I love bonfire night. The beauty of the flashing fireworks against the dark sky, the whizzes, pops and bangs, the mist of drifting smoke and the smell of gunpowder on a cold, still November night are, for me, truly evocative.
Bonfire night gatherings have become a celebration of the coming together of family and friends. It is an important marker in my year.
Amidst our excitement, though, it is easy to forget that fireworks on Bonfire Night commemorate a particularly bloody and turbulent time in our island’s history.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was an attempt by provincial, English Roman Catholics to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament, in order to assassinate James I of England (VI of Scotland) and install his nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a Roman Catholic head of state. The plot, led by Robert Catesby, was revealed by means of an anonymous letter. Famously, Guy Fawkes was discovered with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder during a search of the House of Lords at midnight on 4th November 1605. He and his seven surviving accomplices were tortured, tried, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to death. He was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Roman Catholic priest Henry Garnet was also hung, drawn and quartered in connection with the Gunpowder Plot. Many historians believe that having heard of the plot during confession, Garnet felt bound to tell no one. Instead, they claim he wrote secretly to Rome urging the Vatican to dissuade Catholics from such action but, sadly, there was no response to his plea. When fear overtakes understanding and tolerance it is often innocent and good people who bear the consequences.
The shadow of history often has much to say to our own times. In a world which is portrayed as being filled with deeply held divisive views, terrorism and violence our response should not be to retreat into fear and hatred. Rather we should uphold the qualities of reason, tolerance and fairness which are still to be found at the heart of our nation’s traditions and identity. These qualities were seeded, though not perfected, during the reign of Elizabeth I and articulated in the liturgy of her Book of Common Prayer.
As a nation it is vital that we guard against replacing past animosities with new mistrust and prejudice between political views and parties, faiths and peoples. If we do not, it will be the innocent who bear the consequences. Perhaps this year’s Bonfire Night can be a time to acknowledge our country’s history and celebrate the contemporary diversity of our nation in a spirit of fondness and understanding.
By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.