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East Sussex Bonfire
- 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.
This sounded quite convincing to me as a starting point:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Well, most of us know about this one.
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.
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."
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:
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.
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?.
Well, Conrad Bladey's Bonfire Night/Gunpowder Plot Epicenter has to be first up. Every time I visit I find something new.
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.
"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."
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