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The history of Lewes: The biggest bonfire night celebration in the UK
Bonfire Night is the annual celebration that marks the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by Catholic conspirators to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James I. While Bonfire Night has been celebrated across the country since 1666 on 5th November, in Sussex it's not limited to one night but a whole season stretching from September to November.
The festival of fire starts, with the Uckfield Carnival on the first Saturday of September and ends with the Robertsbridge and Barcombe festivals on the third Saturday of November.
How did the Lewes bonfire season begin?
The Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations likely began after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, though it may also commemorate the grisly execution of a group of seventeen Protestant martyrs who were burned to death on flaming pyres between 1555 and 1557.
Going further back, fiery celebrations have existed for over 1000 years in Hastings in nearby Kent, in recognition of the end of the famous battle in 1066. The date of the battle (October 14th) is still celebrated annually with a parade, bonfire and fireworks.
There may also be a far more logical reason for the origin of Bonfire Night. Large fires lit at the beginning of autumn would clear away the spoils of harvest while providing a source of embers to initiate home fires that would be fed until the following spring. This may be linked to the pagan celebration of Samhain that marks the end of harvest.
One of the leading players when it comes to the burning of effigies is the annual Edenbridge event in nearby Kent. The Edenbridge Bonfire Society, at just under one hundred years old and located in Kent, prides itself on burning thirty-foot-tall effigies of famous/notorious celebrities on a massive bonfire. Past victims have included a couple of Katies’ (Hopkins and Price) a pair of parliamentarians, Boris Johnson and John Bercow, and some infamous Americans in the fiery form of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.
Most of the fifty-odd official Bonfire Societies are based in Sussex and were established alongside the Cult of the Sussex Martyrs, making them less than 150 years old. But the Battel (as in the old spelling of Battle, Hastings) Bonfire Boyes have records going back to 1646 and its location tends to suggest that the Thanksgiving Act may have consolidated celebrations going back to 1066.
It seems it was more than just a bunch of village ‘boyes’ randomly lighting fires. St Mary’s Church allocated two shillings and six pence, to pay for bonfire celebrations. Possibly these funds were paid to promote the newer Guy Fawkes version of Bonfire Night over the original 1066 version.
By 1686, forty years on, the budget for the event had increased to seventeen shillings and six pence, the same amount a skilled tradesperson was expected to make in a fortnight, showing how it increased in size and popularity. The Battel Bonfire Boyes’ dramatic celebrations still occur on the first Saturday closest to 5th November: according to some residents, it’s the highlight of the year, even better than Christmas.
Lewes, the mother of all Bonfire Nights
The undisputed champion of 5th November is Lewes. Seven Bonfire Societies including Cliffe, Commercial Square, Borough, Nevill Juvenile, South Street, Southover, Waterloo and, of course, Lewes, (the oldest, founded in 1853), come together annually to create the biggest Bonfire Night in the UK. The event is regularly attended by as many as 80,000 revellers.
Lewes, like Edenbridge, has become synonymous with the burning of huge effigies of controversial individuals like Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Muammar Gaddafi and, er, Alex Salmond. Actually, not Alex Salmond. After receiving complaints about the intention to burn an effigy of the former First Minister of Scotland in 2014, Sussex Police launched an investigation. Following the complaint, a decision was taken by the organisers not to burn the effigy and the CPS dropped the case.
Tar barrels and all that
On top of the fireworks, effigies, and blazing processions (no less than thirty) with one featuring seventeen burning crosses -one for every martyr- the residents of Lewes race through the town to the River Ouse while dragging burning tar barrels. The first barrel that reaches the banks of the river is chucked in, believed to symbolise the time a magistrate was thrown into the water after reading the riot act to a group of bonfire boys in 1847.
This spectacle is somewhat overshadowed by the tar barrel race that takes place in Ottery St Mary in Devon where participants pick up the blazing barrels and carry them. An even more impressive feat when you realise their only protection from being set alight is mere layers of sackcloth.
The highlight of Sussex's bonfire season takes place on 5th November and whether you're celebrating the failure of the Gun Powder plot, commemorating the death of 17 Protestant Martyrs, or invoking the end of summer and the spirit of Samhain, it's going to be spectacular.
You can find out more about the Lewes Bonfire Night here.
Find out more about the history of Bonfire Night and its various traditions, in Sky HISTORY's Bonfire Night hub.