As the UK marks Bonfire Night, one woman describes how it feels to be related to the Gunpowder Plotters of 1605
Bonfire Night falls on 5 November, marking an annual nod to one of the most significant events in our history. Over 400 years ago, on 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding explosives that he and his fellow Gunpowder Plotters had hidden beneath the House of Lords. The group has planned to blow up Parliament, and kill King James I. That night, bonfires were lit around London in celebration of the plot being foiled, and the tradition has continued to present day.
Here, Hazel Southam, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Winter was involved in the Plot, tells Stylist what the night means to her – and how she celebrates it each year.
Last week, as children from surrounding houses came trick-or-treating, I found myself growing nostalgic about my own childhood. Then, instead of dressing up as witches or the dead, I begged old clothes from my father and made a Guy. Neighbours would give me a few coins for doing so.
We spent weeks beforehand building a bonfire in the orchard. I was endlessly on leaf-raking duty. And when 5 November came, we all stood in the orchard shivering, while my father lit rockets out of milk bottles.
Back then, Bonfire Night was the highlight of the year, made all the more significant by the fact that I am related to two of the Gunpowder Plotters. My mother’s family name is Winter, and if you trace back far enough you come to Thomas and Robert Winter, fellow conspirators with Guy Fawkes.
As a child, this link gave me considerable kudos with my friends. After all, who wouldn’t want to be associated with fireworks?
It also gave me a sense of who I am, and where I come from. I am endlessly intrigued by programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? in which participants start out with barely any sense of who their grandparents were.
In contrast, I can count straight back through 500 years of my family tree. This gives me a sense of rootedness, something I’m aware others don’t necessarily have. My colleagues call this being ‘posh’. There are office jokes about me living on a landed estate, and riding around it, wearing tweed, on a trusty steed, before heading into the office. One colleague spent two years thinking that I had a butler.
I don’t. Neither do I live in a grand house like my forebears, who really did own significant amounts of land. But nothing ever could be the same in a family in which two men in their 30s were hung, drawn and quartered. That means they would have been tied to a wooden hurdle or panel and drawn by a horse to the place of their execution. Here, they were hanged – but not until they were dead. Then, still conscious, they were emasculated, disembowelled and finally beheaded and chopped into four pieces.
It’s difficult to make modern-day comparisons to such brutality. The State’s reaction to potential violence has changed, and surely for the good. Consider the cleric, Anjem Choudary. In 2016, he was convicted of raising support for ISIS and jailed for five and a half years, and released this autumn, less than half way through his sentence. It’s a stark contrast with what happened in the 1600s.
For this reason, I have never looked back on my relatives with any sense of judgement. Although obviously, I know that buying a whole load of gunpowder with the express intention of killing members of Parliament and the King, is completely wrong.
However, we have to consider that this was an action made out of fear. My ancestors and their fellow Plotters wanted to end the violent, terrifying oppression of the Catholics at the time. I go to the local Church of England church that is around the corner from my house. I have colleagues who go to Catholic churches, and plenty who don’t attend church at all. In Thomas and Robert Winter’s time, this freedom simply wasn’t a possibility. Catholics were hunted down.
But it’s not even that simple; these were violent times for all. Mary Queen of Scots meted out horrible violence on Protestants.
I used to talk about the Winter brothers quite openly. I don’t any longer. Since the horrors of 9/11, I’ve found that people refer to the Plotters as ‘terrorists’. That is, I think, to overlay today’s language and standards on the past.
What they did was wrong. But the plot failed. They paid with their lives and the futures of their families.
I feel compassion for them. These were young men who should have had everything before them. Instead of which, their lives ended brutally and suddenly. There was no parole for the Plotters.
On my good days, therefore, I try to remember to understand difference, to have compassion, to listen to the person who holds views that are at odds with my own. On my bad days, however, I know that I have their rebellious spirit. No one’s perfect.
Has any of this stopped me from enjoying Bonfire Night? Absolutely not. I love it. Today, there is no homemade Guy, or bonfire in the orchard. But I do join a procession of thousands in the city where I live.
We walk, bearing flaming torches, through the city centre, out to the recreation ground where a firework and music display has us craning our necks and saying ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’. It’s far more fun than Hallowe’en, even if I am re-enacting the capture and death of my own relatives.
Images: Getty, Unsplash