Q& A and quiz
Basil Devenish- Meares, Dorset
APassed shortly after the exposure
of Fawkes’ plot (see Anniversaries for more on the events of 1605), the act “for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God Every Year on the Fifth Day of November” stipulated that all places of worship should conduct a thanksgiving each November. Everyone was required to attend the service and the act was to be read out.
The bill was drafted and introduced by Sir Edward Montagu, who had been charged with devising measures to prevent future Catholic plots. Not long before this, Montagu had been involved in a petition supporting dissident religious ministers in his county, a move that saw him deprived of offices and sent home. Having now been returned to James’s grudging royal favour, he was anxious to demonstrate his loyalty.
The act did not lay down penalties for failure to hold or attend the service. This was probably to get the bill through both houses of parliament as quickly as possible; provisions for punishment would have resulted in lengthy debate. Its principal function was really to provide the words for an annual propaganda message.
The Thanksgiving Act, as it came to be known, became a foundation of bonfire night; bonfires were a regular form of communal celebration and had been lit spontaneously in many towns when they received news of the plot and its failure.
When the act was repealed in 1859, Britain was less sectarian in religion and bonfire night was becoming less popular. By the time it underwent a revival in the 20th century (probably thanks to cheap fireworks), the celebration had lost most of its religious overtones.
Eugene Byrnee is an author and journalist specialising in history