Lewes Borough Bonfire Society Photo by Andrew Dunn

Lewes Borough Bonfire Society Photo by Andrew Dunn

‘Remember, Remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!’ 

Well, there is still plot in the nights terrifying logistics, plenty of gunpowder rammed into those exploding rockets, and even a little treason when religious discontent occasionally lights its own fuse. All that flurry and pressure, excitement and tradition let forth through the streets as Lewes’s night turns into day. Lit up by explosions and fire that trace their connotations back to more gruesome times. For the towns bonfire night, the worlds largest sees its population swell from 17,000 to 80,000. Wrapped up against the Winter chill as astonished faces, incandescent from the burning glow of seventeen crosses, torches and rockets, contemplate the illuminations sinister origins. Seven Bonfire societies put on six separate processions and with the support of 25-30 additional societies from across Sussex, procession numbers balloon to 5000. Gathering on a cold November night, smothered with the smells of burning tar and roasted nuts, that little hiccup of gunpowder, treason and plot continues to ignite over four hundred years on.   

To grasp a clearer picture of how Lewes’s Bonfire night formed its distinct character, ever radiating towards greater popularity, we need to return to the past—elucidating a series of events, wherefrom a religious perspective, drastically changed the lay of the land. Unleashing terror from the hands of a select few, where evidence to convict remained questionable and personal belief stayed resolute in the harrowing face of looming execution. England”s monarchs served up a tennis-match of religious supremacy. Protestant one side, Catholicism on the other, with the scheming ball knocked back and forth. For the people, there seemed to be one rule only- follow suit or face the match.

Those faint rumblings of discontent could be levied back to King Henry VIII. Recoiling from his rebuffed proposals concerning separation and divorce, a desire he hoped would support his eager justifications to remove his current wife for another—the severing of matrimonial vows charred with the strict doctrine of the Catholic Pope. Undeterred by the Pope’s foot-stomping, Henry VIII remedied the prevention by severing all ties with Rome, appointing himself instead, as the new head of the Protestant Church of England. A faction loyally continued by his second daughter and later queen, Elizabeth.

Fireworks at South Street Photo by editor

Fireworks at South Street Photo by editor

The Reign of Bloody Mary

As the daughter of Henry VIIIs first marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Mary stood next in line for inheriting the throne after her half-brother, Edwards VI’s short-lived reign. But fearing Mary’s Catholic sentiment, Edward ignored her claims, bestowing the title onto Lady Jane Grey instead. Mary moved fast, fuelling a scheme that successfully disposed of Grey, allowing her accession to pass in 1553. She wasted little time in trying to undo the effects of the English Reformation. However, parliament managed to curb Mary’s efforts in restoring property to the church, initially confiscated by her father and half brother. As a staunch catholic Mary reverted the state religion back to Catholicism, abolishing Edward VI’s religious laws. Persecutions soon commenced, sanctioned by both parliament and council in retaliation for catholic mistreatment since her father’s reign. Over eight hundred affluent Protestants like John Foxe quickly fled into exile. Laws of heresy and papal authority rose to advocate an aggressive wave of hatred. None of it held cause to a persons political background, existing purely on a religious level. Opinions were mixed, Spain’s Charles V despised this act of calculated religious abuse, though Philip of Spain, Mary’s future husband, harboured no such concerns.

The Marianne Persecutions and The Lewes Martyrs

The persecutions had their ardent provocateurs, namely the English Romanists, long angered by Henry VIII’s treatment of Catholics during the reformation. But Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, clearly took centre stage as a villainous advocate of what was to become the Marian Persecutions. Responsible for sending nearly a third (100)  of 288 religious dissenters to the stake, having played an active part in many of their arrests. Accusations of heresy rose to the highest level with scholars, clergymen, bishops, even the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer falling foul to the witch-hunt. Dragged from his cell and forced to watch Bishop Ridley and Bishop Latimer’s burning. Despite Cranmer’s repudiation of Protestant theology and embracing the Catholic faith, Mary refused a reprieve, confirming his fate to Ridley and Latimers.

Edward Bonner stood responsible for the executions of seventeen civilians in the southern town of Lewes. Enforced over three separate occasions with the final mass execution forming the largest burning in England.

Commercial Square Bonfire Society by Andrew Dunn

Commercial Square Bonfire Society by Andrew Dunn

On July 22nd 1555, Dirick Carver, having been arrested and imprisoned on the allegation of bible-reading at his home in Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), alongside John Launder, Thomas Iveson, and William Veisey, were pressured into signing forced confessions. Enough by law to seal their fate, hastening their transportation to the Old Star Inn from where a giant wooden pyre lay before them.

Almost a year later on the June 6th, 1556, Thomas Hailand and John Oswald, both from near Henfield, along with Thos Reed and Thos Avington from Ardingly, having refused mass and turning down a visit to the church were condemned to become further Lewes martyrs. After their execution, Edmund Bonner appeared convinced that authorities did not persuade the heretics enough to accept the Roman faith. What was needed was an event, more significant, more terrifying, enough to instil fear and submission.

Bonner’s horrific example happened on June 22nd, 1557; the police had formerly arrested Richard Woodman from Buxted in an argument with the towns rector, that identified him as a protestant. A 1553 law protected preachers from criticism during their sermons. The church investigated Woodman several times and on each occasion had Woodman released, finding no evidence of heresy. Eventually, under pressure from John White-Bishop of Winchester, John Christopherson-Bishop of Chichester and William Roper, Woodman admitted heresy. After being excommunicated the government sent him to Lewes with nine others, George Stevens, Alexander Hosman, William Mainard, Thomasina Wood, Margery Morris, James Morris, Denis Burges, Ann Ashdon and Mary Groves to be burnt en masse. None of the ten would recant their protestant faith despite the horrors of accusation, imprisonment, deprivation and the frightening execution itself. Holding forth to a belief that only Christ stood at the head of the church, and not the unimaginable act that a pope – a human being should be appointed the head of the Christian faith.

Large effigy heading through town Photo by Peter Trimming

Large effigy heading through town Photo by Peter Trimming

Death by signature

At the time, English law required all death penalties to be officiated by the monarch’s signature. But if the monarch passed away before the law carried out the sentence, the execution would no longer have any standing. So it came with a happy shock when a messenger hastily interrupted proceedings on November 17th, 1558 that ‘the queen is dead’—saving a group of prisoners from their looming executions.

Mary I’s brief reign, underscored by extreme religious persecution earned her the name Bloody Mary. Ill and weak, possibly from uterine cancer she retreated to St. James Palace, for her final six months. Without an heir, she succeeded the throne to her protestant half-sister Elizabeth.

The religious pendulum swings back in favour of Protestantism under Elizabeth’s tenure who became supreme governor of The Church of England. Unlike her ancestors, she appeared relatively tolerant of religious faiths and avoided courting ideas that could harness systematic persecution. Technically Elizabeth’s birth was viewed as illegitimate under Protestant and Catholic laws but softened to a less severe bar under the Church of England. With the Catholic crusade quashed and behind her, Elizabeth moved towards a church based on a Protestant settlement similar to Edward VI’s, commencing parliament legislation in 1559. Her successor didn’t share Elizabeth’s softened approach on religion.

A procession of Martyrs crosses Photo by Andrew Dunn

A procession of Martyrs crosses Photo by Andrew Dunn

The cursed rosary

Childless without an heir, Elizabeth’s death passes to her cousin James VI of Scotland, who becomes King James I of England. The plight of the Catholics, already familiar with Henry VIIIs brunt of persecution is exasperated further, when James I, already brushing measures aside for religious tolerance, releases a proclamation for the dismissal of all Catholic priests from the country. A decision formed on the heels of finding his wife Anne in possession of a rosary sent from Pope Clement VIII.

The heat is rising.

Enough was enough; extreme action was fast needed to return Catholicism to the reigning authority it righteously deserved. Robert Catesby, Oxford-educated, radicalised after the death of his Protestant wife Catherine had known about persecution from his father’s imprisonment and the subsequent Star Chamber trial. Catesby had previously been a part of the Essex Rebellion, hoping that the Earl of Essex’s succession to the throne would usher in a Catholic monarch. Though wounded and imprisoned, Catesby was lucky enough to be released after paying a 4000 mark fine imposed by Queen Elizabeth I.

Procession with Cliffe Society Photo by PeterTrimming

Procession with Cliffe Society Photo by PeterTrimming

Supported by a group of Roman Catholic nobles, Catesby believed the only way to change the status quo required a radically daring concept,  one that would effectively and permanently remove, not just the sovereign, but church leaders, nobles, and both houses of parliament. This act of high treason required thirty-six barrels of gun powder if the houses were to go out with a bang. All quietly taken down to the cellar beneath the House of Lords. Such an undertaking necessitated the utmost secrecy, no one outside the circle could be privy to the plot.

The Plot Thickens.

A brief message changed all that, as Robert Cecil, James I’s chief minister had already received news of the impending plot by way of a warning to Lord Monteagle, advising the prominent catholic to desist from attending parliament on November 5th. Cecil had supposedly known about the conspiracy for some time, harbouring intentions to let the plot develop to expose all the conspirators together. This great exposure would help propel national anti-catholic sentiment even further.


Richard Woodman and the accompanying nine burning at the stake

Richard Woodman and the accompanying nine burning at the stake

Having spent several years fighting in the Low-countries on behalf of Catholic Spain, Yorkshire born Guy Fawkes returned to England. Already a convert to the catholic faith, Guy became involved in the gunpowder plot after meeting Catesby through Thomas Wintour, a mutual friend. Though he wasn’t the brains behind the plot, Guy was to become the unlucky, and later historically famous chap synonymous with trying to blow up the government. Caught down in the cellar on that shivering hapless November 5th night in 1605, whilst hovering beside a perilous amount of gunpowder with matches at his side. Through interrogation (supposedly by the King himself, the only time a monarch has ever interviewed a civilian), and later torture, Fawkes disclosed the names of those involved. Four were shot attempting to escape while the remaining eight concurred imprisonment in the Tower of London, before their execution. Such a deplorable crime guaranteed a public hanging, followed by genital removal, disembowelment and beheading. The remainder, quartered, dispatched, and put on display as a deterrent.

On the last day of January in the following year, perhaps by an act of mercy, Guy Fawkes slipped and fell from the scaffolding moments before his hanging, thus avoiding an official execution.

Modern terminology would label high treason of the 16th century as a terrorist attack today. However, such a term never applies to the gunpowder plot despite religious fanaticism being the driving force.

www heatherbuckley co uk

www heatherbuckley co uk

Forward they marched.

Remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot held on that day, the 5th of November is passed by law in the ‘Acte for Publique Thanksgiving to Almighty God’, which requires all parish churches to hold a special service.

The first unplanned celebrations were far too rowdy for the puritanical mindset of Oliver Cromwell, bearing traits similar to a riot, he had them quickly banned. Perhaps King Charles II was a little more forgiving as they periodically made a return then dipped until a proper revival in the 1820s. At Lewes, in 1847, large gatherings of bonfire boys yielded a night of spectacular bonfires and fireworks but returning to unsociable behaviour, their ill-defined energy got them banished to the fields around Wallands Park. Three years later witnessed a return to the centre of the town where more dignified marches, similar to the one’s today, took place.

1853 saw the founding of the first two Bonfires Societies of Cliffe and Lewes Borough.

An increase in England’s Irish-Catholic population witnessed the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy as well a display of some high-profile Catholic conversions. Notably Cardinal Newman and the former Archdeacon of Chichester Henry Edward Manning. This increase in Catholic attention instigated the Cult of The Sussex Martyrs with an effigy of Pope Paul V (in power during the gunpowder plot) put to the flames in Lewes. Anti-Catholic sentiment received another reprisal in 1893, from the sermons of William Richard, Lewes’s Southover rector. He launched into a tirade about the wickedness of catholic tribulations a week before November 5th.

South Street fireworks Photo by editor

South Street fireworks Photo by editor

The burning of a pope effigy continued in Lewes until the 1930s by which time the Mayor installed a ban prohibiting effigy burning and the display of ‘no popery’ banners. An act that got the Cliffe Bonfire Society temporarily excluded in the ’50s. Political and religious acts of aggression had been shuffling back and forward for centuries. As recent as 1981, Ian Paisley, leader of Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, visited Lewes Bonfire Night, harbouring like-minded plans to William Richard in sowing the seeds of dissent by handing out anti-catholic pamphlets. His scheme backfired when an effigy of himself took to the flames during the following year’s event.

Religious attitudes have mainly calmed down over the succeeding years despite the 2012 ‘pope’ burning arousing a tide of complaints. Preceding the Black Lives Matter campaign by several years, the Bonfire Societies had already drawn an end to ‘blackening up’ whilst removing controversial elements to its Zulu costumes. An aspect easily reviewed as racially abhorrent in the current Trump charged climate.

The Bonfire Societies

There are seven bonfire societies in total, though Neville Juvenile, founded in the late ’60s is only for children. They hold their procession on a Saturday, a few weeks before the fifth. The remaining six: Waterloo, South Street, Southover, Lewes Borough, Commercial Square and Cliffe perform on the fifth, but if this falls on a Sunday then the event is brought forward to Saturday the fourth.

All societies attend ‘out-fires’ before marching with other societies. The main six each have their own marching territory, but routes occasionally overlap. Aside from Cliffe and South Street, the remaining four join forces at Western Road. Parading down St. Anne’s and the High Street. As the Lewes Bonfire Council note ‘if all societies combined on the night, the procession would be so long it would never pass through in the time allocated.’ By having the societies at different points with their bonfires and fireworks, the crowds are better dispersed, allowing the town to cope with higher numbers. Processions involve the carrying of burning crosses to represent the Lewes martyrs, bangers (rookies) are set off while banners, torches, musical instruments bring heightened emphasis to the societies presentation. Leading on from the fireworks and bonfires where some still burn effigies, the societies finish back at their respective headquarters to hold ‘bonfire prayers’. Each institution wears its own ‘smugglers uniform’, generally striped garments, and all bare a motto such as South Street’s ‘Faithful unto Death’, or Waterloo’s ‘True to Each Other’. On top of this are two ‘pioneer fronts’ represented by a historical period, an act, a civilisation, a body of fighters, someone or something inspirational to each society. For example, South Street’s first pioneers are the Colonial Period and the English Civil War for the second. For Commercial Square, the Native Americans mark the early pioneer, and the American Civil War marks the second.

Apart from processions, bonfires, and fireworks, other traditions take place to mark specific events from the past. After various races where both men and women compete in pulling a burning barrel along Cliffe Street, the competition sees a further burning barrel tossed into the river. Set to illustrate the magistrates unfortunate dipping from trying to read the Riot Act to the bonfire boys. The burning effigies take on different disguises depending on which national figures have caused upset—ranging anywhere from political leaders to local officials, anyone whose actions might have ruptured fury with the societies. 2001 garnered plenty of national press attention when effigies of Osama Bin Laden took to the flames. Influenced by a particular episode of Black Mirror, an effigy of David Cameron with a pig also invited controversy, ridicule and plenty of mock squealing.


Sadly, due to the ongoing impact of Coronavirus and the governments ban against large gatherings, the Lewes Bonfire Night remains cancelled for 2020. Hopefully, it will resume next year if conditions are favourable.

Lewes Bonfire Council’s website www.lewesbonfirecouncil.org.uk displays listings for all seven of the Bonfire Societies with links to each. All are open for membership if you are interested in joining.

The Council displays essential advice for visitors planning to enjoy the 5th November celebrations. They strongly recommend not bringing babies and children, for the mass of spectators, the noise and smoke from the processions and fireworks are likely to be overwhelming at best. Visitors should leave their pets at home. Transport can be a problem, certainly when leaving the event with the accumulation of so much traffic. Wet and cold weather dramatically increases the problem. Public transportation is often full with further crowds desperate to board. It’s not unusual for train and bus services to be disrupted and cancelled. One way around this could be to stay the night in Lewes, booking far ahead which exempts the miserable attempt to get home. Many of the pubs shut their doors on the night or will only admit their regulars, installing bouncers at the door. Enjoying a drink back at your accommodation would side-step this issue as well.

In 1901 a memorial was unveiled on the hill above Culfail Tunnel in remembrance of the Lewes Martyrs. Two further memorials stand near the town of Heathfield. One at the Independent Chapel, Cade Street and the second at Warbleton Church. Located in Mayfield, seventeen miles northeast of Lewes stands a monument to William Mainard, Thomasina Wood and Alexander Hosman, known as the Mayfield and Rotherfield Martyrs.