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.
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 …
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.
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.