At Oxford, the Fifth of November has often been about more than gunpowder, treason and plot.

Fire, Fawkes and fisticuffs

By John Garth

When Oxford remembers the Fifth of November, what exactly are the memories? A glance at the historical and photographic evidence suggests they are a little more complex than gunpowder, treason and plot.

Our black-and-white photograph from 1965 shows a very Oxonian flourish to the bonfire ceremony –Roasting the Rector, perhaps. Is this more acceptable than burning the Guy? A tradition which began as the celebration of the execution of a Roman Catholic may have retained its grimmer connotations here, a city famous for the martyrdoms of Anglican bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer.

Fawkes haunted Oxford — literally, or so it was believed at one time. ‘My regular book-monger keeps his second-hand stock downstairs in a 12th century crypt, at one period haunted by Guy Faulkes,’ CS Lewis records in a letter of 1919 (referring to the site of what is now the Mitre pub-restaurant).

A genuine historical record of the attempt to blow up Parliament may be seen in the Ashmolean, which holds Fawkes’ lantern, donated by the son of a Justice of the Peace who was present at the arrest.

Fire, Fawkes and fisticuffs

Our other two photographs may look well suited to Fireworks Night, but they show rockets soaring above college summer balls – occasions with no similar history in religious schism. Similarly, in his recent memoir The Unexpected Professor, John Carey describes the ceremonial burning of a winning boat at a ‘Bump Supper and bonfire’ in Keble’s quadrangle. Oxford may be a home to bright sparks, but they’re not confined to 5 November; while squibs are more often verbal than pyrotechnic.

The antiquarian Thomas Hearne (1678–1735) suggests that 5 November was something of a non-occasion in 18th-century Oxford, as Magdalen and University College archivist Robin Darwall-Smith explains.

‘In the 18th century, it was taken as read that there would be a thanksgiving service on 5 November, which got tied in with thanksgiving for the Glorious Revolution, because William of Orange landed in England on 5 November 1688. Oxford wasn’t always wholly on side over the Glorious Revolution, let alone the Hanoverian Succession, and there are hints that 5 November wasn’t observed very much at times.

Fire, Fawkes and fisticuffs

‘That’s certainly the suggestion of Hearne — but then he was an out-and-out Jacobite, who lost his job at the Bodleian Library for refusing to swear allegiance to George I, so you have to treat what he says with caution.’

In 19th-century Oxford, the Fifth of November was regularly invaded by misrule.

In his magisterial Encyclopaedia of Oxford, Christopher Hibbert records a fight between townsfolk and undergraduates emerging from a Town Hall concert. ‘Hundreds of special constables had to be summoned, and even a company of Grenadier Guards from Windsor marched in.’

Univ’s college register has this evocative note from 1873:

   ‘In consequence of a great uproar in the College on the night of Nov. 5, the following gentlemen were called before a meeting of the Master and Fellows and punished, viz.:

   ‘Mr. Preston was sent down at once.

   ‘Mr. Surtees was sent down at once and rusticated until the end of Lent Term 1874.

   ‘Mr. R. M. Campbell, Mr. Boyle, Mr. G. D. Faber, and Mr. Yerburgh were reprimanded.’

In Cuthbert Bede’s 1898 novel Mr Verdant Green, 5 November is a date on which ‘the Saturnalia of a Guy Faux day brought its usual licence, and Town could stand up against Gown and try a game of fisticuffs!’ Not to be outdone, Mr Green and his undergraduate friends resourcefully hire a Putney prizefighter to counter the pugilistic bargees of Jericho.

Whatever the consensus on marking the Fifth of November now, few will mourn the disappearance of Town versus Gown violence as a key element.

Bonfire image © Oxford University Images / Oxfordshire History Centre. Images from Brasenose’s 2009 ball © Oxford University Images / Rob Judges Photography. Reproduced with permission.