Remember, remember the Fifth of November!

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

We see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!


Tonight is, of course, Bonfire Night. It celebrates the foiling of a plot by a group of English Catholics to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on the 5th of November 1605. Following an anonymous tip-off, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft of the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder that were hidden beneath a pile of wood. Had the plot succeeded, the House of Lords would have been reduced to a pile of rubble.

The tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and bonfires started soon after the Plot’s discovery and was, for a considerable amount of time, enforced as an annual act of public thanksgiving. Known as the Thanksgiving Act, it required people to attend a special church service where the Act would be read out in full and thanks would be given to God. The Act was repealed in 1859 but the tradition of bonfires and fireworks continues today.

To mark Bonfire Night, we’ve once again pulled out some relevant finds from the Database!

Sixpence of James I

Silver sixpence of James I, dated 1605.
Silver sixpence of James I, dated 1605. Copyright: Licence: CC-BY

Dated 1605, the year of the Gunpowder Plot, this is a particularly fine example of a James I sixpence (LEIC-0ED383). It has the Royal Coat of Arms on one side and the crowned bust of the almost-unfortunate King on the other. As well as the Gunpowder Plot, James I had to contend with two earlier plots against him, despite having a more moderate attitude towards Catholics than his predecessor.

Decade Ring

Post-medieval gold decade ring.
Post-medieval gold decade ring. Copyright: Museum of London Licence: CC-BY

Although James I was reasonably tolerant towards Catholics in his early reign, recusancy – or the refusal to take part in Anglican worship – was still a punishable crime. In some cases, adherence to Catholicism resulted in the death penalty. Decade rings like this one (LON-F30014) were a discreet way for Catholics to practice their faith. The ten ‘bumps’ on the ring represent the ten prayers that make up the Rosary and were used to keep count of the number of Hail Marys said.

Powder Measure

Post-medieval lead-alloy powder measure
Post-medieval lead-alloy powder measure. Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme Licence: CC-BY

Lead-alloy powder chargers like this one (HAMP2710) were used to measure the appropriate amount of gunpowder for loading into a musket. Guy Fawkes was an experienced soldier who fought for Spain in a number of conflicts. It is thought that he gained his knowledge of gunpowder and explosives from his time as a solider and he may well have used a powder measure like this one during his service.

Pilgrim Badge

Late medieval pilgrim badge in the shape of a Catherine Wheel.
Late medieval pilgrim badge in the shape of a Catherine Wheel. Copyright: Museum of London Licence: CC-BY

This medieval pilgrim badge is in the shape of a Catherine Wheel (LON-6FABC6). According to Christian tradition, Catherine of Alexandria (later St. Catherine) was condemned to torture upon a spiked ‘breaking wheel’. However, when she touched the wheel it flew into pieces. Subsequently, such devices became known as Catherine Wheels and it is from this that the popular firework gets its name.

Hedgehog Belt Mount

Medieval belt mount in the shape of a hedgehog.
Medieval belt mount in the shape of a hedgehog. Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme Licence: CC-BY

This medieval belt mount (LEIC-E45175) is in the shape of a hedgehog. Such mounts were used to decorate leather belts and came in a wide range of shapes and styles. The humble hedgehog might seem an odd decorative choice but they do appear in many medieval manuscripts and even on some coats of arms. And remember, if you’re having a bonfire tonight, don’t forget to check inside for hedgehogs before you light it!

Palaeolithic Handaxe

Image five views of a flint handaxe, arranged left to right.
A bifacially flaked flint handaxe of cleaver form dating to the Lower Palaeolithic c.500,000-250,000 BC. Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY

This find (BH-14C4FB) is not directly connected to Bonfire Night in any way. But it was recorded onto the database today so we thought we’d include it! Any excuse to share a lovely piece of flint!

Enjoy the fireworks and stay safe!