Burning Bishops: Bonfire Night and Reform Poetry – Michael Shaw

With Bonfire Night around the corner, and many straw Guys awaiting their fiery fate, there’s no better time to reflect on the role of the effigy in reform campaigning, and the representation of effigies in 1830s political poetry. Although Bonfire Night may now be considered a family-friendly evening of fireworks and shows (perhaps some belated dookin for apples), its roots are overtly political. Between 1604 and 1605, Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic, was part of the Gunpowder Plot that aimed to blow up Parliament House and overthrow the Protestant monarchy. A Scot, James VI and I, now led this monarchy (following the Union of the Crowns in 1603) and Fawkes is reported to have been bitterly anti-Scottish. On 5 November 1605, while guarding the explosives, Fawkes was captured and arrested, and bonfires were lit across London to celebrate the king’s survival. Soon, these bonfires became a form of annual commemoration to express Protestant monarchism and (sometimes) blatant anti-Catholicism: Bonfire Nights offered the perfect opportunity to make an example of a supposedly treacherous Catholic.

Political figures continue to be the subject of effigies on Bonfire Night in the UK. Bonfires in Lewes, East Sussex, for instance, are renowned for treating political figures to a ceremonial burning. David Cameron (accompanied by a pig) and Alex Salmond (with Nessie) are just two of Lewes’s recent political victims. Although these effigies can cause public controversy, organisers like to stress that they are satirical gestures that mock the powerful: they are not intended to advance particular parliamentary campaigns (so we are told, at least).

But the effigies created by reformers in the early 1830s were explicitly intended to back a specific political cause: they were designed to attack, threaten and undermine anti-reformers. Across the UK in this period, the public demand for a wider electoral franchise and reforms to the voting system was vocal and pervasive. This was marked in Scotland where the franchise was especially limited: in 1831, only 5,000 adult males were eligible to vote, when the total population of Scotland was nearly 2.4 million (by comparison, over 6,000 people had the vote in Bristol at that time). The opponents of the reform cause were widely held to be the Tories, who thwarted the advance of the Reform Bill on several occasions. But in 1831, it wasn’t just the Tories who were attacked by reformers: it was the bishops. The second Reform Bill was rejected by just 41 votes in the House of Lords in October 1831 and reformers highlighted that, if the 21 bishops who voted against the Bill had voted for it, the Bill would have passed. This understanding led to widespread public outrage against the bishops.

Consequently, on 5 November 1831, several effigies of bishops were set ablaze by reformers. Church of England bishops being cast into fires usually reserved for a Catholic traitor must have raised a fair few eyebrows and, unsurprisingly, the satirical poets of the 1830s, ever in pursuit of the shocking and offensive, were drawn to these effigies and even encouraged the burnings. Take this poem below, published in the Glasgow Chronicle on 11 November 1831. The poem is titled ‘New Chaunt’, and it was intended to be sung by the ‘Guy Faux’ Boys’ on 5 November 1831. We don’t know who wrote it but it is unlikely that the poet was Scottish: the poem is attributed to the Kent Herald so it was probably written by a local poet in Kent where several effigies of bishops were burnt. By publishing the poem in Scotland, the staunchly pro-reform Glasgow Chronicle subtly expressed its sympathy towards the poem’s proposals and its tone.

effigy copy

This poem is particularly scathing of the bishops. Their opposition to reform is described as ‘Clerical treason’ and the speaker of the poem joyfully imagines them going to hell, after they are destroyed by the reformers. The speaker even styles reformers as modern equivalents of Guy Fawkes, prepared to blow up the bishops in the House of Lords. For reformers in 1831, Bonfire Night offered an opportunity to identify with Guy Fawkes rather than condemn him (a fact that is all the more striking when we remember that Catholic emancipation had only passed two years previously). In the paragraph that precedes this poem, Fawkes is even described as ‘poor Guy’ and the author advocates replacing him with the figure of a bishop.

The effigies proposed here, and the ones that were burnt in Kent and other parts of the UK, were symbolic of overcoming anti-reformism, but they were also a visual threat, designed to intimidate the bishops and highlight just how loathed they had become. And there can be no doubt that the bishops would have paid attention to these gestures. In the week preceding 5 November 1831, pro-reform rioters had attacked and set light to the palace of Robert Gray, the Bishop of Bristol, causing significant damage. Although the bishops continued to oppose the Bill, the evident public unrest and violence led to heightened anxieties amongst the political class. In the summer of 1832, the Reform Bill passed and several historians maintain that the passing of the Bill was influential in averting revolution in Britain.

The fact that this ‘New Chaunt’ was intended to be sung at an event is instructive: like many verses that appeared in the poetry columns of the 1830s newspapers, they were not designed to be read and appreciated privately: they were designed to be memorised and recited as part of a collective experience, whether at a Bonfire Night, at a demonstration or in the living room. That was the important role that newspaper poetry played in this period: it was a means of not only distributing political messages but instilling them in the collective consciousness, and thus newspaper poetry (along with broadside poetry) became a key campaigning tool, for both the pro- and anti-reform movements.

It’s unlikely that many bishops will be treated to a ceremonial burning this year, but with political tensions running high over various issues, this may well be a memorable year for the Bonfire Night effigy.