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Burning the Bishop
Lewes Bonfire (Lewes)
Member Name: steerpyke
Lewes Bonfire (Lewes)
Date: 07/11/05, updated on 07/11/05 (867 review reads)
Advantages: the biggest and best of its kind
Disadvantages: dependant on good weather
The title of the review may seem like a naughty euphemism for something that I can't discuss in print on a site as proper and clean cut as Dooyoo, but I assure you it is not. The relevance will become clear as you read on, first a quick history test. What have the following events in common? Firstly, the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes High Street from 1555 to 1557, under the reign of Mary Tudor. Secondly, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when conspirators led by Robert Catesby planned to blow up King James I as he opened Parliament, the man at the heart of the action was, as we know, Guy Fawkes, and finally the landing of William of Orange (William III, half of William and Mary) on 5th November 1688 to restore a Protestant monarchy.
The correct answer is that they are all actions in England’s turbulent past that are commemorated in the Lewes Bonfire celebrations. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, “Throughout recorded history, it has taken very little persuasion to get English people to make a bonfire,” and in Lewes they certainly take that to heart.
Bonfires have long been used as an expression of rejoicing in England, particularly to mark victories or deliverances, either spontaneously or by being ordained by the authorities. They have also formed an integral part of particular calendar customs.
The evolution of the English late-Autumn bonfire festivities is complex, with many strands woven into it. Some have attempted to trace it back to the Celtic festival of Samhain; others suggest that it is based upon the custom of lighting bonfires to protect against disease, or to burn bones for fertilizer.
A document from Henry VIII's reign recommends that people should hold processions and light bonfires as a celebration of their release from the grasp of the Papacy. It is certain that in Elizabethan times the accession of the Queen was commemorated by public bonfires on 17th November each year, and perhaps this made a significant contribution in her successor's reign to the later national celebration of "Guy Fawkes Night" (though it is never properly known by this name in Sussex!)
After a turbulent later period were mob handed anarchists more or less took over the celebrations, Bonfire Societies were formed in the mid-1800s, and the present day look of the festival took shape. These days sectarianism plays scarcely any part in the festivities. What is chiefly celebrated is a pride in freedom and independence, stemming from an innate dislike of being dictated to by outsiders - be they foreign powers, or any who attempt unfairly to exert their authority or influence. The major act of remembrance nowadays is that for the dead of the two World Wars, each Society in turn laying a wreath at the War Memorial. Although some societies in particular pay homage to the old traditions, with effigies of Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese, Pope at the time of the Gunpowder Plot) and Guy Fawkes exploding in a blaze of fireworks, but I must stress that the Bonfire celebrations are certainly no longer a Protestant festival, and Roman Catholics and people of all beliefs participate freely in the celebrations.
Before delving into the details of the event, first a few precautions if you are thinking of attending. The first thing to consider is how you travel there. As arguably the most famous November 05th celebration in the country, Lewes attracts a lot of people, up to 80000 have been estimated throughout the course of the event. Also the streets will become impassable to any form of vehicle for the duration. As the hotels in the local vicinity are probably booked up months in advance the best way to approach the event is to stay in the neighbouring larger town of Brighton (less than 10 miles away) and travel there and back by the regular train service. This year £1.70 covered the journey both ways and the journey is about 15 minutes, queuing for the train will take a lot longer though.
The precession marches through the high street a number of times and that means that you need to invest a couple of hours to experience the whole show. Hundreds of people from the areas Bonfire Societies march through al armed with torches. Many wear the mask and striped Guernsey jumpers that have their origins in the days of anarchic mayhem of the Bonfire Boys whose enthusiasm for arson was curbed by the setting up of the societies. Many others march in fancy dress. Uniforms cover the whole of history from our ancient Celtic ancestors right up to World War II. Amongst these historical contributions are found some bizarre characters. Harlequins dance, mad animal figures roar and other unidentifiable figures beat drums or shout abuse at the crowd under the darting shadows of the hundreds of torches. Interspersed amongst them are marching bands adding a sound track ranging from Rule Britannia to Green Day to liven things up. The things that you will never forget are the tableaux and effigies that are carried through. Effigies are not burned in the streets, that comes later and are made up of heroes and “Enemies of the Bonfire” This years stand out hero was the obvious choice, Lord Nelson, but this version had him made as a nodding dog type portrayal. Enemies are often identifiable characters with a catholic bent. The most common is Guy Fawkes and often past popes from the times of religious persecutions but more recent depictions have been Osama Bin Laden and even Anthea Turner. These are paraded to the jeers and abuse from the crowds lining the street, “Burn the Traitor” or “God Save The Queen “ as appropriate.
The Tableaux are more fun as they are boards and poles that are small firework displays in their own right. When these are lit, still being carried through the street, the sound and heat that assails you is overwhelming. Firecrackers are dragged along the street and flairs and a myriad of other wondrous pyrotechnics colour the night sky. If this assault of sound and colour is not enough, marchers have taken to dropping noisy thunder bangs at their own feet which are deafening but which send the crowd into squeals of delight and appreciative cheering. Once the procession has passed, things are not over as the participants then split off into five separate groups and head off to different parts of the town to burn the effigies and let off even more fireworks. These generally require a ticket so it may be best if you can organise this in advance. Even if you don’t manage to get into a display, you can see lights dancing high in the sky everywhere you look above the town.
It is a most fantastic night and one that I thoroughly recommend. Not only is it the most colourful, irreverent and boisterous November 5th event you could experience, you will be sure in the fact that you are helping to perpetuate a 450 year old tradition.
Summary: a vibrant and enjoyable event
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