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Remember, remember the Fifth of November The Gunpowder Treason

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Holy Smoke Lewes - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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HOLY SMOKE : Are the reverberations from a series of brutal 16th century executions still being felt in Lewes today?

In the period between July 1555 and June 1557 seventeen men and women were burnt at the stake in the centre of Lewes, in four separate burnings. Each would have attracted quite a crowd. The first was of a single man, Brighton brewer Derick Carver. In the last burning, no fewer than ten ‘heretics’ perished in the flames, the youngest being 16-year old servant-girl Thomasina Wood.

The victims crime? They had refused to embrace various tenets of the Roman Catholic faith during interogation by Mary I’s church authorities.

Holy Smoke Lewes Execution

It must have been a sickening sight. The prisoners would have been marched from nearby cells, probably at the castle, and tied with chains to pre-prepared stakes outside what was then the Star Inn, and is now the Town Hall. Then faggots would have been piled up around them, to chest height or so, with kindling placed underneath.

The only accounts we have of the executions are from John Foxe’s near contemporary ‘Book of Martyrs’, a detailed document based on eyewitness statements. But not one that goes into much detail about the modus operandi of the executioners. The lucky victims would have been asphyxiated by smoke before too many minutes, or killed by exploding gunpowder sacks placed around their necks (a custom practiced by some of the more ‘humane’ executioners).

The sounds of the victims screams must have been piercing. The stench of their cooking flesh must have been overwhelming. The sight of their bodies withering in the heat must have been extremely disturbing. By all accounts one reaction of a burnt-at-the-stake body’s disintegration is the brains boiling, causing the over-pressurised skull to explode.

So who would have been watching this gruesome event? It is hard to tell, with any exactitude. The burnings took place on market day, to attract as many onlookers as possible, in the hope that the sight would make any other ‘heretics’ think twice about taking a stand against the re-institution of the Roman Catholic faith by Mary and Cardinal Pole.

The rules of acceptable and non-acceptable practices of worship had changed so much in the preceding thirty years that there must have been quite a clash of opinions among the Lewes townsfolk about the rights and wrongs of the executions.

Henry VIII’s largely self-interested flirtation with Protestantism had led to the destruction of the Priory, which would have devastated the livelihood of around a quarter of the townspeople. Then, with the Act of Six Articles in 1539, he returned the Church to unambiguous Catholic conformity, albeit one which recognised the King, not the Pope, as its head.

His son Edward introduced in 1547 a much more theological break with Rome, stripping the churches of their altars and idols, formalising an English-language prayer book and Bible, and outlawing a belief in the miracle of transubstantiation. The use of the prayer book, and the radical way in which this changed the common folks understanding of religion, had had at least five years to take root, before the next upheaval, when Edward died, and his half-Spanish sister succeeded him.

Mary took the situation back to square one. Transubstantiation was back on the menu, the Pope was once again made the head of the English Church. Out went the English prayer books; in came the incense, and lavish vestments, and stone altars, and Latin masses.

Evangelical Protestantism was much more prevalent in the hard-to-police villages in the wooded weald than it was in Lewes, and it is telling that none of the ‘martyrs’ were from the town they died in. (Speculation that Mary Groves was a Lewesian does not seem to have any documentary evidence). But Lewes certainly would have had a number of Protestant inhabitants: we know this from the wording of wills, from early Elizabethan documentation, and from Foxe’s accounts, which described quite some support for Derick Carver as he perished in the flames.

Links are often made between the punitive fires in Lewes of the mid sixteenth century, and the celebratory ones still held annually on November the fifth. Are the reverberations of disgust at Mary’s persecution still being felt in Lewes? In 1605, just fifty years on, the gruesome burnings would still have been fresh in the collective memory of the town. It’s probably safe to assume that early 17th-century Lewesians would have celebrated the foiling of a plot to instate a Roman Catholic monarch with some gusto.

There was certainly religious unrest in the town throughout the next three centuries – local historian Graham Mayhew likens nineteenth century Lewes to Northern Ireland in its religious division. And until the early part of the twentieth century, there’s no doubt that Bonfire Night was a vehement expression of many of the townspeople’s deep hatred of the Roman Catholic faith. Thankfully, in the last hundred years, that sentiment has died down, with societies quick to point out that any residual anti-Papist overtones in the celebrations should be placed firmly in a historical context.

Nowadays (let’s hope) it’s a ‘won’t be druv’ rejection of any intolerance on the part of the authorities that is the most lasting legacy of the sacrifice of the seventeen brave victims.

Alex Leith : Viva Lewes

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