from Sussex, with love

Lewes Bonfire Celebrations – What It’s REALLY About

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, guy,
t’was his intent
To blow up the king and the parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.

So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

A penny loaf to feed the Pope,
A farthing o’cheese to chocke in,
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him.

Burn him in a tub of tar,
Burn him like a blazing star,
Burn his body from his head,
Then we’ll say old Pope is dead!

And what shall we do with him?

It’s finally here. My favourite night of the year. Bonfire Night!

As a member of one of the famous Lewes Bonfire Societies, I thought I would take the opportunity to expel a few myths about the evening. The fact that we place Guy Fawkes atop the bonfire leads many people to believe that the Lewisian celebrations are about his attempted treason plot. This is not true. He is the symbol but the routes are felt more strongly within the community and have a far more complex history to them.

Many people tend to believe that there is a strong anti-catholic and sinister undertone to bonfire – specifically because one of the societies still bares the “No Popery” banner and the bonfire prayer above encourages the burning of the Pope. The truth is this is about a specific Pope as opposed to the Pope in general. Let me be clear. I am an atheist. I am not religious in any way, shape or form. I am also not in any way prejudice about other peoples faith. The Lewes celebrations are entirely about remembrance of the 17 protestant martyrs, and also these days those that we have lost in World War 1 & 2. It is not a festival or giant street party; it is the way that our towns celebrate and remember those that have unjustly lost their lives.

To understand a bit of the history this is taken from my society handbook:

Under the reign of Henry VIII the Bible became an open boo. By Royal order every parish church had one and all had the right to read from it. Edward VI went even further and the Book of Common Prayer was issues in 1549 ad people were now invited and expected to take part in public services.

For the first time in centuries, there was freedom for religious thought and the birth of education, the right to learn how to read or write was there for all.

But this was to end with the reign of Bloody Mary undoing all that her father, Henry, and brother, Edward, had achieved through the abolition of the Pope’s supremacy in England and the dissolution of the monasteries. With the bless of Rome Mary set about “purifying” England – with fire.

17 Martyrs were burned in Lewes for continuing to hold their protestant beliefs. They were dragged from their homes and burnt at the stake outside The Old Star Inn.

They were burnt alive for refusing to back down and for continuing to pray behind closed doors. They held their faith and were killed because of it.

Guy Fawkes is represented due to the failed gunpowder plot. The plot is widely acknowledged to come as a result of Pope Paul V being concerned with the growth of scientific thought that was challenging the flat earth view developed and ruthlessly maintained by the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. Pope Paul extended congratulations to James I after he took the throne, hoping to secure the Catholic churches position in England but the actions of James in Scotland and more particularly Ireland against the Catholics dashed the hopes of the Vatican.

Pope Paul V met with Jesuit Superio General Claudio Acquaviva S.J. in 1602 and formed a plot to kill the King and the English Parliament was hatched. Acquaviva S.J. commissioned English Jesuit Henry Garnett S.J. who in turn activated the Jesuits in England. This led to a number of noble English families, including Robert Catesby, ensuring financial support and the formation of the secret council for the assassination attempt later known as the GunPowder Plot.

When the plot failed on 5th November 1605, the Catholic conspirators were rounded up and executed by the English, including Henry Garnett S.J.

Pope Paul V was dismayed at the news and issued a written statement, which is now lost, praising the Jesuits, condemning King James I and spoke openly of his hopes that the Gundpowder Plot would have succeeded.

The celebrations in Lewes mark these historical occasions and the 17 Lewes Martyrs that lost their lives under Mary’s reign, as well as the evil carried out by Pope Paul V. Later the celebrations have also become a way of representing the local men and women that were lost during World war I & II.

The day is an act of remembrance. It is a solemn and very serious tradition. It is not all about blowing up post boxes and causing trouble. Rarely will you find society members disrespecting the night. More often than not it is people travelling down from further afield that do not respect the tradition who will cause problems because they do’t understand what we are there to do or the respect involved.

The evening if full of parades with thousands of society members walking the streets with flaming torches. Each society will make their way to their own fire site and will burn their effigies and host their firework displays before heading back to their headquarters to hold bonfire prayers and their acts of remembrance.  The whole evening is an amazing spectacle for anyone unfamiliar and the bonfire prayers and remembrance at the end are usually pretty emotional. The news likes to portray it as dangerous and as act of rebellion. It’s simply not true.

We are there to remember. To highlight current political injustice (with a new effigy each year). And we are there to celebrate those lives lost.




Image Credit Lest We Forget

Kelly is a twenty-something lover of all things nerdy. Cocktails and lie ins are her favorite things, neither of which she can enjoy since becoming a mum for the first time. She writes about everything she loves and loathes (with a little indifference thrown in for good measure!) She also blogs over on the BabyCentre about life as a new mum.

1 Comment

  1. Jennifer

    November 11, 2013 - 12:50 pm

    This was really fascinating, thanks for sharing! I used to go to Lewes every year as a child as my Grandma lived there, although I’ve not braved it since having children. I have very fond memories of the night.

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