The Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations : History
Lewes originally always had their Bonfire Night Celebrations on the 5th November (Sunday Included) but then it changed to, if it falls on a Sunday then out of respect for the church, the Lewes Bonfire Celebrations would have been moved to the Monday. Today though if the Fifth of November falls on a Sunday, the proceedings will take place on the Saturday before.
Within three months of the Gunpowder Plot being discovered, an Act of Parliament was passed on 21st January 1606 (3 James I, cap 1), to appoint 5th November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for ‘the joyful day of deliverance’. This was by bell ringing, bonfires etc. The Act remained in force until 1859, It appears that sometimes when Lewes Folk are druved, they will if it suits them!
Several references can be found in an old Lewes Churchwarden’s account book referring to payments made to bell ringers on the 5th November from at least 1661, A particular interesting entry dated 5th November 1723 states “Nov, ye 5th. Item: Pd. ye ringers being ye day of Deliverance from ye powder plot”
The Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations in the early years would often get out of hand, turning into near riots. Also there were not regular events, just random events that continued until they were banned by Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth years of 1649 – 1660.
The Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations returned on a random basis when King Charles II came to the throne after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, by the late 18th century interest had all but diminished. But by the 1820s, Bonfire Boys in large numbers took to the streets of Lewes again celebrating with fireworks and bonfires in the streets, and opposite the White Hart was one such Bonfire.
Apart from the dates above, history books or documents do not tell us whether this bank holiday was observed every year between 1606 – 1859, But according to facts found, the first recorded parade of Guy Fawkes, enemies etc was in November 1679 when the Pope, Guy Fawkes and others were paraded in picture form on long poles by young armed men in Lewes at an early #lewesbonfire
“Tableaux Vivants : French For Living Picture. . .”
The tradition of parading Guido Faux tableaux and enemies of bonfire especially those of Pope V probably has its roots in the Auto De Fe which was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics during the marian persecutions
The auto de fé involved a Catholic Mass, prayer, a public procession of those found guilty and a reading of their sentences, and this (Tableaux Vivants) French For Living Picture ritual took place in public squares or streets and lasted several hours with ecclesiastical and civil authorities in attendance.
From 1711, Effigies of the Pope, Devil, and Pretender were made and carried in processions in the evening in order to be burnt at night. It was an early ritual that lasted only a few years but elements of it still exist in today’s Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations.
The earliest known Lewes bonfire night celebrations was in 1795 when the Sussex Weekly Advertiser reported a bonfire and fireworks in a street of Lewes near the old Star Inn (Now The Town Hall) on the 5th November.
The early days of the Lewes bonfire night celebration history would certainly have been interesting as the the fire/s would be made and lit in the streets and home made fireworks (Squibs and Rousers) discharged at random, the bonfire boyes were always targets from the authorities and the police and in 1806, Eighteen bonfire boyes were arrested and bonfires removed from the town by local police.
There was a bonfire night riot in 1829, when the Lewes Bonfire Boys had a sharp encounter with a local Magistrate, Mr Whitfield JP, on Cliffe Bridge during the evening.
When the authorities had attempted, and failed, to prevent the famous Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations from taking place.
Lewes Police. . .
In 1832, an attempt was made by the Lewes police to prevent the Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations taking place, police issued hundreds of prohibition notices in the town. The Bonfire boyes ignored these notices and the bonfire night celebrations continued.
Then in 1847, There were serious riots in Lewes during the Bonfire Night Celebrations. The authorities were determined to stop the event and police reinforcements were drafted in from the Metropolitan Police ‘A’ division. The Riot Act was read from the steps of the County Hall (Now the Law Courts) and police charged the crowd, causing many injuries.
“Remember, my boys, remember,
No run is allowed at “The Jug”;
And the private rooms, in December,
Are decidely cool, though snug!
Whoever finds winter quarters there,
Will remember the 5th for the future, I’ll swear;
On the “tottle of the whole”, Then,
Twere best to avoid the din”.
Let every one of the bold men,
Keep fast his doors within;
Lest he find too late when regrets of no use,
For the sake of a Fawkes he’s been made a great goose.”
Peter Bacon, The Sussex Advertiser, 2nd November 1847.
By 1853, The bonfire boyes who were in fear of having there bonfire night celebrations closed down altogether, decided to form the first two Bonfire Societies which were the Cliffe Bonfire Society and Town (Now Lewes Borough Bonfire Society), The two areas at the time being completely different districts until the amalgamation of the two into the Lewes Borough. This was the start of the organised Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations as seen today.
In 1901 a memorial was built on Cliffe Hill by public subscription to commemorate the Seventeen Martyrs burnt in Lewes. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council bears the expense of maintaining the memorial and holds a service there once a year.
It is now floodlit during the Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations and it is highly revered by the Lewes Bonfire Societies and its members and today, martyrs banners and seventeen burning crosses are now carried by some bonfire societies during the processions.
Lewes Police Prohibited Bonfires. . .
In 1906 Police prohibited bonfires in the street and the dragging of burning tar barrels. This order was breached and the Police arrested four leading Bonfire Boys, who were subsequently acquitted at court. A crowd of Bonfire Boys then marched to the towns police station, lit a bonfire in the road outside and celebrated the acquittal’s unopposed.
In 1922, The Lewes war memorial was erected on the site of the long gone St Nicholas Church, the bell “Old Gabriel” survives and now hangs in the Market Tower just around the corner. The Church would have had a front row seat view of the Martyrs Burnings outside the Star Inn now the Lewes Town Hall.
The memorial was designed by Canadian sculptor, Vernon March and unveiled to thousands and dedicated in a civic and military ceremony on September 6th by General Henry Crichton Sclater. There are three angels in bronze, two seated at the base (Peace and Liberty) and one at the top (Victory).
On the Lewes war memorial there are recorded 236 names of the fallen during the 1st World War and approximately 129 names that fell during the 2nd World War, In the same year, marching to this memorial by the Bonfire Societies started, to remember the dead of that war, and wars since began. And continues to this very day as a very important part of the Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations.
Police and Local Authorities held a Secret Meeting. . .
In 1992 the police and local authorities held a ‘secret’ meeting with the intention of drawing up rules, to be followed by all the Bonfire Societies. With no discussion or prior warning, all the Bonfire Societies were exasperated and resented, what they considered to be, the underhand way in which the meeting had been kept secret, and fought the rules.
The police and local authorities found themselves as ‘Enemies of Bonfire’ In an attempt to restore and repair the relationship between the police, local authorities and the Bonfire Societies, a Bonfire Safety Council was formed, made up of representatives from all parties. This still sits today.
Even today as you read this, oppression is high on the list with the misinformed authorities afraid of the common man and his choice of enjoying himself. All a bonfire boye or belle wants is peace, tolerance, celebration, freedom of choice, thought and remembrance of those that sacrificed their lives for our freedom, and remembering those that died for us.
Sectarianism does not exist in the Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations today, despite what you may read, hear or see from the media clowns or internet trolls. Ha, I hear you say “What About No Popery?” Popery was a catholic regime not a religion. Look it up.
So Why Only In Lewes. . .
So why does it only happen in Lewes ?, To be absolutely honest I haven’t a clue!, the building under threat was in London not Lewes, protestants were burnt at the stake everywhere not just in Lewes, William 111 landed at Torbay not the River Ouse, perhaps someone out there can enlighten me.
Maybe it is, that during the town’s history, it was for a brief period the capital of England, this would have been after the Battle of Lewes in 1264 when the Mise of Lewes was signed, The Mise of Lewes is considered by many to be the birth of democracy and the formation of the first proper “Parliament” and perhaps the locals felt that all the suffering on the battle fields of Lewes nearly went to waste by trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Perhaps it was the fanatical way that Lewes Folk followed their chosen religion in the past, Lewes once had up to thirty churches, chapels, meeting rooms etc covering pretty much every protestant denomination. Now there are only fifteen, which for a population of around 17,500 is still an extraordinary high number and only one of them is Catholic!
Or that Lewes quickly became the third most significant Pancras site in England, after Canterbury and London. In the 1070s, a Saxon Church, St Pancras, became the nucleus of the important Cluniac Priory of St Pancras, which was dissolved in 1573. When the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act allowed Catholics to worship openly, Mass was said at 10 Priory Crescent, overlooking the priory ruins. Read More Here
Also in the early 1800’s, Lewes was a main hub of the Sussex farming industry, with its many markets, transportation links and the corn exchange, But the agricultural labourers and farmers suffered many years of discontent and uprisings caused by several years of bad harvests, low pay, long hours and bullying by the landowners.
Which caused severe distress to the labourers and their families, with many fearing the prospect of the poorhouse. Several were hanged, many hundreds were transported or imprisoned. Then along came the Papal Bull of 1850 . . .
Maybe it is that We Dare to fight For Independence and stay True To Each Other untill Death Or Glory and prove that we are Faithful Unto Death and will Advance for our beliefs and prove that we are Nulli Secundus in remembrance or possibly its the “We Wont Be Druv” personality of Lewes and its laid back attitudes that keeps the traditions alive, whatever the reason its a work of art, unique and has no equal anywhere . . . United We Stand.
I do not claim to be an expert on any of the topics above, but have tried to be as accurate and neutral as my knowledge allows me, I have a few pages on this site covering the history.
But there are lots of websites out there that cover the reasons behind the Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations on the 5th November and if you are heavily into history etc, then I would suggest that as a starting point you look at my timeline page or my choice of books and movies.
So if it means for one night only on the Fifth of November, a few squibs, crackers, bonfires, torches, tabs, anarchy, fear of loss of control by the police, control freaks, H.S.E and the authorities then so be it. You only live once they say, so live it your way, So yes come along if you wish but remember “Volenti Non Fit Injuria”
Remember, Remember: The Legacy
On The Night of 4th November 1605 a search party led by the Earl of Suffolk surprised a Catholic former mercenary, Guy Fawkes, guarding barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords. Fawkes and his fellow plotters, mostly Midlands Catholic gentry, planned to blow up King James I, his court and MPs, during the opening of parliament the next day.
The 1847 Lewes Bonfire Riot
The eight unfortunate Bonfire Boys who were arrested after the Lewes Bonfire Riots of 1847 must have been quaking in their boots when they realised who was to judge their subsequent trial at Horsham Assizes: Lord Chief Justice Thomas Denman, the second-most-powerful lawyer in the land. And it was their misfortune that Denman was a Liberal Peer, as the trial had strong political connotations.
When my Father died , My Mother (Bless Her Soul) wanted a fresh start and she asked me to choose somewhere new to live, I could not decide so she took a map out and opened it and told me to close my eyes. She then gave me a pin and instructed me to lay it where ever on the map blind and that is where we would move to. Lewes is where the pin landed.
Devil, Pope and Pretender
The following article is an old newspaper report on the old ritual of parading the The Devil The Pope and The Pretender, elements of which still exist in todays Bonfire Celebrations.
17-20 November 1711 On Saturday morning, about 2 of the clock, were seiz'd, by three messengers, and some of the Guards, in Drury-lane, the effigies of the Pope, Devil, and Pretender, in a box, with a canopy over it, 4 Jesuits, 4 Cardinals, and 4 Fryars, and carried to the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Dartmouth's Office.
Bonfires Famous And Infamous
Of Bonfires, Famous And Infamous. The Catholic Herald calls Protestantism "the battle cry of murderers" Professor Arthur Noble.
Understanding The Bonfires
The following article goes some way in explaining the reasons behind an effigy or tableaux, that some Bonfire Societies create and use in their bonfire night celebrations and the origin of the bonfire night celebration.
Lewes Bonfire Celebrations Poem
Bonfire Night T`is time for joy
Dress up now you girl and boy
Bring your rookies bring your smile
Line up now in orderly file.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.