company, there might be found, on the same platform, half a dozen dancers and a fiddler, whose together with a large crowd who made up a long procession. Their custom was, to call at the principal houses in various parts of the town, ring their bell, cause the pope to elevate his head, and look round upon the audience, and repeat the following lines:

The fifth of November,
As you well remember
Was gunpowder Treason and Plot.
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.
The Hellish powder plot was laid.
Thirty-six barrels of powder placed down below,
All for old England’s overthrow:
Happy the man, and happy the day,
That caught Guy Fawkes in the middle of his play.
You’ll hear our bell go jink, jink, jink,
Pray madam, sirs, if you’ll something give,
We’ll burn the dog and never let him live.
We’ll burn the dog without his head,
And then you’ll say the dog is dead.
From Rome, from Home, the pope is come,
All in ten thousand fears;
The fiery serpent’s to be seen.
All head, mouth, nose, and ears.
The treacherous knave had so contrived,
To blow king parliament all up all alive.
God by his grace he did prevent
To save both king and parliament,
Happy the man, and happy the day,
That catched Guy Fawkes in the middle of his play.
Match touch, catch prime.
In the good nick of time.
Here is the pope that we have got,
The whole promoter of the plot
We’ll stick a pitchfork in his back,
And throw him in the fire.”

After the verses were repeated, the purser stepped forward and took up his collection. Nearly all on whom they called, gave something. Esquire Atkins and Esquire Dalton, always gave a dollar apiece. After perambulating the town, and finishing their collections, they concluded their evening’s entertainment with a splendid supper; after making with the exception of the wheels and the heads of the effigies, a bonfire of the whole concern, to which were added, all the wash tubs, tar barrels, and stray lumber, that they could lay their hands on. With them the custom was, to steal all the stuff.”

The rowdiness didn’t stop on November 6. Although Puritans would have nothing to do with the celebration of Christmas, European settlers in many of the American colonies celebrated most of the month of December with revelry. In Boston, groups of working men derided as “Anticks” would don disguises and go door-to-door demanding money to perform crude skits, all the while drinking the unfortunate hosts’ wassail and beer. In Britain and Ireland they were called “mummers.” It was best to give them some money and suffer through the “performance.”


2 thoughts on “November 5: Guy Fawkes Day (“Pope Night”)”

    1. Of all the things I never knew…the reverse has also come to
      Light. The Irish Catholic fought back and as a Protestant I was regarded askance when I became part of the family of Catholics.

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