HAVE you ever wondered why a relatively small town in the middle of Somerset hosts the greatest illuminated carnival in Europe?

Bridgwater born and bred Dr Steve Pole, a historian with a PhD from Cambridge has.

Here he postulates on why Bridgwater of all places has the largest and most spectacular Bonfire Night celebration in the country...

EVERYONE knows that our wonderful carnival celebrates Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605.

But, is this the full story? Bonfire Night is celebrated throughout the country, so, why do the biggest events take place in Bridgwater?

After all, the town has no obvious connection with the Gunpowder Plot.

Maybe, in centuries past, for the townsfolk the significance of November 5 went beyond commemorating Guy’s ill-fated attempt to reduce the House of Lords to rubble. Perhaps the answer lies not in 1605, but, 83 years later, in 1688;,the end of the three most bloody and turbulent years in Bridgwater’s history.

Walking from the river towards St Mary’s in the autumn of 1685 the sight would have been horrific - mutilated corpses swinging from gibbets around the Cornhill. These were the bodies of townsfolk who had supported the Duke of Monmouth’s ill-fated Rebellion against the newly crowned James II.

Monmouth had been able to garner support from towns and villages in the South West because of its strong association with Protestant non-conformity - Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and such like.

Most of the rebels who fought for Monmouth came from these groups, motivated by a fear that under the Catholic James II they would be persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Bridgwater’s non-conformist population was unusually large. At the time of the rebellion maybe a third of its 3,000 or so inhabitants could be described as such.

The largest non-conformist group was Presbyterian. Robert Blake, the town’s most famous son, was a member.

Even before James II came to the throne, the size of the Presbyterian congregation and their agitation for greater religious freedom had attracted the attention of the authorities.

In 1683 the Somerset militia was ordered to confine “religious fanatics” to their homes and demolish the Presbyterian meeting house, a building with room for 400 people.

The militia’s action was as nothing compared to the brutality that Bridgwater’s non-conformists were to face two years later. Joining those who had flocked to Monmouth’s banner as he marched north from Lyme Regis, in June 1685 they cheered enthusiastically as he was proclaimed king by Alexander Popham, the town’s mayor.

It soon became apparent that the townsfolk had backed the wrong king. The rebellion was a shambles from the outset.

Monmouth led his troops on a fairly aimless ramble around Somerset, before returning to Bridgwater two weeks later. His final march ended in disaster at the Battle of Sedgemoor. After the battle the defeated rebels were hunted down, manacled together two-by-two and led in chains through a very sombre, subdued and silent town. Worse was to follow.

At the Bloody Assizes presided over by the notorious Judge Jeffreys about 850 rebels were transported to the West Indies as slaves and around 300 were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

To stamp out any smouldering embers of rebellion, Colonel Kirke, at the head of 500 royalist troops, was garrisoned in the area. An example was to be made of the towns and villages from which Monmouth had drawn his greatest support by treating the inhabitants as a conquered people.

The only Englishmen to actually suffer at first hand the ‘tyranny’ feared by many when James II ascended the throne were the citizens of Bridgwater and of other West Country towns and villages who followed Monmouth.

Imagine, therefore, the euphoria three years later when on November 5, 1688 William of Orange, soon to become William III, landed at Brixham. James II fled to France and sought refuge at the court of Louis XIV.

Little is known about the nature or scale of November 5 celebrations across the country in the decades immediately after 1605.

The scattered records which do exists suggest that these involved church sermons, the ringing of church bells and maybe a small bonfire.

It seems that they became much larger, particularly in towns with a strong non-conformist tradition, in the late 17th Century when William’s arrival was also commemorated on that day.

Records from the eighteenth century indicate that places such as Axminster where, like Bridgwater, many had rallied to Monmouth’s banner, effigies of the Pope and of famous Jacobites were burnt together.

So, whilst there’s little direct evidence of the celebrations which took place in Bridgwater during the late17th and 18th centuries, there’s compelling reason to suppose that they would have been particularly large and enthusiastic. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, the day had a special meaning for those townsfolk who had lived through the horrors of 1685 and the euphoria of 1688.