The Sussex Bonfire Societies are responsible for a series of Bonfire Festivals around Central and Eastern Sussex along with Surrey and Kent between September and November.
The societies hold celebrations to mark both Bonfire Night for Guy Fawkes’ capture and in recognition of the deaths of the 17 protestant martyrs who were burned in front of the Star Inn between 1555 and 1557, some 48+ years before Guy and his co-conspirators tried to take the lives of King James and the whole of the British parliament and supporting advisors including Judges and any number of Lords. The original structure still stands to this day and is now used as the Town Hall. Sadly, this is not the first or last death in the name of religion or ‘faith’ but let’s hope that there are lessons learned.
The societies are dotted about the region but by far the biggest celebrations take part in Lewes where they have 7 separate Bonfire Societies including Cliffe, Commercial Square, Lewes Borough, South Street, Waterloo, Neville Juvenile and Southover. Most of the members of the Lewes Societies hold their events on the 5 th November as is tradition other than the Neville Juvenile Society who hold theirs the Saturday a couple of weeks before hand.
The Lewes Bonfire Societies origins can be traced back an act declared by the King, thankful for the foiling of the plot to take his life declared that from henceforth, an Act entitled ‘An Acte for a publique Thancksgiving to Almighty God everie yeere of the Fifte day of November’ was passed in January 1606 that proclaimed the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot should ‘be held in a perpetual emembrance’ which the societies continue to celebrate to this day.
Now don’t be under any illusion that the Bonfire Society events are anything less than spectacular but they are certainly not a family night out. They burn an effigy of the Pope rather controversially and of course, a Guy Fawkes who was an ardent follower of the Catholic faith as seen in his attempts to kill of the representative of the Church of England, King James. The celebrations include huge parades through the streets carrying all manner of things including torches, burning crosses, letters spelling out the initials of their particular organisation, skull and crossbones and the Cliffe society carries massive flags saying ‘no popery’ which incidentally ‘the establishment’ tried to prevent in the 1920’s and again in 1933 the Mayor of the town wrote a very nice letter asking the society to stop such practice. Needless to say the society wrote back declining the request and again in 1950’s the other societies attempted to stop them in continuing this practice and to this day, they march alone on the ‘fifth’.
For anyone with a taste for fireworks and excitement, based around the Gunpowder Plot and the history of the Sussex area, these societies offer a fascinating insight and a never before seen way of celebrating life and long may it continue.