Remember, Remember the 5th of November!

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So, it’s  November already, the shops are stocked for Christmas and in less than eight weeks time, those that do, will celebrating Christmas. However, before we all get too festive there is one more tradition many will be celebrating across the UK, mostly with a huge crackling bonfire and fireworks, which dates back to the 17th century, otherwise known as Bonfire Night. On 5th November every year, the effigy of Guy Fawkes is still burned on bonfires across England in recognition of his part in the failed ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of 1605. However, what’s interesting, and perhaps not widely known, is, Fawkes didn’t devise or lead the plot to assassinate James I, so why is he still singled out as one of British history’s greatest villains more than 400 years after his death?

Born in April 1570 in York, Guy Fawkes’s immediate family were Protestants, in keeping with the accepted religious practice in England at the time, however his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, who refused to attend Protestant services. When Guy was 8-years-old, his father died and his widowed mother married a Catholic. It is suggested that it was these early influences that forged Fawkes’ convictions as an adult.

An imposing character, Fawkes is described by historian Antonia Fraser as, “a tall, powerfully built man, with thick reddish-brown hair, a flowing moustache in the tradition of the time, and a bushy reddish-brown beard”, while school friend, Oswald Tesimond, described him as “pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife and loyal to his friends”.

By the time he was 21 years old, Fawkes travelled to Europe to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch and his military career flourished. Later, when on campaign fighting for Spain in Flanders, Fawkes was approached by Thomas Wintour, one of a number plotting against the English Protestant King, James I, due to his extreme intolerance of Catholics. Wintour asked Fawkes to join what would become known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’, under the leadership of Robert Catesby.  Fawkes was an expert with gunpowder, which gave him a key, and very dangerous role, in the conspiracy. However, despite months of careful planning, James’s I spymaster, Robert Cecil, foiled the plot with just hours to go, and Fawkes was arrested at midnight on 4 November 1605 beneath the House of Lords. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found stacked in the cellar exactly below where the king would have been sitting for the opening of parliament the next day. 

Fawkes was tortured and withstood two days of excruciating pain before he confessed all. However, his fortitude throughout impressed James I, who said he admired Fawkes’ “Roman resolution”. Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death, which meant he would be hanged, drawn and quartered. However, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck, thereby avoiding the horror of being cut down while still alive, having his testicles cut off and his stomach opened. His body was then hacked into quarters and his remains sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others. Ringleader Catesby, on the other hand, was killed evading capture, so never tried.

Guy Fawkes instantly became a national bogeyman and by the 19th Century it was his effigy that was being placed on the bonfires that were lit annually to commemorate the failure of the plot.

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The Straw Bear Festival

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As we already approach the third week of the new year the bad news is we’re still in deepest mid-winter in the UK and it’s cold enough to freeze the proverbial ‘you know what’s’ off a brass monkey. However,the shortest day of winter, December 21st, has already passed us by so from hereon in, nights are getting shorter and days longer and more importantly for me, thanks to the small Cambridgeshire town I live in, mid January also offers a welcome injection of colour and merriment in the form of the annual Straw Bear Festival. This weekend has seen the sleepy little town of Whittlesey come alive with visitors and townsfolk alike partaking in some good spirited drinking, street dancing and general good cheer as it celebrates its 38th Straw Bear Festival. Undoubtedly one of my favourite times of the year, it is this annual festival that provided the inspiration behind my own interpretation of such an event in my debut novel, 183 Times A Year, which takes place in the fictitious town of Great Tosson. And, just for your enjoyment, I include an extract below as well as a few photo’s I took this weekend. 

“My self-indulgent melancholy is temporarily hindered as I push my way through swarms of people gathered along every street. Our small and usually quiet town is bustling and bursting at the seams. An infestation of locals and visitors alike follow the bear made of straw – enthusiastically entertained by an entourage of storytellers and street acts. Musicians provide a melodic din across an eclectic sound of instruments. Bagpipes, Harmonicas, Maudolin’s and Hurdy Gurdy’s intertwine with the heartbeat of base and side drums to well known songs such as the The Curly Headed Ploughboy and the Old Drove Road.

Flamboyant costumes of the Morris, Molly, Rapper and Long Sword dancers inject a welcome relief of colour into the drab and dreary backdrop. Technicolor tatter-coats dazzle the eye, as do some of the more eccentric waistcoats, rosettes and neckerchiefs. Others sport flashing, neon armbands and some wear straw hats while others show off black bowlers or top hats. Women predominately fashion layered, ankle length skirts that rustle with every twist and turn whilst men prefer knee-length breeches. White handkerchiefs are waved ceremoniously and whoops and cries of varying voice are thrown up and caught on the wind. There is rhythmic clash of metal from the Long Swords complimenting the hollow collision of clay pipe wielding Morris dancers.

I look across a flock of faces and pick out Dad’s. I continue to push my way through the throng of good spirits, hoping some of it may actually rub off. Enticing smells of mulled wine and roasting hog hangs heavy amongst the atmosphere of pagan abandonment. Joyous escape from fuel bills, job losses and pay cuts. A brief but hedonistic trip into carnival and Mardi Gras.”

Copyright © Eva Jordan 2015

If you’d like to know more about this wonderful festival or the history behind it, click here.