Gunpowder and Plots for Bonfire Night Celebrations

Fireworks

No doubt you’ll be holding your own display in the garden at home or attending one somewhere. You might even be making your own Guy Fawkes effigy to burn on a bonfire.

Poor old Guy Fawkes! He could never have envisaged how his failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 would lead to centuries of celebration. He surely wouldn’t have appreciated becoming the modern, scarecrow figure that goes up in flames each year.

It is said that on the very night that the gunpowder plot was discovered, Londoners lit fires in the streets to celebrate. This may or may not be true, but there are certainly records of bonfire festivities being held in Bristol in 1607, when children rubbed their faces with ashes in imitation of Fawkes, who was supposed to have done so in order to camouflage himself whilst negotiating the darkness of the cellars under the Houses of Parliament.

In Wales, November 5th was originally commemorated not with fires but with the ringing of bells. Children gathered to chanted the rhyme familiar those of us who were brought up in the 1940’s and 50’s, but which is never heard today - and it’s probably just as well!

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
‘Twas his intent
To blow up the King and Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
Poor old Britain to overthrow.
By God’s providence he was catched
With a dark lantern and a burning match.
Halloa boys, halloa boys,
God save the King!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray
A penny loaf to feed ol’ Fawkes
A farthing cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say ol’ Fawkes is dead.
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!

It is probable that Wales eventually adopted bonfires as a way of commemorating Guy Fawkes because of another festival held at the end of October - All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween. This was the night upon which the spirits of the dead roamed abroad and a ghost might be encountered at midnight on every stile. As a protective measure, bonfires were lit, though they had to be prepared during daylight hours. Large amounts of fern, gorse, straw, and branches were dragged up onto the highest hill in the district, from which it would be possible to see other fires blazing on surrounding summits. There was a certain amount of prestige involved in having the fire which burned the longest.

The fire was lit to the sound of horns and other musical instruments, potatoes and apples were roasted in the flames and dancing and games took place. The more adventurous members of the crowd ran round the fire, or even leapt over it, casting a stone onto the flames as they did so.

As the fire died down, everyone would run home, to avoid being caught by the spirits that roamed the night. In the morning those who had cast the stones returned to find them. There was good luck for those who did, and misfortune for those who did not.

Another old Welsh custom was that of the fire-wheel., which seems to have been observed last in the Vale of Glamorgan in the 1820’s. On Midsummer Eve, a large cart wheel was carried to the top of a hill and there it was thickly swathed with straw. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that it that projected for about a metre on each side. The straw covering was then set alight and the blazing wheel was rolled down the hill. If the fire went out before the wheel reached the bottom of the slope, a poor harvest was in prospect, but if it continued to burn for a long time, the harvest would be an abundant one.

In west Wales, not only the fire but the ashes from it were used in divination. To discover a future spouse, three furrows were drawn in the ashes on the hearth. A young girl would name three young men she knew, one furrow for each youth. A friend would ask her three questions: Whom will you love, whom will you marry, whom will you throw over the bed? As each question was asked, the questioner pointed to the one of the three furrows in turn, beginning with any one of them. The questions were repeated six times, but in a different order each time. The last but one furrow to be pointed out is the future husband.

Even the crackling and popping of wood and coals as they burned could be used to foretell the future or to warn of approaching danger. If a fire suddenly flared up and turned blue, or if the flame of a candle took on a blue tinge, it was a signal that a ghost was near.

In the days before piped electricity and gas, all cooking was done on the hearth or in a fire-heated oven. It was good house-keeping practice to keep the fire burning all day and night rather than re-lighting it every time it was needed. It was regarded as very unlucky to let the hearth fire go out. If that happened, the householder went next door and took a few coals from the neighbour’s hearth. In that way, the fire could be said to be a continuous one and kept up its role in protecting and warming the house. A fire smouldering in the hearth of the Point House Inn in Angle is said to have been burning for well over 150 years.

As well as being lit in celebration, bonfires also played a part in warning of approaching danger. As the Spanish Armada drew near the shore of England and Wales in 1588, warning beacons were lit on the hill tops, carrying the message to London and alerting the local county militias. In 1643, as Parliamentary soldiers marched across the Ridgeway, the high spine of land linking their base in Pembroke and their target of royalist Tenby, warning fires were lit by the local country folk. In the event, the Parliamentarians were not sufficiently numerous to capture Tenby and quickly withdrew.

In addition to its practical uses, our ancestors also believed that fire had a supernatural quality. It could be used by the gods as a symbol of divine power or, more terrifyingly, as a sign of anger. The Greek god Zeus is supposed to have hurled thunder bolts when angered. There was even a fire god, Hephaestus, who was associated with blacksmiths and battlefields.

The ancient Greeks had in each household an altar dedicated to the household gods. A fire always burned before it and daily rituals were performed in which prayers and offerings were made. The altar fire was to remain pure; ‘no blameworthy deed ought to be committed in its presence’. The male head of the household performed all the services that were necessary at the altar, but the worship was directed at Hestia, the goddess who protected households. The responsibility of keeping the altar fire burning was, however, the responsibility of the lady of the house.

In every Greek city there stood a prytaneum, a temple in which the sacred city fire burned. This was never allowed to go out and when Greek colonists set out to found a new settlement, they took with them fire from the prytaneum of their home city.

In the ancient city of Rome, a temple fire was dedicated to the goddess Vesta. The Vestal Fire served ceremonial functions and represented the religious and political unity of the Roman state. It was served by a team of six unmarried women, who belonged to noble families and who were required to serve as priestesses for thirty years. Their primary duty was to ensure that the fire in their temple never went out and they observed a set of unbreakable rules, the most important of which was the vow of chastity. If this was forsaken, the unfortunate priestess could be buried alive.

Greek and Roman temples were not only the centre of fire cults, they also served as landmarks for seamen. Those which stood along a coastline would be visible at night by their fires. Eventually, about two thousand years ago, the first towers were built to act as lighthouses. The most famous was the Pharos at Alexandria, the fires of which could be seen from a distance of up to thirty miles.
One of the first lighthouses to be built in Pembrokeshire was the one at St Ann’s Head. It was originally erected during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) as a chapel. Henry had spent fifteen years in exile in Brittany and in 1485 landed with an army at nearby Mill Bay. From there he marched into England to seize the crown at the Battle of Bosworth. As an act of gratitude for his success he built a commemorative chapel on the headland and dedicated it to St Ann, the patron saint of Brittany. Part of the chapel was a round tower, possible added on at a later date, in which a fire burned as a warning to mariners of the dangers of the nearby rocky shoreline.

Which brings us back to Bluestone. You will probably have noticed the tall, battlemented tower of the ruined church on the slope above the village. This was added to the much older building in the fifteenth century. A lot of church towers seem to have been constructed in Pembrokeshire at about this time and their castle-like battlements give a clue as to the varied roles they played in the life of the county. Intended as landmarks, as pointers to heaven, they also provided strong refuge for the inhabitants in times of danger. From their tops it was possible to see the towers of other nearby parish churches and also spot the movements of any large body of soldiers. It’s likely that each tower was provided with a large metal basket, set into the stonework at the top, in which warning fires could be lit.

And no doubt within the church itself, candles glowed near the altar, their flickering flames celebrating some great religious feast or some great national event, just as we do today on 5 November.

Categories:Activities

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