Bonfire Night is celebrated throughout England, but Lewes in Sussex boasts one of the biggest and most famous in the country.
Once a year, on November 5th, this small, sleepy town near the south east coast comes alive when thousands of people from around the country descend upon its streets to celebrate. Local businesses board up their shop fronts and the police close the roads into town as they prepare for the inhabitants of Lewes to march through the town carrying flaming torches and wearing fancy dress, accompanied by brass bands and the loud bangs of firecrackers. Eventually they’ll meet at various points on the edge of town where they stage huge bonfires, burn effigies and hold impressive firework displays.
Lewes treats these festivities with greater fervour and enthusiasm than in other parts of the country because it is celebrating a number of events at the same time.
First and foremost, the Gunpowder Plot of November 5th, 1605. This was a plan by a group of Catholics to blow up the House of Lords during the opening of parliament which was to be attended by King James I. The idea was to kill the King, initiate a popular uprising and install his daughter Elizabeth as the new Catholic head of state.
That didn’t happen, because the plan was revealed to the authorities by an anonymous tip-off. Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators, was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder to be used to blow up and destroy the House of Lords.
What’s more, earlier in the 16th century, 17 martyrs from Lewes were burned at the stake during the persecution of protestants in the reign of Mary I, also known as “Bloody Mary”.
Over the years the various societies which organise the event and represent different parts of the town have built up a reputation of independence, anarchy and being outside the control of the authorities. Although it is still a wonderful and exciting spectacle, it is far more controlled and sober than in the past. In the 19th Century local magistrates tried to ban the event by reading the Riot Act (a law prohibiting public disturbances) in the town centre. They were promptly thrown into the River Ouse by the public and the festivities went ahead as usual! To this day those magistrates are remembered by rolling a burning tar barrel through the town and then throwing it into the river.
What remains controversial to this day is the choice of pyrotechnic filled effigies that the different societies build and then burn at their bonfires on the night. To name but a few, these are some of the characters they have chosen to burn and explode: Margaret Thatcher, Alex Salmond, Sepp Batter, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Donald Trump.
Religious rivalry remains part of the tradition of Bonfire Night in Lewes. But these days it is treated in a good-natured and lighthearted manner. I can recommend going to these celebrations if your in the area in November. Whatever your religion, you just need to be careful and sensible on a night with a lot of noise, fire and explosives!
bonfire – a large fire built in the open air
to board up –
effigies – model representations of people
fireworks – a pyrotechnic display
gunpowder – an explosive substance such as dynamite
plot – a conspiracy or plan made in secret
tip-off – a warning or hint
to blow up – explode
martyr – someone who dies for a cause e.g. religious or political
tar – a flammable, bituminous substance