Tag Archives: Sussex Bonfire Societies


Every year, a tradition which goes back to the mid-sixteenth century continues to this day in and around the Sussex and Kent regions where processions of people take to the streets to celebrate Bonfire Night.

Six Bonfire Societies congregate in the small town of Lewes in defiance of the impact that political/royal factions had on the people back in the reign of Henry Tudor and his family.

Bonfire societies originally formed in protest of the torture and deaths of some of the local people who just wanted to follow their chosen religion in peace with one another and yet, Queen Mary 1st had other ideas.

Martin Luther was a Priest and German professor of Theology and he was intrinsic in the reformation. Despite being a priest, he completely refuted the churches right to offer indulgencies which were essentially get out of jail free offers for the Catholic’s in higher society who paid their way into heaven and out of trouble, particularly given that two of the recent popes had both had children out of wedlock (and given that they should be celibate, it’s not a good start!). Luther did not support this stance, being of the belief that the Pope was never given the right to offer pardons on this earth or in heaven/purgatory – that would remain gods holy ordinance.


Despite all the religious ramifications, Henry stood his ground and made the decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and go on to create the Church of England which in turn would have its own bible (which was written in English so that the common man could enjoy the writings as it was thought that the common folk could not read Latin) of course, this doctrine was brought into effect when there was no such thing as a printing press and every bible or document had to be handwritten.

It was strange to think that the general populace simply accepted what they were told about the writings in the bible and were unable to challenge it as Martin Luther pointed out that he had never seen a full copy of the bible for himself.

As someone who was brought up a devout Catholic, when her father decided to become the ruling religious power in the UK, following on from the teachings of Martin Luther (not the black activist from the US) things changed dramatically for Mary. Henry VIII daughter by his first wife Catherine of Aragon continued to follow her Catholicism and despite his several marriages he had two daughters; Mary and Elizabeth before Jane Seymour produced a boy; Edward VI. On Henry’s death, the succession automatically passed to Edward aged just  9 but he was a sickly child and never actually took over the reigns as he died aged just 15 but before his death, he tried to stop Mary returning to the throne as he believed that the country should remain Protestant – to this she was quoted as saying that she would rather lay her head on the block (for beheading purposes) than forsake her faith. He put his cousin, Lady Jane Grey to the throne but Mary managed to oust her in just 9 days and she followed this by riding into London on horseback alongside her sister and over 800 noblemen to take it back. Lady Jane and the first Duke of Northumberland, Lord Dudley were both taken to the tower before being beheaded – adding more to Mary’s list of victims.

Following her death in 1558, her half sister Elizabeth took the throne and reigned for the next 45 years in relative peace and without the need to change religion yet again.

Today, the people of Lewes use the opportunity to gather as a community in support of their own and remain part of something which has gone on for literally hundreds of years after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and the Marian Persecutions of the middle of the 1500’s. They do it with a certain amount of ‘tongue in cheek’ particularly when poking fun at the politics of the day. This year for example, crowds of tens of thousands were in attendance to see Boris Johnson holding an axe in his left hand and the head of Theresa May in the other. There was a cacophony of jeers amongst the gathered crowds calling for Boris to be thrown onto the pyre.

Lewes Bonfire Night 2018

The Sussex Bonfire Societies are not the only ones who were using good old Boris as the centre for fun as Edenbridge Bonfire Society burnt an effigy of him at their event on Saturday 3rd November. In this case it was a 36-foot tall effigy of Boris holding an EU cake with mis-matched socks, a cycle helmet and slippers with the caption ‘Having your cake and eating it’.

There was also a bit of a dig at the train timetable related issues which massively impacted on the area in the Summer as the Lewes Ghost Train highlighted their experiences with re-scheduling, missing stations off routes and last-minute cancellations of services.

The one thing which causes more ooohhs and aaahhhs than anything else are the flaming tar barrels which were said to have been used to fumigate homes and to indicate the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

The Lewes Bonfire event brings together the community in a fascinating way and also brings in 30,000 spectators to witness first-hand the amount of effort which goes into creating the parade, the effigies, costumes and of course the beautiful fireworks at the end of the procession.

The Lewes Bonfire is the biggest of them all and has always been held on the 5th. This year once again they were supported by other local societies including Waterloo. South Street, Southover, Commercial Square and Cliffe Bonfire Societies. The streets were packed with people holding flaming torches aloft dragging flaming tar barrels and each have their own bonfire set up at the end of their parade.

Unlike ANY other event in the UK it continues to show support for residents who have lost their lives from the martyrs of the 16th century to the men and women fighting to keep our shores safe at home so I think that political correctness has gone mad and this is one of the few ways left open to show your despair at the state of the country and the impact on local communities.



Bonfire Night is not limited to one day for these flamboyant historians but rather a way of life. Annually, 35 Bonfire Societies, some of which can trace their origins back hundreds of years, even to before the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 take part in celebrations around Bonfire Night and particularly in recognition of the loss of life of some of their own townspeople during the Marian Persecutions of the mid 16th century.

who's got the marshmallows?

The people of the town of Lewes were incensed by the actions of Mary Tudor, Mary I of England who refused most emphatically to accept the Church of England or Protestant faith as her own and proceeded to put to death any non-catholic’s as punishment. Married to Philip II of Spain, a devout Catholic and widower, she was unstoppable. Having taken the crown from Lady Jane Grey, who only managed to keep the throne for a matter of days, she wanted to quickly and resolutely return England to Catholicism by any means necessary.

By the end of 1554, the Marian Persecutions had begun in earnest and anyone found to be non-catholic was thrown into jail and kept in appalling conditions. Bearing in mind that the prisons were already packed to the rafters, the women, children and Protestant clergy were all treated disgracefully but she paid them no regard. The biggest name amongst those who persecuted the Protestants was Bishop Bonner who eventually met a richly deserved end as a prisoner of Elizabeth I.

Anyone caught reading the Holy Bible, not in Latin were immediately seized. Sadly, one such group of men were having one such meeting when they were caught taking part in Bible study. They were detained and transferred to Newgate Prison in London to await the hearing. When they appeared before the courts, their fate was already sealed and sentence was passed; the four men would be burned outside the Old Star Inn in Lewes, before their friends and families to make them even more fearful than before.

Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations : A Raging Fire At The Cliffe Bonfire Society (CBS) Firesite

On 22 July 1555, Dirick Carver, John Launder, Thomas Iveson and William Veisey went to the place of execution. Dirick Carver was clutching his Bible when the executioner grabbed the bible and thew it into one of the tar barrels on the fire before the men were also dragged onto the pyre. Carver retrieved his bible and launched it into the crowd. His last words were defiantly in praise of God. The bible was hidden and remains preserved to this day in the Lewes Museum still bearing the blood of Dirick Carver.

These were just a handful of the hundreds of men, women, and children who died at her hand during her reign of a mere 5 years but whilst it was literally hundreds of years ago, these souls are still remembered with an annual torchlit parade which attracts up to 80 thousand people to the area annually on 5th November. I would add that this is not a family event as there are flaming torches and barrels of tar all around but if you want to learn a little more about the historical impact of this period to all of the area, it is certainly worth adding to your bucket list.

Today, whilst still remembered and acknowledged, the Bonfire Society’s main aim is to bring about forgiveness, acceptance and of course freedom to everyone whatever their religious or political standpoint. That said, the Bonfire Societies take no prisoners when it comes to their anti papism stance and indeed over the years, they have had more than a few digs at the pope and other political figures. But as the law states that the country should all be Protestants, they stand their ground that freedom of expression and the choice of which religion to follow should be a human right and not as allowed by the ruling factions.

The Bonfire Night tradition started in earnest in 1606 upon the first anniversary of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot when King James I decreed that Bonfires should be lit in every part of the country in celebration of it.

Whilst Lewes may be one of the better knowns of the Bonfire Societies, there are as mentioned currently 35 of them which vary from the adult only to the family-friendly Carnival Societies. Originally there were almost 100 societies but today, wholly dependent on fundraising and local community support, this number has seen some improvement since the numbers were below 20 at one point.

All of the societies have their own traditional fancy-dress theme and these are integral to the event. In fact, in some cases, if the fancy dress is not quite in meeting the requirements, the wearer may not be given the opportunity to join in the festivities.

Some of the themes are:


There used to be a crowd of the Lewes crowd who were Zulu warriors which had been using the theme since the mid 1940’s but they were asked a couple of years ago, in the interests of political correctness to stop this practice as it was causing offence to the dance group performing alongside them, who were all of African descent. They may instead go with green face paint instead as the message remains the same ‘express yourself safely and without retribution’.

Bonfire View #17

If you do live in the Sussex or Kent areas, and would be interested in joining in, get in touch with your local Bonfire Society (details are available online for anyone with a yearning to set fire to stuff) and I am sure that they would welcome the help.

The events are planned almost on an annual rolling basis with a Bonfire Night being held almost every week from mid-September onwards but again, we recommend that you check out the Sussex and Kent Bonfire Society’s website for more details.


Sussex Bonfire Societies

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.