Bonfire night in Worcestershire

 Night and its association with Worcestershire.

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Interesting fact: Did you know it was illegal not to celebrate bonfire night until as recently as 1959?

There are certain dates in the calendar that act as markers throughout the year. Some of these aren’t fixed to the exact day: like my swallows leaving my Worcestershire gardens at the end of September or their arrival in April to herald in summer. Or the last time I mow the lawns of my clients toward the end of October before putting the mowers away for winter.

But there are other events too that mark my gardening year. One of them is Bonfire Night, where we stand in front of roaring fires and burn a representative of a minority religious group in effigy in celebration of a thwarted terrorist plot to blow up Parliament just over four centuries ago. (Although with recent political behaviour over the last few years I have heard it said with growing frequency that “Fawkes was the last honest man in Parliament!”)

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So why do I see Bonfire Night as one of my yearly markers? Well for me it really marks the last time we use our gardens for the year. It is the last time where groups of people might gather for a celebration outside. And Worcestershire has a special place in the history of Bonfire Night and its inspiration, the Gunpowder Plot. For it was in Worcester where the plotters who were captured were hung, drawn and quartered at the suitably named Red Hill.

They had fled London and were finally caught in Holbeache House, in Staffordshire, by Sir Richard Walsh, the High Sheriff of Worcester on November 08th, 1605. The November of that year was wet, and the plotters gunpowder had become soaked on the journey up, to the extent that it was useless for muskets. The plotters then decided to dry it out in front of the fire, where it eventually exploded. After this, Sir Richard stormed Holbeache House and killed several conspirators and took at least one man prisoner.

Transferred to Worcester goal, the prisoner was later joined by Jesuits discovered hiding out in Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire (and which is now the HQ of West Mercia Police), where more of the Catholic plotters were captured in Priest Holes. In April 1606, after torturous interrogation at the Tower of London, these people were returned to Worcester and executed at Red Hill.

But where was the fire that Bonfire Night celebrates? Why do we burn figures in effigy each year when the plotters weren’t burned at all?

Burning figures on bonfires actually predates the Gunpowder Plot. There are some accounts of them in the 13th century, and in the 14th century, when the Black Death came to Europe and depopulated huge swathes of land, minorities were targeted and were, in some cases, burned alive (600 Jews were burned alive in Basel alone). Following on from this in the next few centuries was the burning of witches, in some cases in specially constructed ovens (in one town in Germany in 1589, 133 witches were burned in a single day at the height of this hysteria).

And to continue with our rather dark history, Mary 1st of England (the Bloody one!) had many Protestants burned alive in her reign during the Marian Persecutions – she executed approximately 300 people, though not all by burning. This obviously had a direct link to the later Catholic plot of Guy Fawkes to destroy Parliament in the reign of James 1st, so burning a figure in effigy as a way of celebrating the failure of a Catholic plot could also be seen as a way of reversing the burnings of Queen Mary, a half century before and enforced in cultural memory by her very name.

It does seem that Worcestershire and Herefordshire have both played key roles in Elizabethan and Stuart plots. With the latter suffering from the Gunpowder plot, the earlier queen also faced an assassination in the form of the Babington Plot – in which nearby Brockhampton Estate in Herefordshire is also said to have played a part and about which there still some unanswered questions even to this day.

So as a gardener, and as someone who appreciates the landscape of the place I live and work in, and who has made a habit of looking at gardens through the lens of how and why they were built by our ancestors, the night of November 05th is somewhat profound to me. Winter is ushered in, and a new cycle has begun.

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