Remember, remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I know no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.
This children’s rhyme is still commonly recited on and around November 5th in the United Kingdom, during the celebration officially known as Guy Fawkes Night. The night commemorates the anniversary of a foiled plot in 1605 to assassinate the new king of England, James I, and the bulk of his government, at the state opening of parliament. The plot was led by English Catholics, resentful at the succession of James, a Protestant, to the English throne. They hired a Spanish munitions expert, Guido “Guy” Fawkes, to pack the cellar under the parliament building with 36 barrels of gunpowder in an attempt to blow up and kill not only the king but his entire government in what would have been a spectacular explosion. The plot was foiled at the 11th hour and Fawkes was arrested beneath parliament just hours before the arrival of the king.
Today, the origins of the holiday are less important, a fact reflected in its more common monikers of “bonfire night” and “fireworks night.” However, in addition to the letting off of fireworks and burning of bonfires, the night’s festivities used to include the burning of an effigy – “a Guy” – which children parades through the streets earlier in the day, asking for “a penny for the Guy.” Those traditions are largely gone.
In addition to the UK, the holiday is still celebrated in parts of Canada (Labrador and parts of Ontario) And was once observed in New England as well. In the 18th century, the day’s anti-Catholic nature was much more visible. Accounts of the day as celebrated in Boston, in particular, show that “Pope Night,” as it was called, stoked sectarian conflict. Bostonians would celebrate during the day by parading figures of the Pope alongside the Devil, while nights were marked by raucous celebrations. Revelers dressed in costume and went door to door asking for money, a precursor to today’s Halloween traditions. Such festivities were rare in Massachusetts, with its Puritan origins (who eschewed holidays to the point of working through Christmas Day), which might explain the outpouring of merriment and poor behavior. One historian also suggested that the anti-Catholic nature of the event was more appealing to the anti-Monarchist Puritans than the aspect that celebrated the foiled plot against the king.
We know that, although it became less common elsewhere, Pope Night was still celebrated in Boston in the 1770s. The diary of Reverend Samuel Dean in Portland, Maine recorded Pope Night visitors to the rectory in 1771. A poem printed in the Massachussets Gazette in 1766 gives a sense of the nature of the celebrations:
Old Boys, and young, be Sure observe The Fifth Day of November; What tho’ it is a Day apast? You still can it remember.
The little Popes, they go out First, With little teney Boys: In Frolicks they are full of Gale And laughing make a Noise.
The Girls run out to fee the Sight, The Boys eke ev’ry one; Along they are a dragging them, With Granadier’s Caps on.
The great Ones next go out, and meet With many a Smart Rebuf: They’re hall’d along from Street to Street And call hard Names enough.
“A Pagan, Jew, Mahometan, Turk, Strumpet, Wizzard, Witch;” In short the Number of his Name’s, Six Hundred Sixty six.
“ How dreadful do his Features show? “How fearful is his Grin? “Made up of ev’ry Thing that’s bad; He is the Man of Sin.
If that his deeden Self could see Himself so turn’d to Fun: In Rage He’d tear out His Pope’s Eyes, And scratch his Rev’rend Bum.
He’d kick his tripple Crown about, And weary of his Life, He’d curse the Rabble, and away He’d run to tell his Wife.
Extraordinary Verses on Pope Night, Massachussetts Gazette Boston, May 22 1766
In 1775, the tradition caught the notice of George Washington, who was then encamped at Cambridge with the Continental Army and would have had the opportunity to witness practices first hand. He was not impressed, describing them as a “ridiculous and childish custom”. The patrician Virginian may have disliked the nights activities merely for their lack of decorum (and effect on the discipline of his “officers and soldiers”), but there was even more reason for him to issue a proclamation against Pope Night in 1774. At the same time Washington issued his instructions, warning of the dangers of “insulting [the Catholic] religion,” Continental forces were embarking on a two-pronged invasion of Quebec (one led by Richard Montgomery via New York and one by Benedict Arnold via Maine). Congress had issued an invitation to the French Canadians, who made up the majority of the population to take up arms in common cause against the British. News of anti-Catholic celebrations in New England would dangerously undermine this message. This was no idle fear. In 1755, the Annapolis Gazette reported that a French General, Dieskau, who was being held prisoner at Boston, had to be placed under guard to prevent “mischief by the mob” during Pope Night.
In retrospect, Pope Night was not the largest problem in this regard. The following year, the Declaration of Independence would go on to cite the Quebec Act, and the freedom of religion it granted to Canada as a major grievance of the states:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies
With such mixed messages coming from the Continental Congress, most French Canadians saw little reason to throw their lot in with one group of Protestant “English” against another.
As for Pope Night, Washington’s proclamation appears to have finished it off in Boston and most places, probably aided by the new anti-Monarchist bent of the new republic. Yet it survivors in some locations. Portsmouth, NH, held some of the last recorded Pope Nights, as late as 1892. By then, the event had lost a lot of its original meaning:
The celebration of the anniversary of Guy Fawkes night on Saturday by the young people of this city was not so extensive as in former years no doubt owing to the condition of the streets but nevertheless small bands paraded the streets and made the early part of the evening hideous with music from the tin horns they carried for the occasion Some carried the usual pumpkin lanterns The ringing of door bells was also extensively indulged in. Very few of the paraders knew that the celebration was in keeping of the old English custom of observing the anniversary of the discovery of the famous gunpowder plot to blow up the House of Commons [sic – actually the House of Lords]
The Pope Night tradition in New England reminds us that even as it eventually faded, New England historically had a strong anti-Catholic culture. When Franco-Americans started coming to the area in large numbers in the 1880s, this was part of the environment they were walking into.
 John Gilmary Shea “Pope Day in America” address to the Catholic Historical Society Jan 19, 1888:
 John Gilmary Shea “Pope Day in America” address to the Catholic Historical Society Jan 19, 1888