Bonfire, bangers and riots

Two ways with sausages for Bonfire night: Jacket potato bangers and Toad in the hole


Last year on this day I wrote about Guy Fawkes and his connection to the Gunpowder Plot (see Gunpowder, treason and Bonfire Parkin here) and how it came to be that such plot was, well... plotted. I went back to nearly a hundred years before the plot, to see where that seed was sown.
Today I look at the customs that resulted from this failed plot and how it influenced the way we riot and react today to show our dismay, disappointment and disgust for politics and religion.


The trial of the eight surviving conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot was held on januari 27 1606 in Westminster Hall which would have destroyed had their plot been successful. A statute was passed, declaring that deliverance from Gunpowder treason should be remembered every year. From then on each 5th of november there would be a church service at which attendance was compulsory if you were loyal to the King, or at least wanted to pretend to be loyal. It became an annual ceremony to keep the memory of the failed Gunpowder Plot alive. It continued until it was taken out of the prayerbook two centuries later in 1859. But although it was erased from the prayerbook, it was by now rooted into the culture.

In a way the customs of the 5th of november provided a replacement to the pre-reformation holy days of All Saints and All Souls on the 1st and 2nd of November. On these days the churches would be lit with candles, and torches marking the start of winter and darkness. This catholic tradition in its own right had replaced the old pagan rites of Samhain,  which celebrated the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. It literally means 'summer's end' and is the primary festival marking the end and the beginning of the year.

When the christians needed to convert the pagans, they gave them the 1st of November, a day on which they could light candles and make lanterns in hollowed turnips, just as they had been doing for generations before christianity spread. The reformation to Protestantism left the people with an empty gap where their 1st of November celebrations used to be, so naturally they embraced the new bonfire tradition after the Gunpowder Plot failed in the first years of the 1600's. 


Conveniently to the Protestants, the 5th of november could be used as a celebration of the conservation of Protestantism, a date to mark in the calendar alongside the early death of Queen Mary (a Catholic), the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Protestant) and the defeat of the Spanish Armada (to warn off the Spanish Catholics). 


When Charles I married the Catholic princes of France, people showed their disapproval of the Catholic queen by burning effigies of the Pope and the devil on the 5th of November. We are now situated 20 years after the Gunpowder Plot and the only effigies that were burnt were that of the pope and the devil, not of Guy Fawkes.
In 1647 was described how bonfires went from simply great fires to spectacles with fireworks and explosives including fireballs. And in 1657 Samuel Clarke's 'England Remembrancer invoked the happenings of the plot. 


After Charles II Restoration in 1660, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary "This 5th of November is observed exceeding well in the City; and at night great bonfires and fireworks." The next years up until the year of the Great Fire in 1666 (which was for a short time also blamed on the catholics) he also mentioned Bonfires and festivities which shows us the normality of these celebrations by this time. On one occasion he is driving home with his wife after going to see Macbeth "forced to go round by London-Wall home because of the bonefires."

Celebrations of the 5th became larger and intense rather than festive after the brother of Charles II Duke of York publicly declared to be a Catholic. This was followed by the Exclusion Crisis to exclude the him from the throne because he was Roman Catholic. When the Tory's started to declare being agains the Exclusion, this created probably one of the first bonfire night riots. In 1682 the 5th fell on a sunday so celebrations started on monday the 6th. Reputedly crowds of people took to the streets attacking Tories and shouting their support for the King's bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth, who was Protestant. This Bonfire night, it was not a celebration of the failed Gunpowder Plot, it was a warning and objection against the possibility of being ruled by a Catholic king.

The next year on the 5th, bonfires and fireworks were banned to keep the calm. But you know what, two years later James did succeed Charles and England had a Catholic King... Needless to say that the Bonfire night celebrations were forbidden although the 'Gunpowder Treason-Day' church service remained.

Under the rule of  James' daughter Mary Stuart and her Protestant husband William of Orange, the celebrations of the 5th commenced and got entwined with the restoration of the Protestant religion in England by William of Orange. That double meaning didn't stick though and years after this, it was forgotten and the 5th was yet again a celebration of the failing of the Gunpowder Plot.
Gunpowder Treason-Day' church sermons changed each year, always highlighting another political event. Leaving the people a reason to take to the streets each year.

By the 18th century the festivities on the 'fifth' became less and less fuelled by hatred against Catholics and more about other political issues. The Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791 made life easier for Catholics, granting them the same rights as Protestants. Of course this sparked resistance leading to a week of rioting in 1780. But eventually the Catholics emancipated, helped by the Irish situation, with Catholic Irish members of Parliament. Of course in Ireland the troubles between the Irish Catholics and English Protestants remained.

Another change happened to the Bonfire night celebrations when anti-catholicism became less acceptable. By the early 19th century effigies of the pope were no longer burnt and the crowds needed another figure to 'blame'. Strangely enough that figure became Guy Fawkes, the person who was least named in contemporary writings about the Treason and Plot. Although Guy Fawkes is mostly remembered on Bonfire night today, it was Robert Catesby who was chief instigator of the Gunpowder Plot (read my previous post to learn more of the plot).

So why did our Guy Fawkes become the figure of Bonfire Night? We can of course not say for certain why, but in 1793 just before the turn of the century, a play was performed at the Royal Haymarket Theatre. The prelude in one act was entitled: Guy Fawkes or The Fifth of November. In 1835 a comic pantomime called Harlequin and Guy Fawkes: or the 5th of November was performed in London's Covent Garden. Many different stories about the Gunpowder Plot were told in plays after that, maybe the truth drifted away and the name Guy Fawkes just sounded best in playwright, maybe it was because he was discovered with the gunpowder...

But now Guy Fawkes has become the Gunpowder Plot, and the night of the fifth got often referred to as 'Guy Fawkes night'. He became the new face of the tradition, the scapegoat of the Plot, the symbol of opposition and disapproval.

Our story takes more turns in the 19th century with Bonfire night celebrations turning violent and dark. Victorian times saw the coming of a different sort of celebration, a night of rioting and criminal behaviour. A night when the honest should stay indoors and the dangerous ruled the streets.
The processions of 'the night of the fifth' would be fired with local social issues of politics and religion. They became manifestations, uprise agains local authorities and they became so dangerous and organised that they needed another organised organisation to contain them. So the police force grew to counter the protesters.

Today we live in a time with organised demonstrations, approved by the local authorities and contained for the safety of the protesters as well as the opponents and those who have nothing to do with it. But when the demonstrations do get ugly today, we see Guy Fawkes appear in the crowds...

Much like in the early 19th century plays about the Gunpowder Plot, a movie was made from a 1980's graphic novel in 2005. 'V for Vendetta' is set in a near-future dystopian society in England, with the main character being 'V' a man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who wants to destroy the corrupt fascist regime and its leaders. One of the authors of the graphic novel commented that "The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I'm happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way." By many political groups the film was seen as an allegory of oppression by government. Anarchists, libertarians and activists of any kind have used the Guy Fawkes mask in their demonstrations after the movie came out. It has been seen in demonstrations agains the G8 summit and in other economical and political protest. It has become the emblem of anonymity and dissent.

The 'Guy' has gained another face, 400 years after he was just one pawn of the Gunpowder Plot. He has now become the face of disappointed people, the face disapproval in modern times. The face saying, we have had enough... For now at least.



On to the food part of this post. Bonfire societies organise the Bonfire parades now in a safe and family friendly manner. The streets of Lewes particularly are the place to be for elaborate bonfire displays. People watch the parade and the fireworks and look forward to warming their hands on hot food and drink. 
For this years bonfire night I give you two ways with bangers which are perfect for bonfire night celebrations at home. Toad in the hole is a traditional meat & batter pudding dish that evolved from the Yorkshire pudding-type puddings and other types of fired pudding.
It is bound to be a success with the little ones as who doesn't love a good old proper sausage. The other dish is a banger jacket potato, an easy dish that even the most inexperienced cook could make. The potato just needs time to cook in the oven so do that in advance. It's a perfect little bomb of warmth when you are planning to do some bonfiring of your own in the garden!

Toad in the hole


  • good quality sausages, 3 or 4
  • a few sprigs of rosemary (optional)

For the batter  
  • 280 ml milk  
  • 110 g plain flour  
  • a pinch of salt  
  • 3 medium eggs

preheat your oven to max 250° C
Fry your sausages in sunflower oil in a pan until nearly done
Pour 1 cm of sunflower oil into a baking stray or cake tin and place in the middle of the hot oven.
Place a larger tray underneath in case the oil drips over, you don't want extra cleaning afterwards
Make your batter in the manner of making pancake batter
When your oil is hot, you will see as it will be spitting, arrange your sausages into place along with the oil you still have in your pan from frying your bangers
Carefully but swiftly pour the batter into the hot oil, stick in the rosemary sprigs and close the oven door. Bake for 20-25 minutes until puffed up and nicely colored.

Serve with mustard, braised red cabbage, jacked potato or mashed potato and caramelised onions if you like

To braise red cabbage
  • red Cabbage
  • a cooking apple, cubed ( for a football size cabbage you need 1 large cooking apple)
  • a teaspoon of cinnamon


Cut your cabbage very finely, and heat some butter in a pan.
Add your cabbage and apple and braise, adding a little water when needed.
When soft, spice with a little honey and cinnamon
Serve warm, o so good with sausages

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Jacket potato bangers

For the potato
  • 1 potato per person You need a floury kind like a Maris Piper, King Edward, or for Belgians 'Bintje frietaardappel'
  • +- 20g coarse sea salt
  • good quality sausages
  • 3 onions, braised and caramelised

Wash the potatoes and let them dry
Preheat your oven to 220° C
Put your salt in a tray and roll each potato in the salt and rub it in
Prick your potato with a toothpick a few times to prevent them bursting
Place the potatoes straight on the rack in the middle of the oven
Bake for 1 hour, then squeeze the potato slightly to see if it appears soft inside, if that doesn't appear so, place back in the oven for another 15-30 minutes.
When the potatoes are nearly ready or when you are about to have dinner caramelise some onions, add one teaspoon of pomegranate molasse of balsamic vinegar, whatever you prefer and let it become nice and sticky. You could do this in advance too and just cook the sausages when you need them.
Finally fry your sausages in oil or butter, I prefer butter and oil in this case. Finish them off with 10 min in the oven along with your potatoes to heat them up again or on their final bake.
Then cut into the potato, add some of that caramelised onion, add a banger and serve!
Also very good with braised red cabbage.

Pudding!
Last years Bonfire parkin might take your fancy, find the recipe here > 

Bonfire Parkin



What are you doing for bonfire night?