Most people know that the 5 November is about the Gunpowder Plot, “a failed mass assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland and the entire House of Lords by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.” It’s celebrated now by burning bonfires with effigies of Guy Fawkes and shooting off fireworks, which seems odd but was actually a great reason to burn the Samhain bonfires of old.
If you want to know why the British Catholics were angry and desperate enough to plan such a heinous act of terrorism, then I suggest you read Jessie Childs’s book God’s Traitors: Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England for a detailed, humanized explanation.
Fewer people know of the Newport Rising “the last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in Great Britain, when, on 4 November 1839, almost 10,000 Chartist sympathisers, led by John Frost, marched on the town of Newport, Monmouthshire.” It was a big, fat, hairy political deal that happened just two years into Queen Victoria’s reign. Why isn’t an effigy of John Frost pitched on a bonfire tonight as well?
Well, for one thing, people can sympathize a lot easier with the Chartist sympathizers of the Newport Rising, and the Newport Rising was more civil disobedience than terrorism. The government was trying to prevent democracy, and you can see why officials didn’t want it commemorated in any way.
The Chartists were marching in protest because the House of Commons had rejected the People’s Charter of 1838. The Charter wanted such lofty goals as universal suffrage (even for those who did not own property), voting by secret ballot, a fixed salary for members of parliament, an end to rotten boroughs, equal representation in parliment for all, and annual parliamentary elections (to keep the MPs honest). Golly, those radicals!
Although the rejection happened on 12 July 1839, it takes awhile to organize a good civic protest, and the Chartists didn’t want to be mistaken for rioters or unpatriotic louts, so they needed time to plan. Additionally, the government kept trying to squash their protests by arresting their leaders. On 2 August one of their most notable leaders, Henry Vincent, was convicted for unlawful assembly and conspiracy and sentenced to a year in prison, so the Chartists were getting fairly vexed about it all.
In the early days of November the Chartist and other protesters began to assemble with the intent on marching on Newport and “liberating fellow Chartists who were reported to have been taken prisoner in the town’s Westgate Hotel.” Heavy rains delayed the march, giving outlying workers and disaffected unionists time to join the mass preparing to march. Some the marchers were armed with home-made pikes, bludgeons and firearms, which scared the daylights out of the powers that be in Newport.
Thomas Phillips, the Mayor, already had 500 Special Constables and 60 soldiers, but he sent word he needed even more to defend the town from the hooligans about to rip it apart. However, the lack of forewarning meant that the was only time to get another 32 soldiers from the 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment of Foot before the marchers descended on the town.
The march was headed by Frost leading a column into Newport from the west, Zephaniah Williams leading a column from Blackwood to the northwest and William Jones leading a column from Pontypool to the north … Filing quickly down the steep Stow Hill, the Chartists arrived at the small square in front of the hotel at about 9.30 am … the crowd demanded the release of the imprisoned Chartists. A brief, violent and bloody battle ensued.
The Chartists outnumbered the troops, but they were vastly outgunned. In the end, appoximately 22 Chartists were killed “and upwards of 50 had been wounded”. The mayor and one soldier were also injured in the fray.
Afterwards, more that 200 suspected Chartists were arrested, and 21 of them were charged with with high treason, including the three main leaders of the march. John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones were subsequently found guilty and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered, “the last people to be sentenced to this punishment in England and Wales.” Fortunately, ardent petitioning and the threat of more uprisings from Chartists in the north of England eventually got these sentences commuted to transportation for life.
While the working poor of Britain viewed the Chartists as heroic, the middle and upper classes shat themselves with fear over the idea of miners and suchlike voting and sitting as MPs. Like unionized workers, Chartists were defined in the media as dangerously radical and prone to extreme violence. First they’d vote, but then they’d tax you and rape all your womenfolk as they burnt down your house! In response to the middle and upper class hysteria, the mayor of Newport “was proclaimed a national hero for his part in crushing the rising and was knighted by Queen Victoria barely six weeks later.”
The working class eventually won the cultural war over how the Newport Rising would be remembered, however. Rather than being chucked on a bonfire, John Frost was “given an unconditional pardon in 1856 and allowed to return to Britain, receiving a triumphant welcome in Newport.” Frost lived until the ripe old age of 93, and continued to publish articles advocating for political and social reform until 1877.
In the 1960s Newport’s central square was christened John Frost Square. A mosaic mural 115 foot long depicting the Rising was also created by Kenneth Budd in 1978 to adorned the pedestrian underpass near the square.
Alas, the Newport council, in its wisdom and foresight, had it destroyed in 2013.
Happily, there is still a 26 foot tall statue of a Chartist marcher erected near the Chartist Bridge at Blackwood to commemorate the Rising.