Why Lewes is known as ‘the bonfire capital of the world’

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(Credits: Far Out / Wikimedia / Geograph)

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To travel to somewhere nicknamed ‘the bonfire capital of the world’ might sound like a dangerous adventure built for only the most intrepid, fire-proof visitors. Instead, Lewes, in Sussex, England, is more of a middle-class haven which exposes its dark underbelly once a year on November 5th, with the largest and most famous Bonfire Night festivities in the United Kingdom putting on an annual display of anarchic explosives and ancient tradition.

Marking the events of Guy Fawkes Night, in which the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to explode the English Houses of Parliament was foiled, Lewes’ bonfire night also commemorates the memory of the 17 Protestant martyrs of the town, who were burned at the stake between 1555 and 1557 by the orders of the government. As such, many of the town’s festivities hold a religious context, illustrated by tall burning crosses and traditional fancy dress.

The celebrations are put on by seven societies that put on six separate processions, with multiple societies from around the area also travelling to Lewes for the festivities, resulting in around 80,000 landing in the town, which usually only accommodates 17,000.

Indeed, the event itself is not one showered with modern commercialism, it is a tradition that goes way back to the years of Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century when there was none of the safety or festivities of the current festival; instead, events were more like riots. As he did with most kinds of fun, Cromwell banned these events before they were reintroduced by King Charles II in the 1660s, though it wasn’t truly until the 19th century that the organised tradition began to take shape.

In the 1820s, large groups known as ‘Bonfire Boys’ started celebrating the occasion with fireworks and large fires, with the event growing in popularity and notoriety year after year. The authorities clamped down riots and fights, but by 1850, the event took on a shape that looked much like the celebrations of modern-day Lewes, with the first two societies, Cliffe and Lewes Borough, being founded in 1853.

Many familiar traditions were formed at this time, with the practice of burning an effigy of Pope Paul V, who was the head of the Catholic church at the time of the Gunpowder plot, starting in the mid-19th century. Such sparked much of the anti-religious messaging around Lewes’ bonfire celebrations that continue to this day, with the burning of the religious effigy seen as bigoted and outdated.

Still, it is a possibility that these anti-religious actions may be phased out, with the tradition of blacking up to imitate Zulu costumes rightfully being banned by Lewes Borough Bonfire Society in 2017.

The festival may look a little more organised than it did during the era of riots in the 19th century, but it still holds a strong, vigorous sense of tradition, seen in the annual burning crosses, ‘barrel run’ race, which involves hurtling down a street with flaming barrels and the popular scorching of controversial effigies. Whilst you can be sure to see Guy Fawkes lit up, in 2021, effigies of the likes of British politicians Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson were each burned at the stake, bridging the four-century-long gap in history.

Though the traditions may have slightly altered, taking health and safety increasingly into account, the wild spirit of Lewes bonfire night hasn’t changed in generations, with visitors sure to feel transported into a different place and time entirely.