As this post explains, Lewes Bonfire is a deeply respectful commemoration of certain local martyrs, whom we honour annually according to our own traditions. If you are not from these parts, you have no part to play in our proceedings. Please don’t come as a tourist, you are not welcome. It’s not our fault that you have abandoned your own local cultures and allowed them all to slide into the same homogenous nonsense favoured by the commercial corporations and the terminally boring ~ it’s yours. Sort yourselves out, start or restart your own stuff and then you can ask us not to come, if you wish. This attitude of mine is widespread across Lewes and those areas which legitimately send attendees to bonfire. You could say it is localism gone mad. If you need to ask whether you are from an area which entitles you to legitimately visit, you are not from one of those areas.
On a building site, the company in charge has to erect signs which say things like, “DANGER – DO NOT ENTER“. They are there for good reason. However, the law recognises that these signs are also an “inducement” to young children, boys especially, to climb into the forbidden zones. Thus, the site must be made reasonably safe at all times. It is the same with Lewes Bonfire. We don’t want you to come but we accept that we cannot prevent you altogether. Thus we make efforts to accommodate you to the extent we have to. This guide is intended in that spirit. It is written in the spirit of honesty. If, at the end of reading it, you still want to come as a tourist, more fool you.
Are You Fit?
Bonfire in Lewes is part of a local tradition entrenched in Sussex and Kent, which sets it apart from the rest of the country’s celebrations on 5th November each year. It is a complex event, which ‘celebrates’ liberty, freedom of conscience and speech. Expect it to be noisy, long and exhausting. If you haven’t been walking much recently, you may not be ‘match fit’. Your ability to cope with the proceedings depends on your physical fitness.
There are programmes available for sale in Lewes. They are not terribly informative. They are not aimed at visitors, they are for Society members and followers. These programmes are sold by the Bonfire Societies, who own this event. Lewes Bonfire Council usually asks people from “outside the locality” to stay away.
Normal rules of security are suspended at bonfire. The police remain in charge ostensibly. If you are asked to do something by the police, do it. Behind the scenes, they have won our permission to take sensible precautions. Lewes is a small town packed with hidden twittens, which are easily unseen in the dark, wrapped around steep hills. Public safety dictates certain measures.
The historical tension between the people and the authorities in Lewes comes to a head on this night. These days this tension is well masked, following a series of pre-bonfire meetings between the two sides. Essentially, there is a hierarchy of control on the night, with the Bonfire Society committees at the top, followed by in descending order, the Bonfire Society Marshals, the police, the bonfire boys & girls and finally, arguably, the publicans.
Roadblocks are set up early in the day, to prevent those without sufficient documentation to prove that they live in Lewes from getting in by motorised vehicles. The roads in Lewes are closed to traffic. Public transport into Lewes on 5th November is very crowded, with monumental queues at Brighton Railway Station. Lewes Bonfire Council has previously described the journey home to Brighton as either “unpleasant” or “horrendous”. Each year the train companies state that they won’t run trains after midnight. You can expect a minimum queue of two to three hours before beginning your homeward journey. Buses are similarly besieged. Taxis can charge whatever they like and do.
The devout Catholic Mary Tudor lived outside the Royal Court during the reign of her half brother, Edward VI, because she refused to accept the Protestant faith. After Edward’s death, she entered London and seized the throne from Lady Jane Grey had reigned for only nine days.
At first Mary proceeded slowly, repealing laws which discriminated against Catholics. Soon, though, with the support of Cardinal Pole she reinstated papal dominance. Next, she agreed a treaty with Spain and its King, Phillip II. In 1554, Lady Jane Grey was executed, Elizabeth, Mary’s half sister, was imprisoned and Mary I of England married Philip II of Spain. The royal marriage between Mary and the Spanish Philip was extremly unpopular in England. Mary’s furious persecution of Protestants commenced in 1555, earning her the notorious nickname of “Bloody Mary”.
Hundreds of Protestants were hunted down. Many were jailed in appalling conditions waiting interrogation or execution. Torture was widespread. Pregnant women were imprisoned too; uncounted numbers them gave birth in squalor with both mothers and babies dying in the company of the properly criminal. Prominent Christians were targeted, including: the Archbishop of Canterbury, several Bishops, dozens of clergymen and various scholars. None were spared. Those who were lucky escaped abroad to France and beyond.
Toward the end of October 1554, a Bible-reading was taking place in the home of one Dirrick Carver, a brewer from Brighthelmstone (now Brighton) with John Launder, Thomas Iveson and William Veisey. There are as many spellings of Carver’s Christian name as possible. On 22nd July 1555, Dirrick Carver, was taken by the authorities, to Lewes to be burned at the stake outside of the Old Star Inn, where the Town Hall currently stands. (I’ve republished a detailed account of Carver’s martyrdom at the previous link.) All told, 17 people, men and women, were martyred locally.
The Protestants endured imprisonment, deprivation, torment and burning but they would not recant their deeply held opinions of the fundamentally flawed nature of the Roman Catholic faith. The central belief of their Protestant faith held that Jesus Christ was the head of the church and it was inconceivable that the Roman Catholic Church should put the pope at the head of Christian faith. When Mary Tudor’s reign came to an end in 1558 that they were able to return to open worship.
The 17 martyrs of Lewes are the main focus of the various acts of remembrance at bonfire. Each bonfire society carries 17 burning crosses and drags 17 barrels of burning tar in their honour. Their names can be seen on banners draped across Cliffe High Street, next to banners which declare “No Popery”. It’s important to realise that this event is not a festival or carnival but our ritual of bearing witness to sufferings past. It is a grand act of remembrance and we take it very seriously.
Protest against particular Pope, not Catholics
The Pope at the time of the martyrs was Paul IV. Curiously (and somewhat incidentally to this account), the Catholic Encyclopedia accuses him of nepotism and even goes so far as to state that his pontificate was “a great disappointment”. It goes on to note that “He who at the beginning was honoured by a public statue, lived to see it thrown down and mutilated by the hostile populace”. Doubtless, that had nothing to do with the Inquisition or the martyrs. It is specifically Pope Paul IV that we mock, deny authority to, and blow up.
After the capture of Guy Fawkes on 5th November 1605 and the arrest of his fellow conspirators the Government responded immediately to this attempt to kill the King and Parliament. A law entitled ‘An Acte for a publique Thancksgiving to Almighty God everie yeere of the Fifte day of November’ was passed in January 1606. It declared that the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot should ‘be held in a perpetual Remembrance’ and that the 5th November be ‘a holiday for ever in thankfulness to God for the deliverance and detestation of the Papists’. This annual ‘remembrance’ was to be marked by a morning service in every parish church at which a special prayer of thanksgiving was to be offered up.
Origins & History of Lewes Bonfire
The origin of the modern Lewes Bonfire night doubtless arises from that Act. Inattentive historians find it convenient to believe that the Gunpowder Plot’s discovery has been commemorated as intended each 5th November since 1606. However, there isn’t sufficient evidence to support that idea. All such holidays were abandoned during ‘Cromwell’s Commonwealth’ because the common people’s entertainments were banned, in keeping with the dominant Puritanical ideology. It seems likely that the occasion was formally marked again after the restoration of the monarchy but we cannot know whether events amounted to anything more than a church service.
In 1679 Benjamin Harris, in the Domestick Intelligence, recorded an incident in Lewes. His detailed description of an anti-papal procession on the streets of Lewes with participants attired in mock religious regalia and carrying a papal effigy sounds very familiar to our tradition. However, that year Titus Oates invented a fictitious Popish Plot. The paranoiac fear of Roman Catholicism that Oates’ revelations provoked large anti-papal demonstrations in London and which may have similarly influenced events in Lewes. Thus, it is uncertain whether this was an annual event or not.
By the 18th century, the press reported events marking the 5th in Lewes from time to time. Such as there was any, the coverage doesn’t indicate an established pattern for the events, at least until the end of the century. Then, a fire was being regularly lit at the top of School Hill. Disturbances and arrests were often in attendance too. In 1806 full scale rioting led to the fire site being moved to Gallows Bank, presumably for safety reasons. The lack of reports suggest that bonfire briefly declined in popularity. In 1814 we are informed that ‘we scarcely remember our streets to have been so free from annoyance of squibs, rockets and other fireworks’.
Public enthusiasm for the occasion ensured that it did not die out. From the 1820s onwards, the local press has reported annual bonfires. We have graphic descriptions of very excited crowds, albeit not in full riot. In the early Nineteenth Century, a huge bonfire is being lit in the High Street, between the White Hart Inn and County Hall (which is now the Law Courts), warming large crowds. Fireballs and rookies were thrown around. An increasing number of tar barrels were getting dragged through the town. The magistrates, supported by specially sworn in constables, attempted to control the edgier elements of the crowds. In 1846 a local magistrate was thrown off Cliffe Bridge into the River Ouse. The following year, London police were drafted into Lewes to suppress the bonfire boys and belles.
This authoritarian approach failed but a compromise was reached. The bonfire boys and belles moved their site to Wallands Park. In 1850, the Catholic hierarchy was reintroduced to Brighton. The town’s authorities decided to permit the commemoration to return to the High Street. An important development in the organisation of the night began at this time: Cliffe Bonfire Society was formed. From that day to this, the modern tradition has been entrenched. The formation of societies was driven by a recognition that rioting would no longer be tolerated. As each society was set up, they set about organising military style torchlight processions efficiently marshalled by members resplendent in various titles including Commander-in-Chief, Staff Officer and Inspector General.
Depending on your positioning and the crowds, you can expect to see multiple costumed processions, blazing tar barrel races, enemies of the bonfire, effigies of Pope Paul IV, traditional firework displays and bonfire prayers. It’s an extraordinary theatrical atmosphere which is hard to convey. The town of Lewes fits the bill perfectly, providing a picturesque and olde worlde backdrop to the proceedings. It’s very very noisy. There will be much to see. There are simultaneous processions so it is impossible to see everything but that does create talking points.
Deal With Your Ego
Expect to be offended at some point in the night. We all do. By offended, I don’t mean something minor that inconveniences you somehow. I mean something that really pisses you off. This is not a wall to wall pleasure zone. This is a complex event, mirroring life itself. The trick is to get over the offence as soon as you can. I’ve never yet been and not been really annoyed by something. This is also the closest I get to religion. Fuck it, this is my religion.
Lewes Bonfire Council states that “attendance at Lewes Bonfire Night will constitute volenti non fit injuria, that is to say you will be deemed to have accepted any risk of injury or damage whatsoever, and no claim in respect thereof will lie against the organisers.” Whilst this statement is undoubtedly of dubious legal value, the point is nonetheless well made. I need hardly remind you that no amount of money will truly compensate you for being burnt.
Wear old clothes made of natural or fire resistant materials. Do not wear anything that can melt (easily, … obviously everything can melt at a certain temperature). If your hair is long, wear it short. Keeping it under a hat is highly recommended. Wear boots or sturdy shoes with tough soles. You will be walking miles, in often dense and disorientated crowds. Steel toe caps are highly recommended but not strictly necessary. Dress for the cold. This is not an occasion for fashionable clothing. When not walking, you will be mostly standing around. Much of the time, you will not be near a bonfire. Be prepared for rain. Umbrellas are an absolute no-no. Gloves are highly recommended.
These days, protective eye-wear may be considered to be an optional extra. The air is no longer thick with explosives. In the 1980s, I wore sunglasses to protect my eyes from the airborne chaos. I’ll be glad to be wearing prescription glasses this year but you can probably get away without anything of this sort. It may be sensible to wear some ‘parish glasses’ – the cheap ones you can buy from supermarkets. Glasses and a hood is a good combination. Unfortunately, last year some explosive material was still thrown into the air in the town by the hardcore miscreants. The remaining problem chiefly lay with those in the crowd who threw stuff into the procession and into their fellow observers standing next to them on the street.
I know that Southover Bonfire Society, of which I am a member, has agreed to not drop any rookies (an agricultural bird scaring banger) on the High Street at all. This is a remarkable departure from tradition but has become necessary because last year the build design of the so-called Blues (blue coloured rookies, manufactured for night use in agricultural defence) contained concrete plugs unexpectedly, which resulted in a surge in injuries. All the bonfire societies have issued a complete ban on the use of blue rookies anywhere. Anyone found with blue rookies in their possession will be arrested. No ifs and no buts.
Ear plugs can dampen conversation and aren’t really necessary for visitors, who are not exposed to the full din of being in the processions. However, it would be wise to bring some along so that you can give yourself some relief if it all gets a bit too much. We want it to get a bit too much!
Lewes Bonfire Council also states,
“Never bring fireworks with you! The police will very quickly remove you from the celebrations if you are seen to be letting off fireworks yourself. Please do not pick up discarded torches in the street, and prevent children from trying to do so. At the tail of every procession there is a specialist team who will collect discarded torches. Safety is everyone’s responsibility – including yours!”
Remember The Sufferings Of Others
If you feel threatened or uncomfortable (as opposed to actually being threatened), get over yourself and deal with it. Think about how it must have felt to have been forced into a barrel of blazing tar and burnt to death for your beliefs. These unpleasant musings will leave you feeling much more comfortable. Be grateful for your liberty.
If there is any possibility you may become unwell, make sure you bring your appropriate medication with you. In particular, if you are asthmatic, make sure that you bring a full inhaler. There is a lot of smoke around, and the St John Ambulance regularly have problems with people suffering asthma attacks but who have not brought their inhalers. There will be far too many people to get ambulances around quickly.
Do bring a reasonable amount of money. You may wish to buy food and drink from the vendors, and to contribute to the collections for charity which take place during the processions.
Do not expect all the pubs to be open. Some close entirely. Many admit regulars only and have bouncers on the doors. The authorities claim that the existing Lewes Street Drinking Prohibition will be enforced. Hmm, not sure how they’d manage that – they’ve got enough to deal with anyway. Practicalities kick in though – since you may not be able to get to a toilet very easily, if you wish to drink I advise bring brandy or some other strong liquor. Many people urinate in alleyways, lanes and car parks because there are insufficient public toilets. Of course this sort of antisocial behaviour is commonplace across the country, whether in the midst of a spectacular event or just an ordinary Friday night out. I’m not going to ask you not to do it. It’s got to be better than wetting yourself. Please do not urinate in twittens! A twitten is a lane people live in.
Drug use on the streets isn’t such a great idea. This isn’t that sort of event. This is not the loved up scene of a commercialised hippy festival. The few arrests that occur each year relate to drug use.
There are now seven Bonfire Societies in Lewes. The town’s cultural life revolves around them. They are Cliffe, Borough, Waterloo, Nevill, Commercial Square, South Street and Southover. Nevill Juvenile, to give it its proper name holds its commemoration a week before the 5th. Each Society holds a number of processions and participates in other events such as the race with the blazing tar barrels. All except the Cliffe process in together in the Grand Procession. The reason the Cliffe stand apart is that in 1972, when the Troubles in Ireland were in full swing, the Bonfire Council (a body comprised of the various Societies) decided it would no longer carry banners declaring “No Popery”. Cliffe declined and has processed alone ever since. They are the oldest Society, easily the largest and have the largest following. I used to follow them myself. Good old Cliffe.
All of the Societies, including Cliffe, are explicitly against religious discrimination. Did I mention that this is a complex event? Everyone will confirm that it is the domination of Pope Paul IV that we are against, not the current Pope. There’s far too much history in each of the Societies to relate in this short guide. Sometimes outsiders criticise our bonfire as being as bigoted as the Orange Order in Northern Ireland. Personally, I feel deeply uncomfortable with my Society carrying a banner celebrating William of Orange. However, whereas the so-called Loyalists in Northern Ireland celebrate a military victory, we remember those who died for their beliefs. That’s an important distinction. Also, although William of Orange committed vast crimes against the Irish and the Scots, he introduced much liberty to England. There’s those contradictions again.
Each Society parades an effigy of Pope Paul IV and a “tab”, which is short for tableaux. The tabs depict the Enemies of the Bonfire. These are specific figures which have been deemed to have been enemies of the people. Sometimes the tabs are obvious choices. Other times they are deliberately provocative and hint at deeper issues. In 2010, one tab depicted President Obama sunning himself, whilst a Chilean mining executive slaved at his feet. That was reference to the fact that the USA gets most of its oil from South America now. This sort of thing is bonfire at its best. It really got people talking.
It Was Hardcore In The Old Days
These days the tabs no carry the explosives in them. I’ve been present at some spectacular cock ups, when they’ve fired off horizontally having fallen over earlier. Nowadays they are placed over the explosives already set up at each Society’s site. They do not really form part of a firework display. They are simply blown up with a really big detonation. In the 1980s I saw craters blown ten feet into the ground and thirty feet wide. The old Cliffe site was intimate. Several thousand people could be knocked to the ground with the blast. It was exciting but also extremely dangerous. Yes, the old days were more interesting. Sorry about that.
The tab teams work in the closest secrecy. Other members of the Society, including the committee, do not know what they are preparing. Being on a tab team is a high honour. The tabs are revealed on the 5th for the first time and then blown up. I’ve been working with the torch makers team in my Society. There’s no secret about our work. We’ve made over 4,000 fire torches already and I’m writing this guide in the first week of October.
Remember that none of this would happen without the hard work of the Society members. Countless hours of grafting goes into the preparation. If you want to be with us on the 5th, the best way to join in is to join a society and help prepare for the night.