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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

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