If you’ve ever frequented Sussex around Bonfire Night you probably know that it’s one of our most exciting times of year. Never ones to be put off by a bit of careless flame throwing, the people of Sussex, specifically Lewes, appear to get a little bit giddy at the thought of setting fire to the streets. Every 5th November, up to 80,000 people descend on a town, for Lewes Bonfire Night, that usually houses a population of just under 16,000 to give a nod to the Protestant martyrs from Lewes and Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
A while back, one of our team was asked by an American friend: Why celebrate what is essentially an act of terrorism on your Parliament? Resisting the urge to dryly joke about the current state of affairs in UK politics, we are of course actually celebrating the uncovering of the gunpowder plot – when Guy Fawkes was caught guarding explosives that the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords in an attempt to kill James I.
Funnily enough for our friends across the pond, we suppose it’s actually our day of “Thanksgiving” – just with less controversy around asking the Native Americans to ‘move over a bit’.
As well as the 5th November being a day of observance for Gunpowder Treason Day (as it was known for a few decades), it also carries strong religious overtones as in the 18th Century it became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. Puritans gave sermons regarding perceived dangers of Popery and during particularly raucous celebrations, townspeople would burn effigies of popular hate-figures, such as the Pope. Towns such as Lewes were increasingly seeing violent, class-based confrontation and they fostered traditions that are still celebrated to this day, although much more peacefully.
As with most celebrations nowadays the original focus has diluted, but nonetheless we think we’re rather lucky to have what’s regarded as the “Bonfire Capital of the World” on our doorstep.
Traditionally, Lewes Bonfire Night is run by local Bonfire Societies and commemorates the memory of the seventeen Protestant martyrs from the town, burned at the stake for their faith during Marian Persecutions. To mark the demise of the 17 martyrs, 17 burning crosses are carried through the town. A barrel run of flaming, tar barrels, takes place along the high street and the fireworks displays, of which there are usually six (six!) dotted around the town, are incredible. If you’ve ever seen a large display at a cricket or football ground or Disney or Universal Studios, this will still blow your mind.
Before the displays start a number of large effigies are drawn through the streets before being burned at the huge bonfires. Each year these include Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who became head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1605. Additionally, each of the seven bonfire societies create a topical piece to represent its current “Enemies of Bonfire”, these range from nationally reviled figures to local officials. In 2001 effigies of Osama Bin Laden were paraded down the street and burned by the Cliffe, Commercial Square and Lewes Borough Bonfire Societies and in 2010 a rather impressive effigy of Nick Clegg as David Cameron’s puppet was displayed outside a tableau of the Houses of Parliament to mark the coalition government.
During the parade a wreath-laying ceremony occurs at the War Memorial in the centre of Lewes and a loud explosion of poppies rain down on the crowds watching.
Described by the Daily Telegraph as “a head-on collision of Hallowe’en and Mardi Gras”, Lewes Bonfire Night can result in injury (we remember last year the local paper, The Argus, proudly quoting that only 86 had been injured compared to 124 the year before) and is very noisy, smoky and smelly, but it’s an amazing spectacle to get into the thick of and one you’ll struggle to find anywhere else in the world.