Bonfires and winning a Bible in a dice game

I’VE written before about some of the things Huntingdonshire people invented, from the pocket calculator to Stilton cheese.

Well, we almost invented Bonfire Night as well. In 1606 one Edward Montagu introduced a bill in Parliament that started an annual thanksgiving for the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was called originally, has been with us under various names ever since.

Montagu was raised to the peerage a few years later. Cash for honours is nothing new. “If you have �10,000 in your purse,” his brother wrote to him, “you may have a Barony for it.”

He became Baron Montagu of Boughton, taking his title from his ancestral home near Kettering. But although he came from the less interesting county of Northamptonshire, he had many family links with Huntingdonshire.

His younger brother Henry, from Kimbolton Castle, was made the first Earl of Manchester. His nephew Edward, of Hinchingbrooke, became the Earl of Sandwich. He himself married a Huntingdonshire girl, Frances Cotton from Conington Castle.

So he was about as close as you can get to being a Huntingdonshire man without quite managing it.

It’s a good year to remember the bitter religious disputes of the 17th century that gave rise to the Gunpowder Plot, because 2012 is the 350th anniversary of the “Great Ejection”.

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In August 1662 all clergymen who refused to follow the Book of Common Prayer were ejected from their parishes. Some 2,000 ministers lost their jobs, including a local man who is still remembered today.

Robert Wilde, born in St Ives, was thrown out of his Staffordshire rectory in 1662. When he died in 1679 he left money in his will to set up the unique ceremony, still held each year, when children throw dice to win bibles in St Ives parish church.

Wilde and Lord Montagu were an interesting contrast. The Baron was a Cavalier, a staunch Royalist and Anglican, but his life was so austere and religious that he was often mistaken for a puritan.

Wilde really was a puritan who sacrificed his job for his religious beliefs. But he was described as fat, jolly and convivial.

Strangely enough, the two men were connected – through their children. Wilde’s son became chaplain to Lord Montagu’s son, the second Baron. The mutual goodwill of the two families overcame their religious differences.