The Month of November

The deadly mushroom Amanita Muscaria

November the 5th is traditionally the most popular celebration of the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, supposedly planned and partly executed by the Catholic insurgent Guido Fawkes. Other tenuous influences involve the presentation of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, a dramatic horror story derived from George Buchanan’s “Rerum Scoticarum Historia” (1582) and Matthew Gwynne’s Latin pageant “Tres Sybyllae” performed before James Ist in 1605. It was supposedly written shortly after the shock of the Gunpowder Plot or Powder Treason of Guy Fawkes backfired, who was then configured as an iconic scapegoat into the hands of the Puritan Cause. An anonymous letter by Francis Tresham sent to his Catholic brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle warned of the imminent threat to the King and Parliament. The leading conspirator was in fact Robert Catesby of Warwickshire, the son of Sir William Catesby who was known to William Shakspere’s father, John Shakspere. The Catholic insurgent, Robert Catesby was shot dead while resisting arrest in Staffordshire and his uprising in Warwickshire was halted and immediately dismantled. It has been suggested by several chroniclers that Ben Jonson had a hand as a spy in uncovering the threat to Parliament and the King. Under torture Guido Fawkes revealed that among the conspirators was Father Henry Garnet, the head of the Jesuit mission in England and the author of “A Treatise of Equivocation”. This book explained how to give misleading or ambiguous replies when being tortured or questioned under oath. Nevertheless, Fawkes and Garnet along with other conspirators were brought to trial and found guilty by Sir Edward Coke then publicly hung, drawn and quartered with their dismembered bodies placed on public display.

Bonfire Night

Bonfire blaze
Misty Moon
Wilting rose
Pink balloon
Children’s laughter
Parent’s glee
Cold hereafter
“What’s for tea?”

I’ve got pizza
And some wine
In the freezer…
Sounds sublime.
Or there’s fish
At suppertime?
Now just one wish
Before you climb

The wooden hill
To paradise
Where you might fill
Your hearts’ delight
And languish still
In timeless awe
Both day and night.
The night before

November’s plot
Seems awfully quiet
And were it not
We’d never try it
Nor disrupt the sky
With storm and fire
To please our eye?
This funeral pyre.

All Soul’s Day as seen in the villages in France

All Saints Day is a festival which takes place on the 1st and 2nd of November, coincidentally quite close to the pagan Hallows Eve or Celtic Samhain, and was used to celebrate the lives of the Great Saints of Christianity. The ancient custom of “Souling” whereby minstrels visited houses to sing for a small sum of money or alms as well as a cake usually occurred between the 30th October through to the 2nd of November.

“Soul! Soul for some soul cake,
We sing good Missus, for a soul cake!
For an apple or pear, a plum or a cherry
Yea, any good cake to make us all merry!”

The month of November derives its name from the Roman Calendar the word Novem meaning the ninth month since the Roman New Year began in March. It marks the final transition into the cold depths of winter with characteristic sharp winds and even keener frosts through the ever-darkening nights. Now the last of the autumn leaves have fallen and the silhouettes of bare trees and branches can gradually be seen in their stark and eerie beauty.

An old woodland rhyme describes, somewhat lyrically, which woods to use for fires.

Beech-wood fires are bright and clear,
If the logs are kept a year;
Chestnut only good they say,
If for long it’s laid away;
Make afire of elder tree,
Death within your house shall be;
But Ash new or Ash old
Is fit for Queen with crown of Gold.

Birch and Fir logs burn too fast,
Blaze up bright and do not last;
It is often by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread;
Elmwood burns like churchyard mould –
Even their very flames are cold;
But Ash when green or Ash when brown
Is fit for Queen with golden Crown.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense like perfume;
Oaken logs, if dry and cold,
Keep away the winter’s cold;
But Ash wet or Ash dry
A King shall warm his slippers by.
– (Anon)

An artist’s engraving depicting the execution of the Gunpowder conspirators

The ancient Celts knew it as the beginning of the New Year although various alternatives to the 12-month Gregorian dominance in parts of the British Isles gives rise to interest and confusion. At first glance, it seemed there were two varieties of the Celtic calendar. The 12 Gregorian-style months starting with Samhain, November 1. Another one with 13 months and a day; each month having 28 days, and beginning on December 23. This second calendar was popularised by Robert Graves in his book the “White Goddess” and contains several errors, such as the letter order of the Ogham, the Irish tree alphabet, upon which he based his tree or plant correspondences for those thirteen months. Traditionally, at this time of year old fires were allowed to extinguish themselves and new fires were lit from the embers of new bonfires. That is probably why there is a predominance of bonfire celebrations in this month preferably on hilltops where they would be easily seen signalling the last month of Autumn. It was known to the Anglo-Saxons as Blodmonath meaning “Blood-Month” or as “Windmonath” meaning “windy month”. Usually, a cold November meant there would be a mild December and vice versa. The poet Thomas Hood wrote of this time:

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease
No comfortable feel in any member-
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds.

Witches depicted dancing on a full moon

But if you were to venture out on a clear, unpolluted night then you will be able to observe two sets of amazing astronomical events namely the appearance of several meteoric showers. The first to be observed is the Leonids (14th -20th Nov) and the second the Taurids (25th Oct-25th Nov). The former appear to stream out from the constellation Leo (the Lion), the latter from the constellation Taurus (the Bull). Notable celebrations for this dire month include Bonfire Night, traditionally known as Martinmass (St. Martin’s Day), which more recently is observed as Remembrance Sunday later on the 11th November.

(John McCrae; “In Flanders Fields”)

St. Martin of Tours is celebrated as the patron saint of inn-keepers and reformed drunkards. He was born of Hungarian parents around 316 A.D. in Panonia, was converted in Rome and served as Bishop of Tours (371 A.D.) for the remainder of his life. It seems that the 11th of November is also the date of the Feast of Bacchus, the Greek God of wine. St. Martin’s Summer is a period of warm or sunny weather also known as an “Indian Summer” before the onset of winter. Traditionally a goose is a suitable sacrifice for this day as the old nursery rhyme recalls:

Goosey, goosey gander
Where shall I wander
Upstairs and downstairs
In my Ladies chamber.

Martin Marprelate was a pseudonym employed by several anonymous authors of scurrilous pamphlets attacking the Church Bishops of the established Protestant Church (between 1587-1601). This was around the early part of William Shakespeare’s initial career or first appearance in London. The Church in question then commissioned Edward de Vere’s private secretary, John Lyly, the playwright Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene (the subject of the “Upstart Crow” scandal) to launch a counter-attack against the excoriating “Mar-Prelate” tracts being circulated. The actual author, John Penry was finally arrested and hanged in 1593 for distributing seditious tracts. Traditionally in Elizabethan England November was an appropriate time for revels. The term “revel” actually means to indulge oneself or take delight in and this preoccupation or custom is ostensibly a typically English pursuit, to relieve the tedium of abstinence and in preparation for the austerities of Winter.

A photograph taken just before John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald

It seems that November was notorious for assassinations as well as executions or memorable deaths as the American President, John F. Kennedy and Governor John Conally of Texas were assassinated on the 22nd of November 1963. The 19th of November is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the 18th of November saw the first published book by William Caxton (1477) and the 17th saw the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh and his inevitable execution in 1618. Raleigh was not reconciled to any peace with Spain and was therefore eliminated. The Scottish King Duncan 2nd was himself killed on the 13th November 1094, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to death for his participation in the socialist “Petrashevsky Circle”. Notable dates for November include St. Clements Day on the 23rd, he was the patron saint of blacksmiths and hatters and St. Catherine’s Day on the 25th . In this month sees the 100th Anniversary of the release in 1922 of the first horror movie based on Bram Stoker‘s own book, “Dracula”, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

It seems likely that his father was Pharaoh Akhenaten, while his mother is unknown, but could have been Queen Nefertiti.

Coincidentally, another 100th anniversary will be the 4th of November commemorating the first opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun‘s tomb by tomb-raider Howard Carter. Sometimes referred to as King Tut, he was an Egyptian pharaoh who was the last of his royal family to rule during the end of the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom of Egyptian history. Finally, the 30th of November is the occasion of St. Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland whose remains are entombed on the east coast of Fife.

A still from the horror movie “Nosferatu” as Count Orlok disembarks on his voyage to Whitby

Winter’s Song

The boughs and twigs though bare enough
As earth has yet to feel the chilling snow,
Nor frost-lined ivies climbed so rough.

At even time the rambling brambles show,
Their coarse leaf crawling on the ground
Where soft the cruel north wind doth blow.

But how the rain blasts swirl around!
Now pitted here and there in tiny drops.
A distant gurgling brook, the only sound,

Moulds the mounds of mire and stops
Its course across green overcoats
Whose foliage hides inside the distant copse.

Now soft, a simple song of trembling notes
Is all the winter birds dare try.
The bugle Moon at even-time now floats

So pearly white against the sombre sky;
So like a gem of purest hyaline
And pencilled blue so daintily.

In threads of silk that softly shine
Amidst dark silhouettes of boughs undressed
-I rarely saw her so divine!

Far on the watery, fire-streaked west
Yonder where the crimson orb doth set;
Limps sad in glowing coals and longs to rest.

I saw long streams and wisps of violet
And beryl-coloured ferns so dim;
I heard the moorhens quietly fret

Their brindled breast and yellow trim
With waxen coats now quickly run
Surrendering to the watery brim.

Out in the misty skies, the Sun
Sets fast, and my long day at last is done.

An adaptation of Gerard Manley Hopkins “Terza Rima”.

An artist’s impression of the exterior and interior of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st there were essentially two kinds of theatre in England, one was devised with an overtly orthodox or religious viewpoint (Mystery & Morality Play), the other was secular, ribald and regarded as being of a rather suspicious or doubtful nature imbued with satire, revelry and disorder (Revels & Masques). The 17th November was in actual fact a celebration of the Accession of Queen Elizabeth 1st and was celebrated nationally with ceremonial processions and exorbitant displays. Some vulgar presentations have been discovered as early as 1550 (eg: “Gammer Gurton’s Needle”) that was an early comedy written in English. The term “Revels”, which dates back to the 15th century, refers in part to the latter form which was often accompanied by some boisterous entertainment especially devised by whichever patron chose to finance and promote them. Like wakes, feasts and fairs, there would be jugglers, comic antics, music, poetry, and some spectacular setting or stage-crafted arena. Like the after premiere film party or thespian gathering, the revels designed by aristocrats, merchants and players were intended to entertain and amuse as well as expand the kudos of the patron themselves. There might even be occasion to succour favour from the Queen herself by portraying her in some heavenly or elevated status and on occasions she might be invited to play a part in a play. If she consented, that indeed would be a great honour.

On a purely social level it was an opportunity for those who had been isolated in communities or personal relationships to come together, to meet old friends or enemies and make useful contacts for the future. The Master of the Revels, who was first appointed on a permanent basis by the crown in 1547, was under the supervision and approval of the Lord Chamberlain, that thereby excesses or abuses were avoided in the theatres of London at least. Now it must be noted that the Lord Chamberlain (Henry Carey) was the supreme authority in the world of theatre, as Master of the Revels (an office shared at the time by George Buck & Edmund Tilney) its active censor and administrator while the Stationer’s Office held the copyrights and the sole means of publishing plays and poetry. Between 1594 and 1603 only fifteen of William Shakespeare’s plays had been printed as well as his two volumes of poetry, Lucrece and Venus & Adonis. It would be a further nineteen years before the remainder, bar three of them, would be finally published in 1623. At least eighteen plays were not published until the publication of the 1623 Shakespeare Folio. It seems all this was actually done without the author’s personal financial gain, his participation or even signed authority. That is “William Shakespeare’s Signatures” have never been found among any documents at the Stationer’s Office and rarely in any other letters or manuscripts. This is very unusual even for the time that such a well-known and prolific playwright or poet should display so little evidence of original writing of his plays or poetry. In fact none of the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays have been discovered at all. It was quite common at the time for signatures to be written by legal clerks where the signatory was either absent, infirm or illiterate. Clearly, in the case of William Shakespeare we must presume he was either absent from proceedings, extremely ill or simply unable to sign his own name.

The long-standing Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey died in 1596 and was later replaced by the Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert in 1603. William was a friend and admirer of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, George Buck was the son of the Yorkist Robert Buck, whose great grandfather was actually at Bosworth Field when Richard III was finally defeated. His family were rescued by the Duke of Norfolk, and George meantime was tutored by Henry Blaxton going on to Chicester School then onto Thavies Inn and later to the Middle Temple in London. He became the Master of the Revels in 1597, superseding the other proposed candidate John Lyly, the Earl of Oxford’s secretary. George Buck’s signature appears on all of the Shakespeare plays registered at the Stationer’s Office after 1608. Unfortunately, Edmund Tilney died in 1610 and Buck took on the office alone until he suffered mental health problems and died shortly afterwards in October 1622, a year before the Folio was finally published. These so-called “Revels” took place during the “dark side of the year”, traditionally from All Saints Day (1st November) right up to the beginning of Lent, although they were generally restricted to the Christmas period up until Twelfth Night (January 6th ) during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st. Professional companies and individuals would be commissioned from court and paid to perform at these events which might even include pageants and masques.

In the “Arthurian Book of Days” November is noted as the time of the re-birth of Merlin to a princess of Demetia who apparently laid with a sucuba (an astral daimon) and subsequently gave birth to a supernatural being. Meanwhile King Arthur has been transferred to the Castle of the Fisher King and lies in state while Lancelot mourns his disdain for the maid Elaine of Astolat who died of her forlorn love for him. Now, the remainder of the knights all go in search of the Holy Grail and encounter a variety of strange adventures in their fruitless quest except for Parcival who is pure of heart. Well-known versions of her story appear in Sir Thomas Malory‘s 1485 book Le Morte d’Arthur, Alfred, Lord Tennyson‘s mid-19th-century “Idylls of the King”, and Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s poem “The Lady of Shalott”.

Literary Sources:

Brewer’s Phrase & Fable; revised by Adrian Broom (Cassell Publishing Group)
Chamber’s Book of Days; R. Chambers (Chambers Harrap Publishers)
The English Year; Steve Roud (Penguin Press)
The Arthurian Book of Days (Brockhampton Press, Caitlin & John Matthews)

“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,