By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Four centuries after his unsuccessful attempt to destroy Parliament with gunpowder, Guy Fawkes has become potentially explosive again, thousands of miles from London — right here in Philipstown, on the bucolic grounds of Boscobel. The historic mansion outside Cold Spring had planned its first-ever Guy Fawkes bonfire night for this Friday, emulating an English tradition celebrating the failure of Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators to kill King James I and destroy Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. Following objections from Roman Catholics, however, Boscobel recast the event and dropped the Guy Fawkes elements. “We had planned a Guy Fawkes Night. When we heard it could be perceived to be anti-Catholic we changed it to a bonfire alone,” said Caroline C. Serino, deputy executive director for Boscobel Restoration Inc., which oversees the property.
While Guy Fawkes Night initially had strong anti-Catholic overtones, by the latter 20th century it had become a curious kind of secular festival, featuring fireworks, refreshments, music-making, and similar activities as members of a local community gather around a huge bonfire. Still, there’s no escaping history. “Traditionally, it was often used as an anti-Catholic celebration in England,” Father Brian McSweeney, pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Church, told Philipstown.info on Nov. 1. “I called Boscobel as soon as I heard of it” to register concern.
Others in the congregation complained as well, and the organizers of the Boscobel event changed course. “They called and apologized. They did not understand it might be considered anti-Catholic,” Father McSweeney said. “We heard” of the sensitivity “and we took care of it” immediately, Serino said Nov. 1. “I’m very proud of that.”
Resembling modern religious terrorists, Fawkes and his band intended to set off their explosives underneath Parliament as it convened with the king in state. They ostensibly sought to protest discrimination against Roman Catholics, though another motive may have been to replace the Protestant monarchy with a Catholic regime. Discovered shortly before they could act, they were seized and executed, or slain trying to avoid capture. Fawkes and his comrades “were anarchists,” said Leonora Burton, the British owner of the Country Goose shop in Cold Spring. “They happened to be Catholic anarchists.” To announce the survival of king and Parliament, the English lit bonfires, an age-old way of spreading news across the countryside. In 1606, England made the anniversary of Fawkes’ defeat a holiday.
Over the years the annual celebration came to include creation of caricatures known as “guys,” straw or rag figures often burned on the bonfire, though one town reportedly still makes a figure of a 17th-century pope as well. Crafting and burning of “straw men” also harks back to pre-Christian Britain and the fall Samhain holiday, said to involve immolation of a symbolic straw figure.
At Boscobel, too, “they were going to burn effigies, as far as I know,” Father McSweeney said, describing that as one of the troubling aspects of the event. Boscobel took note of such sensitivities. “In keeping with England’s current tradition, as well as remaining ever-sensitive to our community’s concerns, Boscobel has redesigned its Nov. 5th event,” the organization said in an announcement. “Join us for an effigy-free evening that promises to warm your heart and toast your toes: Bonfire Night.”
In England, communities work on bonfires well in advance of Nov. 5, piling logs, scrub trees, and wooden scraps in a large mound. In a sign of fall house-cleaning, industrious residents’ often toss cast-off paper, furniture, and other detritus on the mound as well. “It’s just a holiday in the U.K.,” rather like Halloween, said Burton of the Country Goose. “We just have fun.”
“It is now an excuse to burn things and set off fireworks,” said Steve Walton, a historian who has worked on the West Point Foundry archaeological dig and specializes in early modern British military history, and who served as a visiting professor in Leeds, England, during 2009 Guy Fawkes observances. “They even seem to have lost the whole anti-political component as well.”