The Catholic Origins of Bonfire Night

The failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was concocted by a small group of hot-headed young Catholic Englishmen, who had lost patience with the government’s continuing persecution of their fellow Catholics. Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and their fellow conspirators planned to blow up the House of Commons along with the King, James I & VI, and his family. The plan was discovered by the state secret service, and Guy Fawkes was arrested on November 5th in a chamber full of gunpowder directly beneath the Commons.

In the weeks and months that followed, the conspirators were hunted down, captured, tortured and executed. The Jesuits were singled out for particular attention, as Fr Henry Garnet had prior knowledge of the Plot, having heard about it in confession. One of the conspirators, Ambrose Rookwood, was among the first twelve pupils to arrive at St Omers in 1593. His classmate, Thomas Garnet, executed in 1608, is the College’s first martyr.

The tradition of marking Bonfire Night dates back to the 17th century, where a festival of fire and fireworks was promoted actively by the government. It was a popular way of perpetuating anti-Catholic propaganda and keeping the presumed link between Catholicism and treason alive in the consciousness of the general populace. These days this link is less well-known and Bonfire Night is now generally associated with dark nights, fireworks and cinder toffee.

The Stonyhurst Collections and Archives have several items linked to the Gunpowder Plot.

Garnet’s Straw Tinder Box (image 1)

Henry Garnet heard about the Plot in confession. He was unable to talk about it, as he was bound by the Church’s strict rules on not revealing matters discussed in the sacrament of confession. He was arrested, tortured and executed for having knowledge of the Plot and not informing the authorities. At his execution, some drops of his blood fell onto the straw beneath the scaffold, and a single straw was discovered to have a bloodstained likeness of Garnet wearing a crown of martyrdom. The story of Garnet’s Straw spread rapidly throughout the country and Europe. Brass tinderboxes, such as this one, were engraved with the image that was supposed to have appeared on the straw. Tinderboxes were commonly used in the 17th century to light domestic and kitchen fires. They contained a flint, a striking iron and combustible material such as wool.


Edward Oldcorne’s Eye (image 2)

Edward Oldcorne was a Jesuit priest working undercover in late 16th century England. He was based in Worcestershire, and had carried on a pastoral mission to the Catholics in his neighbourhood for over sixteen years when he was discovered and arrested in 1606 as a result of the crackdown on Jesuits following the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. He was tortured and then executed in Worcester on April 7th 1606. He had no knowledge of the Plot, but his status as a Jesuit priest was enough to condemn him. He was executed with John Wintour, who had been condemned for complicity in the Plot. The final part of the gruesome execution process involved the boiling of the dismembered body parts, which dislodged the eyeball from the socket. It was gathered up by an unknown Catholic sympathiser and placed in this small silver reliquary, then smuggled across the Channel to St Omers. It is the property of the British Jesuits, held at Stonyhurst.


Helena Wintour’s Embroidered Vestments (image 3)

Helena was the daughter of Robert Wintour, who, with his brother Thomas, and half-brother John, were all involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Robert was a most unwilling conspirator, who was persuaded to join by his older brother, against his better judgement. John had even less involvement but was condemned on the strength of his family ties with Thomas and Robert. Helena was five years old when her father was executed as a traitor. She spent her adult life creating a rich collection of heavily embroidered Catholic vestments, adorned with gold and silver thread, pearls, rubies, emeralds and garnets. At the time Catholicism was still illegal, and Helena’s vestments, defiantly embroidered with her name and family crest, as well as references to the Jesuits, were highly incriminating. On her death in 1671 she left the collection to the Jesuits;  four sets of her embroideries survive at Stonyhurst today, three of them the property of the British Jesuit Province.