The British don’t go in much for dates and anniversaries. We’ve heard of 1066 – and of course 1966; but who can name the feasts of St George or St Andrew, still less the actual day when the battle of Hastings was fought or England won the world cup? (23 April, 30 November, 14 October, 30 July for the record.)

There is, however, one day we all remember remember and that’s the Fifth of November. Visitors to Oxford have an especially powerful visual aid to remind them of the events of that momentous day: Guy Fawkes’ lantern, the light he supposedly held as he crouched over 36 kegs of gunpowder in cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament, poised to strike the deadly tinder.

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By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match

Just over thirteen inches high, made of sheet iron, and somewhat bashed about after many years of handling, it’s called a ‘dark lantern’ because the candlelight it emitted could be adjusted by means of an inner cylinder which acted as a shutter. Perfect if you are engaged on a clandestine mission to blow the Lords, the Commons, and the King to smithereens.

There are many theories about the Gunpowder Plot. One of the most intriguing is that the whole affair was stage-managed by King James I’s Protestant advisors in order to justify repressive anti-Catholic counter-measures – i.e. a conspiracy theory about a conspiracy. According to this version of events, Guy Fawkes was a stooge, his last-minute ‘discovery’ less than miraculous. The lantern does seem a bit large for a secret mission; but, then again, you wouldn’t want to be walking around with a naked flame to hand …

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The truth is we’ll never know. The plotters (who supposedly hatched their dastardly scheme at a long-since-demolished Oxford inn called The Catherine Wheel near Balliol College) were executed before they could tell their sides of the story (see above re conspiracy theory). All we can say for sure is that this lantern was presented to the University by Robert Heywood of Brasenose College – brother of the man who arrested Fawkes – and that it was for many years exhibited in the Bodleian Library before being transferred to the Ashmolean Museum in 1887, where it sits to this day, on public display for the nation to view.

The jubilant councillors of Oxford instructed that the first anniversary (1606) of “the miraculous deliverie of his Majestye, the Queene, the Prince and whole state of this realme from the late trayterous practize intended” should be marked, following a suitably inflammatory sermon at St Martin’s Church, by the firing of fifty muskets, to be followed by the setting alight of a bonfire in Carfax and distribution to the poorest members of the congregation of bread, beer, and wine.

Much revelry ensued.

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A pyrotechnic, alcoholic and occasionally riotous celebration has been enacted nearly every (non-plague) year in the four centuries since – although the location of the main bonfire has now moved to South Park and the sermon has long since been dispensed with.

Here at Morris Oxford we like our traditions. We heartily approve of ale. We appreciate the occasional lighting of touch paper. And whatever the provenance of the lantern, we certainly see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

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Professor Peter Edwards, author of Dealing in Death: the Arms Trade in the British Civil Wars, is an expert on gunpowder. He offers this explosive post-script to the Guy Fawkes story:

When Guy Fawkes and the other plotters needed gunpowder to blow up the Houses of Parliament and James I with it, they were dealing with a substance which, ironically, only the King could provide – through the patentee of a government monopoly. At the opening of the English Civil War in 1642, the manufacture of gunpowder was sited along the banks of the River Tillingbourne at Chilworth in Surrey. So, when James I’s son, Charles I, set up his headquarters at Oxford, he had to start from scratch. Not only did he have to construct mills; he also had to find a skilled gunpowder maker and source the ingredients – saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur in the ratios 75:15:10. In spite of teething problems the Royalists managed to get production going at Oxford fairly quickly: Ordnance Papers refer to a gunpowder mill there between December 1642 and June 1643 and to a saltpetre house in April 1643. The mills, powered by water, were located at Osney, to the west of the city [See map below].

Old mills were adapted – including a fulling mill – and new ones built. When, in early 1643, the flow of water to the mills was affected by the flooding of the meadows on the south-western side of the city, Colonel Lloyd, the resident military engineer, embarked on a scheme to widen the channels to the mills. Gunpowder manufacture had started by January 1643, when William Baber, a Bristol man, delivered four barrels into the King’s stores at New College. Between 8 January and 30 May 1643 Baber sent in a total of 143 barrels. He then moved away, perhaps back to Bristol, probably because of the machinations of the King’s leading Ordnance Commissioners, Sir George Strode and John Wandesford, who were encroaching on his business. Nonetheless, Baber did retain his official position at Oxford and was only forced out on 24 February 1644 when Strode and Wandesford received their patent to manufacture gunpowder. He did not go quietly, however, refusing to hand over the equipment, and perhaps sabotaging the works. The drying house mysteriously blew up the following day, killing six workmen, an explosion which did nothing to help the Royalist war effort. The late Guy Fawkes might well have approved. – PE

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Detail from Wenceslas Hollar’s etching of Oxford (1643) showing Osney island and gunpowder mill.