< HOME you are in  >  Bonfire
Guy Fawkes
Guy and Westminster Palace

East Sussex Bonfire

Assorted Links

- and a few scrawled thoughts. Most of what follows will be incorporated into the Bonfire Pages That Are to Be, but in the meantime you may be able to get a feel for what's coming if you're interested.

"Bone Fires", Samhain and Halloween

This sounded quite convincing to me as a starting point:
"Bon fires were originally called "bone fires" as the feasting that accompanied the celebration of fire including throwing the bones of the meat as offerings upon the fires that burned to cook the food as well as to keep warm this chilly night. Each household let their own fires go cold to be rekindled from the bone fire to ensure unity in the villages. The ash from the bone fires were spread about over the fields to protect and bless the land for coming years."
From Packrat.

Samhain (SOW-een) or "Summer's End" is the ancient festival associated with this time of year, actually taken as the beginning of the pagan (or if you prefer, Celtic) year. The literal meaning of "pagan", like that of "heathen" is, of course just country-dweller. But it seems to me that even most city-dwellers wouldn't deny the influence and importance of seasonal cycles.
See this BBC local site and, for a twisty turn in the Halloween as opposed to Bonfire direction, check out English Culture, that local BBC site again (though on a different page), and/or H2G2 - the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
What, you didn't know it really existed?

^^Back to Top

The Sussex Martyrs (1555-7)

These 17 victims of the notorious Persecutions that forever defined Queen Mary as "Bloody Mary" are probably the main reason Bonfire is so deeply-rooted in Lewes, where they were burnt as heretics. It just occurs to me that you could see Bonfire as a kind of metaphysical "hair of the dog that bit you" - here we have the fire, and later we have the gunpowder.
A fair few sites make reference to the Martyrs (try Googling Sussex Martyrs), including good old All About Sussex.

For the record, here's a list of the 17 Martyrs. They are commemorated by a monument on Cliffe Hill, which is illuminated on the Fifth.
June 6th, 1555: Dirick Carver of Brighton. Thomas Harland and John Oswald, both of Woodmancote. Thomas Avington and Thomas Reed, both of Ardingly.
June 20th, 1556: Thomas Hood of Lewes. Thomas Miles of Hellingly.
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.

I should say that their heresy was primarily a failure to acknowledge the reality of transubstantiation - that the bread and wine of Communion physically changes into the body and blood of Christ. They also believed that the Bible should be open to all people - that intermediaries like priests and Popes weren't necessary, and weren't necessarily any closer to God. This kind of independence of thought has always scared those in positions of power who have a vested interest in the status quo. The consequences are usually nasty.

^^Back to Top

The Gunpowder Plot (1605)

Well, most of us know about this one.
Beware, though, because opinions of what really happened vary, and some sound quite convincing despite lacking corroboration.

You could do worse than to start by visiting the Parliament website, which also has a Fact Sheet available for download. I found out about this through the Gunpowder Plot Society, which appears to be an objective and fairly comprehensive summary of the Plot and its historical context. Probably my strongest recommendation at the moment. It's food for thought that our primary source of knowledge about the Plot is from confessions made under torture.
I have to mention Conrad Bladey's page on the subject, which besides being good, is also short! More on him below.
The History Learning Site is particularly good on the conspiracy theory angle.

There's a fun little slide-show about the Gunpowder Plot courtesy of Anglia University which is great for kids up to the age of 6 or 7ish. If you're a parent, check it out.

Note that Robert Catesby tends to be acknowledged as the main man behind the Gunpowder Plot, not Guido (Guy) Fawkes. Guido was brought in as an explosives expert, having learnt the trade in the Spanish army. However, he was certainly the man with his finger on the trigger, so to speak, so fair's fair when it comes to burning effigies. And somebody far higher was seen as the real mastermind, with the real responsibility...

From H2G2 again: "In these first bonfires, called 'bone fires' at the time, it wasn't an effigy of Guy Fawkes that was burned, but one of the Pope. It was not until 1806, two centuries later, that the people started burning effigies of Guy Fawkes instead."
Cliffe's burning an effigy of the Pope (or rather, a Pope, Paul V) has come in for some serious stick on occasion, but we shouldn't be surprised to learn it's the more faithful to tradition. Well, OK, Cliffe burn the Pope and the Guy, but I'm not complaining.

^^Back to Top

Before and After the Plot - Historical Context

The Gunpowder Plot was no good at all for the average Catholic, as could be foreseen by all but extremists. In fact the enormity of the planned act of terrorism (albeit one that didn't target mostly innocent subjects) guaranteed its discovery and failure. Fawkes' alleged confession that "..if he had been taken but immediately before when he was in the house, he was resolved to have blown up himself with his takers.." also would have made him possibly the most notorious suicide bomber ever. Food for thought.

I was also interested to read this, from James I's Speech to Parliament on November 9, 1605:
"For although it cannot be denied, That it was the only blind superstition of their errors in religion, that led them to this desperate devise; yet does it not follow, that all professing that Romish religion were guilty of the same..."
In other words, he blamed the religion itself rather than its "ignorant" followers, and there were to be no like-for-like reprisals in his name. Wise words, because a Marian-type Persecution would have done wonders in making martyrs and encouraging the very cause(s) it was intended to destroy. I can't help but feel that there's a lesson here.

But this isn't to say that James I allowed freedom of worship, let alone gave Catholics an easy ride - quite the opposite. His continuance of Elizabeth I's oppression of Catholicism (despite his mother being Mary, Queen of Scots) had been a significant part of the reason for the Gunpowder Plot.
Elizabeth I, expert schemer that she was, primarily attacked Catholicism in England through civil legislation, fining people for failing to attend Church Of England services for instance. This literally made Catholicism too expensive for many people. However, the Papal Bull of 1570 released English Catholics from obligation or allegiance to the Queen, and actually commanded them to flaunt her laws. This upped the stakes considerably. They could no longer swear allegiance to their Head of State, leaving themselves open to charges of treason, which carried the death penalty. Not that this was applied anything like as much as it could have been, as Elizabeth, too, had no wish to create martyrs. But with Spain, the great Catholic power of the time, readying its Armada, it became a matter of great importance (you could say a matter of National Security) to know where loyalties lay.

When the Spanish Armada set sail in 1588, it was a real threat to all that the English held dear, and especially real to the people of Kent and Sussex (on the South coast front line). In effect the bad old days were on board, in the particularly unpleasant new form of the Spanish Inquisition. Pitchfork armies were ready to repel an invasion. War was on the doorstep.

There must have been quite a celebration when the Armada was repelled, and given the fortuitous turn of the elements, there was inevitably an important sense of God being on Protestant (or much more accurately, Anglican) England's side. This all ties in very closely with the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot "by God's Providence" 17 years later. The Celebration element has nowadays absorbed the religious element completely except in that we have the Bonfire Prayers (link to come).

Alternate Histories and hypothetical parallel worlds are always fun, so I'd highly recommend BBC History's What if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded?.

^^Back to Top

Assorted Bonfire Links

Well, Conrad Bladey's Bonfire Night/Gunpowder Plot Epicenter has to be first up. Every time I visit I find something new.
If you fancy a light snack rather than a 5-course meal, there's a brilliant Bonfire Glossary at the Fire Site, which is I think courtesy of Commercial Square Bonfire Society.
An excellent list of East Sussex Bonfire links here, courtesy Gerry Glenister of Hastings BS.
BonfireNight.net is a neat site for quick reference on Bonfire, but by far the best bit is the clever interactive Burn the Guy image on the first page. Check it out! I may well be tempted to nick it some time.
Here's a History of Bonfire courtesy of Borough BS.

What else? Hmmm, Rye Bonfire has a nice site, with good tips; Cliffe's 1997 program has been reproduced online by some kind soul, and includes a great Chairman's letter and history (much like Borough's above). I've referenced Cliffe's official site enough hereabouts!

Aaaand here's some nice pictures of Bonfire 2002 courtesy of the famous Brighton rag the Evening Argus, though I don't know how long they'll be around. I've lost the exact links, but bloggers Jane and Richard have a couple of years worth of Bonfire photos, most of which are pretty good.
Oh, I do have to mention Cliffe's official site again, as they've lots of pictures of past tableaux (How do you define them? Exploding satirical effigies based on topical issues, I suppose. Have a look).

^^Back to Top

and finally...

"Surely there never was a phoenix so incombustible as Guy Fawkes !

Regularly, once a year, he rises from his ashes, parades through the streets in triumphal procession, attends several public meetings, at all of which he takes the chair and then when the evening closes in, he warms his toes over a friendly fire and cracks his venerable sides with a number of good things and generally retires about ten o'clock, after having spent a very jolly evening, during which everything has gone off as pleasantly as possible."

Thanks to scrapalbum.com.
And it's goodbye from him, for now.

Contact | About | © ^^Back to Top Page Last Updated: 23/10/04