Lewes Bonfire Night (1)
November 5, unless this falls on a Sunday, when it moves to November 6
The first week of November hosts one of the eccentric English’s most irresponsible, unruly and downright dangerous festivals – Bonfire Night. Up and down the country, human effigies are burned in back gardens and fireworks are set off at gatherings that range from small family parties to huge civic events, sending pets into hiding across the country. In the otherwise peaceful, modest market town of Lewes (pronounced “Lewis”), things are taken to extremes, however. Imagine a head-on collision of Halloween and Mardi Gras and you’re well on your way to picturing Bonfire Night, Lewes- style – barrels of burning tar, processions of thousands of fiery torch-bearing maniacs, and massive bonfires and firework displays. Forget the damp squibs of mainstream displays and lame sparklers suitable for use at home – for real pyrotechnic madness, Lewes is king.
Lewes Bonfire Night is one of many thousands of such events that are held around the country on the night of November 5, to commemorate the attempted blowing- up of Parliament in the early seventeenth century. However, the bloodthirsty background to Bonfire Night in Lewes began half a century before, when Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”) launched a furious backlash against the Protestant Church established under her father, Henry VIII, by barbecuing seventeen Sussex heretics in 1556. A monument to the Protestant Martyrs, lit at night, is visible on the hill to the north of the town.
Following the hardline reign of the Protestant Elizabeth I, England’s Catholics had hoped for a relaxation of some of the restrictions that had been placed upon them, and had high expectations for James I, Mary’s son, on his accession to the throne. But when these hopes were dashed, conspiracies aimed at the restoration of the old church began to grow in Catholic enclaves throughout the country. In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a gang of well-connected conspirators managed to smuggle enough gunpowder into a cellar at Westminster to blow the Houses of Parliament to pieces. Discovered and captured in the nick of time, Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were horribly tortured before finally being put – rather unpleasantly to death.
Establishment propaganda in the aftermath of the so-called Gunpowder Plot ensured that Fawkes’ name was forever associated with treason and treachery, and that “bone fires” – featuring burnings effigies of villains of the day (a tradition that Lewes is careful to maintain) – became linked inextricably with his name. The strong anti-Catholic feeling conjured by Fawkes, and fanned by the Protestant establishment, continued to be seen at the East Sussex bone fires for many years, with effigies of Pope Paul V – who took over as pontiff in the year of the Gunpowder Plot – being regular victims of the flames.
Nowadays, of course, if anyone proposed starting a regular annual festival along the lines of the Lewes Bonfire Night, they’d be ridiculed. No local authority could seriously consider cramming tens of thousands of people, many of them drunk, onto the narrow streets of Lewes, much less having them mingle with processions carrying flaming torches. Indeed, during the eighteenth century, the “bonfire boys” often ran so out of control, throwing fireworks, and rolling flaming tar barrels down the narrow lanes (oddly enough, much as they do to this day), that the army had to be called in to restore order on more than one occasion. The first bonfire societies corresponding to different areas of the town – came into being in the late 1840s in an attempt to bring a degree of manageability to the proceedings. Since then, there have been regular attempts by the powers that be to ban or reduce the scale of Bonfire Night, but all to no avail. Many of today’s bonfire activities in Lewes, particularly those of the Cliffe Bonfire Society, remember the Protestant Martyrs of 1556, with “No Popery” banners still highly visible, hanging from windows or carried in procession. Rumour has it that black magic is also at play, especially among the five bonfire societies, whose membership is presided over by closed, traditional processes. However, most of the religious fervour has been dropped from the goings-on, and, although there are some locals who continue to favour a sectarian approach, they are outnumbered a thousand-to-one by those who neither know nor care much about the origins of what has to be one of the strangest free nights out in the country.
There are parties and bonfires all over Lewes on Bonfire Night, but the focus of the action is on ,the High Street and the roads leading off it. The processions parade on a pre-defined route, with each participating society ending up at their own bonfire site- just follow the group of your choice to its fiery end. The High Street leads down into the Cliffe area of town, by the River Ouse; it’s here that tar barrels are rolled over the bridge and hurled into the river.
Finding a spot from which to watch the proceedings often involves a lot of jostling, as the ressure of the huge crowds lining the route can get pretty intense. Get here before 4pm and you’ll have a chance of getting into the Crown Hotel, on the High Street, from where you have an excellent view of the War Memorial. Societies stop here to burn crosses and set off fireworks to honour the war dead. All of the parades can be seen from the hotel’s window seats, but this these places are in high demand, especially since the Crown is one of the few outlets for alcohol in town; most other places are forced to close. If you want to stand streetside, or want to have something to drink later on at one of the bonfires, bring your own. It’s also a good idea to bring your own bangers to chuck at the papal blessers once they mount their platform. Wait till you see the whites of their eyes – and don’t forget to go to confession the next day.