On This Day in History – Tuesday 5th November 1605: the origins of Bridgwater Carnival

Bridgwater's own Carnival statue on the Cornhill holding aloft a squib
Bridgwater’s own Carnival statue on the Cornhill holding aloft a squib

In the very early hours of November 5th 1605 the Catholic Freedom Fighter / Papist Terrorist (delete as appropriate) Guy Fawkes, was caught red handed (and red bearded) in the cellars of Parliament attempting to blow it up with 36 barrels of gunpowder. That evening in Bridgwater the townspeople probably hadn’t even had the news yet , so likely as not nothing at all happened here.

Nevertheless it is from that date that Britain celebrates it’s annual Guy Fawkes night and to which Bridgwater can trace it’s famous Carnival.

Some people remain confused about what they’re celebrating to this day. Wildly missing the point are those that believe ‘Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter Parliament with honourable intentions’. Fawkes aim was to cause a massive explosion with 3 tons of gunpowder that would have blown up not just Parliament but the King, his Bishops, all the MPs, a large chunk of the neighbourhood and in the ensuing chaos, breakdown of authority and power vacuum, to stage a pro-catholic coup that would destroy protestant England.

In truth Guy Fawkes, a mild mannered Yorkshire born catholic fanatic, was only part of the conspiracy – but it was him that was captured and tortured and executed. The real leader-Robert Catesby, had fled the capital to be killed with his other conspirators in a Butch and Sundance style shoot out in Staffordshire. So Fawkes remains the surviving face of the plot. Which is why today kids don’t go around asking you for ‘Penny for the Robert mister?’.

Success for Guy Fawkes would have been akin to something like 9/11 to put it in a modern context. A terrorist massacre on a massive scale . No one would suggest Mohamed Ata entered the World Trade Centre with honourable intentions.

Guy Fawkes -revolutionary hero or dangerous nutter?

Guy Fawkes was tortured into a confession and then in January 1606 executed in the time honoured way-hanging,drawing and quartering. A charming medieval method whereby you’re hung until you’re almost dead, released, only to have your genitals chopped off and burnt in front of you, then your heart ripped out and (if you still haven’t said sorry) chopped into 4 pieces. This at least prevented repeat offenders. In the case of Guy Fawkes he threw himself onto the rope to make sure he broke his neck and didn’t have to go through the rest of it. Still, at least kids today can make effigies of him and burn him on a bonfire.

King James - blowing him up - a 'good thing' or a 'bad thing'? You decide.
King James – blowing him up – a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’? You decide.

The 16th century had been a nightmare of religious hatred changing from the tyrannical populism of Henry the 8th, who left the Roman church, introduced Protestantism and persecuted the Catholics, to his daughter Bloody Mary, who opted back into the Rome franchise and persecuted Protestants to her sister Elizabeth, who restored the old Tudor values and brought back Protestantism so they could persecute Catholics again.

By 1603 the new King, James 1st of England (but 6th of Scotland) was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots but brought to England to rule a protestant country- so no-one knew what to expect. The Catholics decided to blow him up anyway just to be on the safe side.

The failure to blow the new Scottish king “back to his Scottish mountains” as Guy Fawkes defiantly screamed (at least during the initial part of his interrogation…while he still had a tongue in his head) on November 5th was to be celebrated every year  as “a day of thanksgiving for the joyful day of deliverance of me”  . However it was on January 21st 1606 that this decree came into operation so the first chance they’d have had to join in this patriotic party of protestant pride would have been November 5th 1606. And then every November 5th thereafter.

Why did it catch on in Bridgwater?? The Catholic-Protestant conflict was always only a smokescreen for the wider changes going on in society in the 16th and 17th century – a bloody big and actually smoking smokescreen mind. With lots of smoke. What was really happening was the rise of the merchant classes in the newly enriched towns of the country where wealth was created through trade and privileges in the form of special  local powers were reflected by representation in Parliament. The House of Commons was the voice of the rising progressive classes while the King in his court with his ‘divine right of kings’, smacked very much of old fashioned Popery anyway.


Bridgwater 'in the olden days'. Notice 'no catholics'....
Bridgwater ‘in the olden days’. Notice ‘no catholics’….

In Bridgwater in 1605 the rising power of the merchants was matched by the powerful and radical  voice of the Puritans. Key vicars of Bridgwater- John Devenish and George Wooton were Puritans and, with no sense of deference to their presumed ‘betters’, preached the new religion from the pulpit of St Mary’s and it was at this time that the Borough Council furnished the church with their own private corporation pews-still there to this day facing westwards and cementing the alliance of clergy and people . In 17th century terms at least. What this meant in real terms was there’s going to be one hell of a big civil war shortly and we’re going to win it.

So Bridgwater – a staunchly protestant town with it’s large amount of independent and non-conformist religious factions, took to the new celebrations in a big way and from those origins developed what was to become the Bridgwater Carnival. This changed over the years and is without much record until the Victorians changed the face of it, but we need not look much further than the two modern surviving examples of these protestant bonfire festivals to guess at what went on. We’ve all seen the Northern Irish bonfires burning with their sectarian nostalgia but here in England to this day the Sussex town of Lewes notoriously (and they’re proud of it) carries on ‘in the old ways’. Marching though the town with their fiery crosses (oh yes they do) to commemorate the burning of the protestant martyrs by Mary Tudor they make effigies of the Pope and burn them on a massive bonfire.

Bridgwater was pretty similar to that. But it wouldn’t just be the Pope – they’d eventually learn to hate other popular hate figures as well. And burn them too. The Tsar of Russia during the Crimean war, Indian leader Nana Sahib during the Indian Mutiny and so on (Jim Davidson’s here in January-there’s another chance..).


Some old Pagan festivals used to 'worry' the organised church a bit....so they tried to sanitise them.
Some old Pagan festivals used to ‘worry’ the organised church a bit….so they tried to sanitise them.

But in one sense, never mind the protestant fanaticism. Yes, Bridgwater was a fanatically protestant town. It would have to be to see so many of it’s sons take up arms in the futile protestant Monmouth rebellion of 1685 only to see them cut down in battle, hung drawn and quartered in defeat and dispatched as slaves to the west indies as an afterthought. But apart from the protestant hate fest, there was a more ancient reason why the people took up their fiery torches and marched. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain saw out the old year and saw in the new with fire. Villagers extinguished their hearth fires and made one large communal fire, all lit torches from it and paraded back to their homes to relight them from the single flame. The period of Halloween, the end of summer, the collecting of the harvest,the onset of winter and the new year (by the old calendar) coincides exactly with this time of year and had been commemorated by the commonfolk of these islands for hundreds of years already. Usually followed by a big party.

And carnival time is party time. In Bridgwater the tradition developed so that ‘gangs’ and by that we mean the clientele of the different pubs, would all make their own ‘guy’ and wear outrageous costume –following the pagan traditions of disguising your identity to allow for more freedom of mischief at these saturnalian events, and then march with their torches to the big bonfire – on the Cornhill. The costumes for Bridgy people were key and the torches in fact held at arms length so you could see them in their full glory, amounted to nothing less than a late medieval ‘selfie’.

So Bridgwater carried on like that for a couple of hundred years with the authorities keeping a low profile while the lower orders ‘got on with it’. Admitedly sometimes blowing themselves up with the gunpowder they stored to make their famous squibs-as happened to the Taylor family in 1715.


By the 1880's the Victorians were getting nervous
By the 1880’s the Victorians were getting nervous

Then another November 5th –this time in 1880 – changed everything. By now we were well into the Victorian period and the rising post feudal merchant class were running the town while the debauched revellers were the new rising working class – often organised into Trade Unions, especially in places like Bridgwater, and generally struggling for a pittance of a wage and what respite through fun they could get from the deepeningly depressing thraldom of industrial capitalism.

In 1880 Britain was ruled by Liberal PM Gladstone – but we wouldn’t have noticed that in Bridgwater as we’d been struck off the electoral register in 1868 for electoral corruption and denied an MP anyway during this period. On November 5th 1880 the Cornhill bonfire was massive and the groups boisterous revelry looked like never ending. The authorities told the Fire Brigade to put it out. They had a go. The people cut the hosepipes and chased the firemen off the streets and the nighttime revelry turned to near riot.

The next year, fearing the same thing happening again, forward thinking townspeople came up with a solution that could save the face of the authorities and at the same time harness the riotous creative power of carnival and came up with the idea of an organised procession with the much prided costumes being the main focus. And that’s where the modern carnival really started. Oh , and of course with a ‘carnival committee’.


The present town bridge is opened on Carnival night 1883

But it was a THIRD November 5th that set the final wheel in motion that moved carnival onwards to it’s modern form . In 1883 the present town bridge was built and it was decided to give it a baptism of fire. A massive firework display and a military march past singing ‘God save the Queen’ (which I don’t remember them doing for the Sainsbury’s bridge…). To raise money for that they held a big concert by the carnivalites which proved such a success and raised such funds that they repeated it every year since. And that became the Carnival Concerts which went on to see people camping out overnight for tickets in deckchairs all around the town hall.

Today…probably….i say PROBABLY…people don’t take to the streets of Bridgwater to celebrate any Protestant ascendancy , and children don’t make mocking effigies of a poor delusional Yorkshireman who was horribly tortured on the orders of a rather reactionary King (who’d already tried to ban smoking so a successful gunpowder frenzy might have been a fitting end after all…). People probably just want to have fun.

The people who wear the V for Vendetta masks however, probably DO have a point.
The people who wear the V for Vendetta masks however, probably DO have a point.

Bridgwater Carnival today is held on the nearest Saturday to November 5th and is a massively popular festival of entertainment with 1,000’s of townspeople involved and 100’s of thousands of people coming to the town to witness the spectacle. Costumes and carts and squibs all play a central role as they’ve always done. No flaming torches, they have light bulbs. No horse drawn carts, but tractor drawn multilayered floats adorned by lights and populated by costumed crazies whether freaking out to some pop tune or standing motionless  in some freezing November tableau.

To find out more about the Bridgwater Carnival go to their website;-