Herne Hill (South London) ©

Michael Hill

I have always found that Britain feels like an “old” country, a place with a rich heritage that is very tangible in everyday life. You can see this in the architecture of the cities and small towns, the landscape, and the many historical sites run by the National Trust across the country. But you can also see it in the traditions through which people preserve aspects of the past in the present. This is particularly true in November, when Britain is all about remembrance. 

Over 400 years ago, at the height of the Reformation, Catholics were badly persecuted in England. In 1605, a group of Catholics planned to kill the Protestant King James I by blowing up Parliament and to put a Catholic monarch on the throne instead. The Gunpowder Plot spectacularly failed when the man guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder, Guy Fawkes, was discovered and arrested before he could set them off. 

Fawkes was publicly executed, and to celebrate the survival of the king, people lit bonfires around London and burned Guy Fawkes effigies. 412 years later, Bonfire Night has lost its anti-Catholic and monarchist overtones, but people still celebrate it every year on the fifth of November – the night that Fawkes was found sitting on his gunpowder. My friends and I went to a Bonfire Night in Brockwell Park in Brixton, where we saw the fireworks and danced to some live music in the cold outside!

The gunpowder plot has also been dramatized this year in a popular BBC show with Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones), who played Robert Catesby, the leader of the Gunpowder Plot. Funnily enough, Kit Harington is actually related to Catesby on his mothers’ side and King James I on his father’s side!

November is also the month when the British commemorate the First World War. To support soldiers and their families today, the Royal British Legion (a charity for British veterans) sells little poppy pins that people wear on their coats and jackets. The paper flowers symbolize the poppies that grew in the battlefields of Flanders after the end of World War I, as well as the blood spilled in battle. 

Bonfire Night and remembrance poppies are not beyond controversy. Perhaps burning effigies of a man who was publicly executed 400 years ago is a bit of a strange thing to do in 21st-century Britain. Similarly, some veterans and commentators have criticised that the cultural expectation to wear poppies has made them meaningless. I think there is some truth in this, but I can’t help but think that traditions and customs such as these are important ways in which we connect with the past today. After all, history is the only thing that helps us orient ourselves in time, both as individuals and as a society. However, I think that the role of teaching and learning about history in schools and museums should be to help people make up their own minds about the way we use the past, and to see (and enjoy) it with critical distance.

More London stories and casual history to come next month!



Bonfire Night at Brockwell Park ©

Michael Hill

Remembrance poppy ©

Michael Hill