Bonfire Night: the Celebration of Propaganda

Written by Sarah Bushell. Edited by Anushka Minshull.

Guy Fawkes came to the attention of the British public sometime between his arrest on November 5th 1605 and his execution on 31st January 1606. His execution was brutal, as would be expected of anyone convicted of High Treason. His punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered. It did not matter that Guy Fawkes jumped whilst on the scaffold breaking his neck so he did not have to physically endure the punishment, his body was dismembered anyway and his body parts were posted in “four corners” of the kingdom to act as a very gruesome warning to all those who might have considered treason as a solution to their problems. And it could be argued, that it was with Guy’s execution that Robert Cecil’s master class of propaganda began.

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, grew up in the court of Elizabeth I. His father was William Cecil 1st Baron of Burghley, a man who is often considered to be one of the greatest statesmen of the age. Both men were fiercely protestant and dedicated to ensuring that the English state remained so. Catholic conspiracies became a staple of Elizabeth’s long reign, particularly towards the end, as Catholics were increasingly penalised for their faith. The ascension of James I in 1603 led the Catholic community to breathe a sigh of relief. As the son of Mary Queen of Scots, a fervent Catholic, it’s natural that they might have expected their situation to improve. This was not the case. In fact, things got considerably worse. Fines were reintroduced by James I and within his first two years on the English throne he was the centre of two conspiracies against him. The Gunpowder Plot was the third and final straw.

One to never miss an opportunity, Robert Cecil utilised the conspiracy to its maximum

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury

potential. Before the captured conspirators had been executed, a law had been passed by parliament that stated that it was illegal not to celebrate bonfire night. Of course a law like that is almost impossible to govern, so the public needed encouragement. And the encouragement came through the abundance of artwork and poetry demonising Guy Fawkes and thus elevating the supposed glory of James I.

The song which we still instantly connect with Bonfire Night is the one which warns us that “Gunpowder treason should [n]ever be forgot.” Yet a closer inspection, generations later, of the array of poetry celebrating the night, demonstrates just how intense the hatred surrounding Guy Fawkes had become with lines stating, “poke him in the eye, put him on a bonfire and there let him die.” But the most violent language isn’t used to describe Guy, nor any of his fellow conspirators; instead it is directed at the Pope:


            Burn him in a tub of tar,

            Burn him like a burning star,

            Burn his body from his head,

            And we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.


Poems like this suggest that Bonfire Night was not merely a vehicle for demonising Guy Fawkes and his conspirators, or making the newly crowned King and his Government look like 007, although it certainly seemed to achieve both. Instead Bonfire Night intensified Anti-Catholic sentiment, making it part of 17th Century British identity.

The majority of the poetry stresses the importance of memory, and how the Gunpowder Plot is remembered is therefore key to this. Somewhere down the line, the media stopped stressing Guy as the incarnation of evil and he became known as a revolutionary instead of the terrorist that James I saw. His name appears in the list of 100 greatest Britons, and York proudly wears its reputation of the birthplace of the man. And although modern day Bonfire Nights has little to do with Anti-Catholic sentiment or royalist fervour, it is still a useful mode of political protest. Instead of effigies of the Guy being thrown to the fire, political figures such as Margaret Thatcher are now often tossed to the flames and even celebrities such as Lance Armstrong.

The memory of the 5th of November has evolved and been installed with a sense of British tradition and modern values. It has remained an opportunity for the public to express themselves. Amidst the cultural shifts surrounding both Guy Fawkes and celebration itself, the importance of propaganda in Bonfire Night lives on over 400 years later.