Strange Traditions – The Sussex Bonfire Societies

Photograph property of heatherpix (copyright). Used with the owner’s permission.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot. Most Brits will be familiar with the rhyme about Bonfire Night, but did you know this rhyme is actually the opening to a much longer song? One that describes choking and burning the Pope to death? Well neither did I until, by complete chance, I found myself attending the Seaford Bonfire Society hosted Bonfire Night on the East Sussex coast in 2018. And what a strange, celebratory and disruptive night it was…

Commericial Square Bonfire Society, a region of Lewes, parade their standard. Copyright Andrew Dunn 2005.

The Seaford Bonfire night, part of a wider tradition of Sussex Bonfire Societies across the county was a night of carnival, costume,intrigue and of course, fire-displays on a scale I’d witnessed before.  Though hosted in one town by one Bonfire society, all the other Bonfire societies attend to represent their own home town. Host towns rotate, and events take place throughout October and November to avoid clashes. 

Each has their own flag, proudly displayed as they take their place in the parade through the town that begins the night. Traditional costumes of sailors, pirates, smugglers receive a Samhain-style update with skeleton facepaint, enhanced brilliantly by the shadows thrown by the flaming torches in every hand. Drums boomed. Firecrackers banged. One Society set off fireworks in steel buckets as they marched. Floats and wagons carrying yet more flames, along with larger-than-life effigies from Guy Fawkes to Donald Trump also accompanied the revellers as they tripped towards their destination, a stretch of green near the sea where the fireworks would be set.

The nickname ‘shags’ or ‘cormorants’ for the people of Seaford comes from the alleged relish with which they looted wrecked ships.
Photograph by heatherpix. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

I was in equal-parts delighted and horrified, when, just before the fireworks displays started, the thousands-strong crowd began gleefully singing the full version of the ‘Remember remember’ song:

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November Gunpowder treason and plot I see no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot

A penny loaf to feed the Pope A farthing o’ cheese to choke him A pint of beer to rinse it down A faggot of sticks to burn him Burn him in a tub of tar Burn him like a blazing star Burn his body from his head Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah! Hip hip hoorah!

I hoped no European Londers of a Catholic persuasion had headed down here on a whim. What would they think of our strange country? I felt a bit offended myself, coming from a Catholic upbringing, but also (mainly) amused and bemused. I must admit, I was delighted by the strangeness of it. You don’t expect to be genuinely shocked (a phenomena that happens rarely enough to us living in this internet age) at a small, seaside town fireworks display. This song and its anti-Catholic sentiment suggested there had to be more to the Sussex Bonfire societies Than first met the eye. My subsequent investigations revealed to me that Sussex was, for a long time, a foothold of fervent Protestantism.

Traditions mix and melt together. A skeletal, Halloween-themed horse float.
Photography by heatherpix. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

Origins

In most towns across Britain, it’s the infamous Guy Fawkes who is remembered on Bonfire Night. Indeed, every year since his Gunpowder plot was foiled in 1605, public commemoration of and thanksgiving for his failing have been held across the country through Bonfire nights. But in Sussex, another, earlier cause is just as important as Mr Fawkes…

The Lewes Martyrs

As Mary I came to the throne in 1553, she set about restoring Roman Catholicism in Britain in order to solidify her hold on the English throne. She decreed that mass should be read once again in Latin, not English. Protestants across the country were furious. Protests broke out, both public and covert. 

Mary’s response would earn her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. She had almost 300 protestants burnt at the stake and thousands more imprisoned and held in awful conditions. 

The fervent protestants of the Sussex coast were among her targets. Between 1555 and 1557 in Lewes,, 17 protestants were burned to death by order of Her Majesty. The burning of 10 people in 1557, remains the largest public burning in England to date. Elsewhere in Sussex, three others were burned in East Grinstead and four in Mayfield. Today the 17 Lewes Martyrs, are commemorated at the Lewes bonfire event with 17 burning crosses paraded through the town.

Martyr’s Crosses being paraded through Lewes to commemorate the Lewes 17. Copyright Andrew Dunn 2005.

Revival

In the Victorian era, a local group calling itself the Bonfire Boys added their own ingredients to the mixing pot of Sussex coast culture. However, what began as celebrations with bonfires and fireworks, gradually became more like riots on the streets of Lewes. Many other locals, with strong anti-Catholic sentiments joined the revelry and the cult of the Lewes Martyrs became a cause to rally around. In 1847, police were sent from London to control the event, however they did so with a tactic of least intervention, not wanting to stoke resentments further.

Even today, the celebrations have continued to be a source of controvers. In 1981, Ian Paisley, founder of the DUP and hard-line protestant religious leader attended Lewes Bonfire Night, where he distributed anti-Catholic pamphlets and sought to unite the causes of Sussex and Northern Ireland. He didn’t succeed. The following year his effigy was burned at the event. That being said, ‘No Popery’ banners were still being carried at the event as late as 2012. But are these sentiments genuine religious tension, or simply words taken out of context in order to carry on a local tradition?

Regardless of your stance on it, it’s clear that protest is the main tradition that the Sussex Bonfire Societies of today grew out of as shown in their motto: ‘We Burn For Good.’

Some of the characters from the Seaford bonfire parade.
Photograph by heatherpix. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

It’s remarkable that, against all the odds, the strange traditions of the Sussex Bonfire Societies have survived until modern day Britain. The Sussex Bonfire Societies are window into the past, and into the religious tensions that dominated this country for thousands of years. But what does their revival and preservation reveal about Britain today? For that, I think you need to experience it for yourself.

Published by lizzbythesea

Blogging all things coastal and magical. Fantasy writer.

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