No Popery - Lewes Bonfire Night, procession, fireworks, and burning the pope! November 5th
Lewes Bonfire Night Saturday November 4th, 2017
This year's annual bonfire event will take place on Saturday, November 4th, 2017, and it is expected to be extremely busy. If this is your first time attending this popular event, you might want to know more about why Lewes celebrates Bonfire Night with such enthusiasm, and you'll also need to know how to get the most out of your evening. Read on for some interesting Lewes history, and some tips about how to get there, when to arrive, and what to bring.
Some Lewes History - Protestant Martyrs and Catholic Bonfires
The county town of Lewes nestles in a gap in the South Downs, cut through by the murky, green-grey waters of the River Ouse. It is an ancient Sussex town, around seven miles north-east of Brighton. A place where blood has frequently been spilt, and where history has often been made.
The South Downs rise high above the river on both banks, making Lewes a town of steep streets, and stunning views. The High Street climbs steadily up from a bridge over the river, towards the ruins of Lewes Castle. Fine old buildings line the streets and alleys giving Lewes a unique and historic character. This is the town of the 1264 Baron's Revolt led by Simon de Montfort, the town where the second (more erotic) version of Rodin's great sculpture ‘The Kiss' was first put on public display. It is also the town where seventeen protestant martyrs were burned at the stake between 1555 and 1557 close to the town hall. The town that has it's own alternative currency, the ‘Lewes Pound', but most famously of all, it is the town which burns an effigy of the pope each year on November 5th, Bonfire Night.
The Procession converges in the High Street
5th November -bonfire night at Lewes, Sussex
On the evening of 5th of November each year (unless the 5th is a Sunday, in which case the celebrations are held on the 4th), crowds pour into Lewes to celebrate Bonfire Night. The railway lays on extra trains, and policemen patrol the streets which are closed to out-of-town traffic from early in the evening. Shop windows are boarded up and barriers are erected the length of Lewes High Street. People throng the streets from 5pm onwards, jostling for a good position from which to view the parade. And they are not disappointed. The parade follows an unfathomable route round and round the town converging from all directions throughout the evening, and eventually heading off to various bonfire sites on the periphery of Lewes some time around 9.30pm.
Each bonfire society marches in costume carrying fiery torches which belch acrid smoke into the air. Several are accompanied by bands. Local brass bands. Drum bands. Pipe bands. And the regular punctuation of whistles, rowdy singing and the loud cracks of bangers and fireworks. The costumes are eclectic. There are impressive looking vikings, pirates in tricorn hats, zulu warriors, French revolutionaries, Elizabethans, Victorian Firemen, matelots in stripy shirts. The main bonfire societies are locally based (Lewes itself, has six including Nevill Juvenile, Waterloo, Borough,Commercial Square, South Street and Cliffe) but others from far-flung Sussex Towns such as Heathfield and Littlehampton, also arrive to join in the fun!
This is a wild and crazy night in the Sussex calendar, celebrated on the traditional anniversary of the 1605 Gunpowder plot. As well as the parade, blazing tar barrels are dragged through the streets. There is a great combination of spectacle and tradition.
How to get to Lewes Bonfire Night by road and rail
As mentioned above, the roads into the town centre are closed from quite early in the day. Do not drive into Lewes in the hopes that you might be able to sneak a parking space somewhere. It's very unlikely to happen, and even if you were successful, you'd probably not be able to get back out again much before the following day! Your best bet if coming by car, is to arrive early (around 4.30pm or earlier would be good) and park right on the outskirts of the town, perhaps in the roads behind the prison, or out towards the villages of KIngston or Ringmer. Be prepared for a 20 minute walk to the main action. It's a good idea to take drinks and refreshments with you, as the pubs and restaurants will either be jam packed, or else closed and boarded up. Arriving this early may well involve you hanging around in Lewes for a while before the parade starts, but you'll be glad later, when you see just how far out of town people end up parking. I've seen cars parked as far as the Kingston roundabout and beyond on bonfire night! Wear sensible shoes, especially if you're planning to follow the processions out to the fields where the effigies are burned, and the firework displays are held. Also, make sure you have some money to donate to the display organisers. The firework displays are amazing, and well worth your donations. The major sites are now ticketed, and these can be bought in advance.
Lewes council have some very helpful advice regarding transport and roads into Lewes which you can find here.
If you're going by rail, you'll probably be travelling in via either Brighton, or Polegate. Be prepared for very crowded trains. You may well have to stand for your journey. The station is reasonably close (about a 5 - 10 minute walk) to the High Street., and you can plan to arrive a little later than if you are travelling by car. Also, please remember that Lewes is a town of steep hills, so leave your high heels at home!
Seventeen men and women were burned at the stake in Lewes High Street
On the left bank of the River Ouse there is a large chalk cliff (Cliffe Hill) that can be seen for many miles. A monument is clearly visible on the skyline, and it is this monument, a granite obelisk, 35 ft in height, that marks the passing of seventeen men and women who were ‘faithful unto death'.
The inscription, runs as follows:-
"In loving memory of the undernamed seventeen Protestant martyrs who, for faithful testimony to God's truth, were, during the reign of Queen Mary, burned to death in front of the Star Inn - now the Town Hall - Lewes; this obelisk, provided by public subscriptions, was erected A.D. 1901.
DATE OF MARTYRDOM, June 6th, 1555. Dirick Carver, of Brighton. Thomas Harland and John Oswald, both of Woodmancote. Thomas Avington and Thomas Reed, both of Ardingly. DATE OF MARTYRDOM, about June 20th, 1556. Thomas Hood (a minister of the Gospel), of Lewes. Thomas Miles, of Hellingly. DATE OF MARTYRDOM, June 22nd, 1557. Richard Woodman and George Stevens, both of Warbleton. Alexander Hosman, William Mainard, and Thomasina Wood, all of Mayfield. Margery Morris and James Morris (her son), both of Heathfield. Denis Burges, of Buxted. Ann Ashton, of Rotherfield. Mary Groves, of Lewes
Seventeen local people whose only crime was to choose a different path towards God than that decreed by the Catholic Queen Mary. It's unthinkable these days, but 500 years ago the sovereign's word was law. Small wonder then, that local people have nurtured an intolerance of Catholicism, although these days the attitude is far more tolerant than in by-gone years, and all rancour has passed into history! Small wonder, however, that the Cliffe bonfire society march behind a banner which proudly proclaims ‘No Popery', and small wonder that that same bonfire society each year declaims against the Pope and burns his effigy on November 5th to roars of approval from a cheering crowd!
In latter years the Pope has been joined by other figures who have earned the disapproval of the Bonfire Societies. Politicians are a popular choice, especially Prime Ministers and their Chancellors. When the Greenpeace ship 'Rainbow Warrior' was blown up by the French in the 1980s an effigy of a Frenchman in a beret holding a bomb was burned. In 2001 Lewes Bonfire Night drew international attention when an effigy of Osama bin Laden went up in smoke, and the 2008 'enemy of bonfire' was the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling holding an Icelandic cheque in his hand. In 2016 there were several effigies of Donald Trump. It will be interesting to see who will have been chosen to parody this year.
Lewes Bonfire Night- Excellent video by Dullbedsitblogger
Burning an effigy of the Pope, Lewes 2010
Lewes, East Sussex
Sensible advice for visitors from outside Lewes
- Lewes Bonfire Council - Advice for Potential Visitors
Lewes Bonfire Council co-ordinates the six Lewes Bonfire Societies (Cliffe, Commercial Square, Lewes Borough, Nevill Juvenile, South Street and Waterloo) as they organise the world-famous Lewes Bonfire Night.
The Lewes Pound
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