Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pope Night in Boston

A 1769 woodcut of Pope Night celebrations
in Colonial Boston

While Guy Fawkes was celebrated as a holiday on November 5th in England, in Boston it was known as Pope Night.  The Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605 in England was led by a group of English Catholics who wanted to restore a Catholic king by assassinating the Protestant King James I.  Guy Fawkes was arrested as part of this conspiracy.  His effigy was burned in celebration for this annual celebration which is also known as Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night in England. 

Anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in Boston (also anti-Quaker,, anti-Baptist, anti-Scots Irish Presbyterians - you name it), and so the celebrations were carried over the Atlantic to Massachusetts where it became known as “Pope Night" or "Pope's Day”.  Effigies of the Pope and other Catholic clergy were burned instead of images of Guy Fawkes.  This is hard to believe today in  21st century Boston, where the Irish Catholic Kennedys are treated like American royalty.  In the 17th century Boston was staunchly Protestant and anti-papist.

These celebrations often became riots as gangs of young men competed for the honor of burning the Pope, or having the biggest bonfires.  In the 1760s and 1770s this progressed toward anti-British sentiment and effigies of the King and other British politicians were burned.  This was a treasonous offense.   The Quebec Act of 1774 allowed Catholics in Canada and north of Ohio to practice their religion, which sparked a new interest in Pope’s Day and anti-Catholic sentiments.

 In 1775 George Washington gave a speech “expressing his surprise that there should be officers and soldiers in this army so void of common sense as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this juncture, at a time when we are soliciting, and have really obtained the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider s brethren embarked in the same cause, - the defence of the Liberty of America.  At this juncture and under such circumstances  to be insulting to their religion, is so monstrous as not to suffered or excused, indeed, instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our brethren, as to them we are indebted for every happy success over the common enemy in Canada.” [Life of Washington by Washington Irving, iii, p. 144]

And so the tradition of Pope Night continued throughout the United States for some time, but usually in conjunction with Election Day or Halloween.  The November 5th Gunpowder Plot was soon forgotten (At least until the release of the movie V for Vendetta in 2005).  Some people think that after our independence from England,  the traditional Guy Fawkes Day or Pope Night bonfires and fireworks morphed into our modern Fourth of July celebrations.  Most historians would probably agree.  

More information for the truly curious:

From “The Beehive” the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a description of Pope’s Day 1765 by Issac Winslow:

More descriptions of Pope’s Day in Boston and  Newburyport, Massachusetts 1760; Charleston, South Carolina in 1753 and Portsmouth, NH in 1891 at this link:

Other blog posts about Pope Night:

and last but not least, from the Breed’s Hill Institute website…

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. This is great. I never knew about Pope Night or Pope's Day. I've remembered November 5th for a long time, because it is my husband's birthday. When his birthday arrives, we always remind our friends about Guy Fawkes Day and the Gunpowder Plot. Now we can tell them about Pope Night as well. Thanks for all this interesting history!

    1. I knew about Guy Fawkes from my Grandmother, who grew up in England. She always compared Guy Fawkes to Halloween. But when I learned the history of who Fawkes was and why he tried to blow up Parliment, all the rest of the story of Pope Night came together.

  2. Heather, I happened to be in a pub in York, England, where Guy Fawkes and his cohorts supposedly met and made their plans. It's said to be haunted to this day, with chairs mysteriously pulled around the fireplace in the middle of the night. I've never heard of Pope Night, though. Very interesting!

  3. Heather, thanks for this excellent summary and overview. I didn't know about Pope's Day - very interesting! Colonial America was certainly very tumultuous.

  4. Correction of one detail: the Quebec Act was passed in 1774, not 1765. The context of the 1775 quote from Washington is that the nascent U.S. had invaded the Province of Quebec (as that territory was known at the time) and he wanted to dissuade anti-Catholic New Englanders from antagonizing the local Catholics of Montreal by banning Christmas, celebrating "Pope's Night," etc. For more about the context of the Quebec Act and the anti-Catholicism of the period see: