This November the 5th, as I stood warming myself at the considerable pyre at are our local bonfire celebrations, I was thinking it was a rather hollow experience. Don’t get me wrong, the effort was excellent: a brilliant spectacle of fireworks, a massive whirling and pulsating fun fair, a very welcome fire and even topped by a guy. Yet, there is something missing. The celebratory aspect has gone. It’s understandable, who 500 years on really celebrates the foiling of a plot? Well plenty do, for several hundred miles away something all together more spectacular is going on….the Lewes Bonfire.
Indeed its own website proclaims the ‘greatest bonfire celebrations in the world’ in ‘the bonfire capital of the world’. It’s been a long time since I experienced this grand event of Guy Fawkes celebrations, back in the early 90s, but I wouldn’t expect much has changed. Indeed a report in the 1930s described something not much different:
“The greatest of all bonfire celebrations is held at Lewes, Sussex and in 1929 no less than one hundred thousand torches were burned during the evening. Here the observance partakes of the character of a religious ceremony….the most historic is the Cliffe Society, which still uses a real eighteenth century ‘No Popery’ banner, and figures of Pope Paul IV and Guy Fawkes are carried in procession and burned. The effigies are filled with fireworks which explode when the fire reaches them…the processions start at 5.30 p.m., and each society in turn marches to the war memorial…the Cliffe Society, which alone retains the historic character of the proceedings, still uses the old eighteenth century Bonfire Prayers. Torchlight processions continue all the evening, and the effect is most impressive as the long lines of flaming torches wind through narrow, steep streets of the ancient town. The final scene takes place about 11.15 p.m., when each Society marches to an open place outside the town and burns its effigies. …lighted tar barrels were rolled through the main thoroughfares.”
Having said that it’s certainly moved on a bit since the account of 1733 which says:
“Nov ye 5th. Item pd ye ringers being ye day of Deliverance from ye powder plott 2/6d”
Or thankfully the use of live cats in the burning effigies anymore. However, as a custom it is hard to beat and the town comes alive. Indeed, there are some many parts of the Lewes Bonfire celebration, that you would need several years to experience them all. I decided to follow the Cliffe Bonfire, the oldest of the Bonfire boyes. They never join the united parade and stand fiercely for their traditions.
It’s all his fawk!
Lewes takes its protestant heritage very seriously. Elsewhere, such as my local bonfire celebration all mention of point of it is forgotten. Speaking to the organisers of the event I was at this year even the Guy had to be fought for. Here in Lewes, it is the impact of the Marian persecutions, as well as Guy’s foiled plot are remembered. These martyrs are recognised by the carrying of seventeen burning crosses. Pretty impressive and slightly shocking! Not only that but if you thought that only during an Orange March, in Belfast, would you see such a celebration of Protestantism, you’d be wrong. On arrival one of the main streets has a banner proclaiming ‘No Popery’. During the march, this banner is held proudly up again, as is declaring ‘the Glorious revolution of William of Orange and Mary’ itself on the 5th. How do the Catholics feel about it? Understandably it has not been popular, in 1933 the town’s Mayor wrote to the society to ask them to stop it…they did not. Although theses traditional parts were only revived after World War One, they hold onto these elements which make them unique and controversial such as the burning of the Pope.
The burning or rather exploding of such effigies is a Lewes speciality, and boy, are they special. These put those Guys of old firmly in the shade and there worth certainly more than a penny! They are amazing and very well judged. Lewes has always been a supporter of the downtrodden and fighter against injustice. The making of effigies aside the Guy was to lampoon individuals who were against British interests or local notorieties…. including the local Catholic priest, Father Flood once….It’s all harmless fun! Remember that! When I was there it was the height of the Balkan’s conflict so it was not surprising that there was impressive effigy of Radovan Karadzic. As always a barometer for current hate figures yet always courting controversy, these effigies try to grab the zeitgeist of public feeling. For example in 2001, aptly perhaps, Osama Bin Laden was chosen… but let’s be fair so was George W Bush with fireworks in his ears! Other effigies have been Colonel Gadadafi, Rupert Murdoch and Rebecca Brookes, Cameron and Clegg (Lewes is a liberal constituency), during the expenses debacle, a MP beside Westminster was made in 2009, fat cats on a piggy bank for the banking crisis and so on! Their choice in 2003 of a Gypsy caravan was a bit more regrettable, and bizarrely a Nelson effigy was blown up in 2005! This year’s President Assad effigy was amazing by all accounts! Guy is not forgotten but here of course they do burn the Pope…they stress it’s not the current one, but the one who was responsible for the plot.
Fire up the imagination
Even more amazing are the costumes, and the Native American costumes are particularly impressive and have history as the local community supported the American natives…Roman centurions, traditional smugglers and Tudor dress add to the spectacle. by 1861 costumes included Bedouin Arabs, highwaymen, soldiers, sailors, clowns and North American Indians. During the 1870’s Pioneer groups became a regular feature, the first group to lead the Cliffe’s processions being members of the Cliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade. Reflecting Britain’s expanding Empire, firemen were superseded by Squads of Bengal Lancers and, leading up to World War One, by Indian Princesses. In 2013 even Doctor Who had a look in.
Fire and brimstone
Back in those days, I didn’t have any idea of what exactly went on at the bonfire site except that the organisers gave a mock sermon. This is linked to 1850 which was a flash point. Pope Pius IX re-established the Catholic hierarchy in England, this led to the return of the Bonfire boys and within three years processions had started. By 1856, saw the introduction of the ‘Lord Bishop’ wearing full clerical uniform and gave a ‘sermon’. What a sermon! Dressed as bishops they gave a tirade about the evils of popery, not that it could be heard clearly, with all the hubbub. Then whizz! What was that? it couldn’t be? It was a fire work. People in the group were throwing fireworks, and no just bangers but it looked quite substantial ones. Now I realised why wore wielder’s masks. Then as the Bonfire prayer was proclaimed the crowd become more animated:
“Remember, remember the Fifth ofNovemberThe Gunpowder Treason and plotI see no reason why Gunpowder TreasonShould ever be forgotGuy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes ’twas his intentTo blow up the King and the ParliamentThree score barrels of powder belowPoor old England to overthrowBy God’s providence he was catch’dWith a dark lantern and burning matchHoller boys, holler boys, ring bells ringHoller boys, holler boys, God Save the King!”
“A penny loaf to feed the PopeA farthing o’cheese to choke himA pint of beer to Rinses it doneA faggot of sticks to burn himBurn him in a tub of tarBurn him like a blazing starBurn his body from his headThen we’ll say old Pope is deadHip Hip Hoorah!Hip Hip Hoorah!Hip Hip Hoorah!”