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No Popery - Lewes Bonfire Night, procession, fireworks, and burning the pope! November 5th

Lewes bonfire night - Martyrs Crosses courtesy of Wiki Commons

Lewes bonfire night - Martyrs Crosses courtesy of Wiki Commons

Lewes Bonfire Night Tuesay November 5th, 2019

This year's annual bonfire event will take place on Tuesday, November 5th, 2019, and it is expected to be extremely busy. If this is your first time attending this popular event, you might want to know more about why Lewes celebrates Bonfire Night with such enthusiasm, and you'll also need to know how to get the most out of your evening. Read on for some interesting Lewes history, and some tips about how to get there, when to arrive, and what to bring.

Some Lewes History - Protestant Martyrs and Catholic Bonfires

The county town of Lewes nestles in a gap in the South Downs, cut through by the murky, green-grey waters of the River Ouse. It is an ancient Sussex town, around seven miles north-east of Brighton. A place where blood has frequently been spilt, and where history has often been made.

The South Downs rise high above the river on both banks, making Lewes a town of steep streets, and stunning views. The High Street climbs steadily up from a bridge over the river, towards the ruins of Lewes Castle. Fine old buildings line the streets and alleys giving Lewes a unique and historic character. This is the town of the 1264 Baron's Revolt led by Simon de Montfort, the town where the second (more erotic) version of Rodin's great sculpture ‘The Kiss' was first put on public display. It is also the town where seventeen protestant martyrs were burned at the stake between 1555 and 1557 close to the town hall. The town that has it's own alternative currency, the ‘Lewes Pound', but most famously of all, it is the town which burns an effigy of the pope each year on November 5th, Bonfire Night.

The Procession converges in the High Street

5th November - Bonfire Night at Lewes, Sussex

On the evening of 5th of November each year (unless the 5th is a Sunday, in which case the celebrations are held on the 4th), crowds pour into Lewes to celebrate Bonfire Night. The railway lays on extra trains, and policemen patrol the streets which are closed to out-of-town traffic from early in the evening. Shop windows are boarded up and barriers are erected the length of Lewes High Street. People throng the streets from 5pm onwards, jostling for a good position from which to view the parade. And they are not disappointed. The parade follows an unfathomable route round and round the town converging from all directions throughout the evening, and eventually heading off to various bonfire sites on the periphery of Lewes some time around 9.30pm.

Each bonfire society marches in costume carrying fiery torches which belch acrid smoke into the air. Several are accompanied by bands. Local brass bands. Drum bands. Pipe bands. And the regular punctuation of whistles, rowdy singing and the loud cracks of bangers and fireworks. The costumes are eclectic. There are impressive looking vikings, pirates in tricorn hats, French revolutionaries, Tudors, Victorian Firemen, matelots in stripy shirts. The main bonfire societies are locally based (Lewes itself, has six including Nevill Juvenile, Waterloo, Borough,Commercial Square, South Street and Cliffe) but others from far-flung Sussex Towns such as Heathfield and Littlehampton, also arrive to join in the fun!

This is a wild and crazy night in the Sussex calendar, celebrated on the traditional anniversary of the 1605 Gunpowder plot. As well as the parade, blazing tar barrels are dragged through the streets. There is a great combination of spectacle and tradition.

November 2005 photograph by Andrew Dunn, courtesy of wiki commons

November 2005 photograph by Andrew Dunn, courtesy of wiki commons

How to get to Lewes Bonfire Night by road and rail

As mentioned above, the roads into the town centre are closed from quite early in the day. Do not drive into Lewes in the hopes that you might be able to sneak a parking space somewhere. It's very unlikely to happen, and even if you were successful, you'd probably not be able to get back out again much before the following day! Your best bet if coming by car, is to arrive early (around 4.30pm or earlier would be good) and park right on the outskirts of the town, perhaps in the roads behind the prison, or out towards the villages of KIngston or Ringmer. Be prepared for a 20 to 30 minute walk to the main action. It's a good idea to take drinks and refreshments with you, as the pubs and restaurants will either be jam packed, or else closed and boarded up. Arriving this early may well involve you hanging around in Lewes for a while before the parade starts, but you'll be glad later, when you see just how far out of town people end up parking. I've seen cars parked as far as the Kingston roundabout and beyond on bonfire night.Wear sensible shoes, especially if you're planning to follow the processions out to the fields where the effigies are burned, and the firework displays are held. Also, make sure you have some money to donate to the display organisers. The firework displays are amazing, and well worth your donations. The major sites are now ticketed, and these can be bought in advance.

Lewes council have some very helpful advice regarding transport and roads into Lewes which you can find here.

If you're going by rail, you'll probably be travelling in via either Brighton, or Polegate. Be prepared for very crowded trains. PLEASE NOTE THAT NO TRAINS WILL RUN IN OR OUT OF LEWES AFTER 5PM. If you are planning to go to Lewes by train, make plans to stay in the town or else be prepared for a very long walk to Falmer station to get home. Even on the early daytime trains you may have to stand for your journey. The station is reasonably close (about a 5 - 10 minute walk) to the High Street. Please remember that Lewes is a town of steep hills, so leave your high heels at home!

Zulu warrior, Lewes November 2005 by Andrew Dunn courtesy of Wiki Commons

Zulu warrior, Lewes November 2005 by Andrew Dunn courtesy of Wiki Commons

Seventeen men and women were burned at the stake in Lewes High Street

On the left bank of the River Ouse there is a large chalk cliff (Cliffe Hill) that can be seen for many miles. A monument is clearly visible on the skyline, and it is this monument, a granite obelisk, 35 ft in height, that marks the passing of seventeen men and women who were ‘faithful unto death'.

The inscription, runs as follows:-

"In loving memory of the undernamed seventeen Protestant martyrs who, for faithful testimony to God's truth, were, during the reign of Queen Mary, burned to death in front of the Star Inn - now the Town Hall - Lewes; this obelisk, provided by public subscriptions, was erected A.D. 1901.

DATE OF MARTYRDOM, June 6th, 1555. Dirick Carver, of Brighton. Thomas Harland and John Oswald, both of Woodmancote. Thomas Avington and Thomas Reed, both of Ardingly. DATE OF MARTYRDOM, about June 20th, 1556. Thomas Hood (a minister of the Gospel), of Lewes. Thomas Miles, of Hellingly. DATE OF MARTYRDOM, 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

Seventeen local people whose only crime was to choose a different path towards God than that decreed by the Catholic Queen Mary. It's unthinkable these days, but 500 years ago the sovereign's word was law. Small wonder then, that local people have nurtured an intolerance of Catholicism, although these days the attitude is far more tolerant than in by-gone years, and all rancour has passed into history! Small wonder, however, that the Cliffe bonfire society march behind a banner which proudly proclaims ‘No Popery', and small wonder that that same bonfire society each year declaims against the Pope and burns his effigy on November 5th to roars of approval from a cheering crowd!

In latter years the Pope has been joined by other figures who have earned the disapproval of the Bonfire Societies. Politicians are a popular choice, especially Prime Ministers and their Chancellors. When the Greenpeace ship 'Rainbow Warrior' was blown up by the French in the 1980s an effigy of a Frenchman in a beret holding a bomb was burned. In 2001 Lewes Bonfire Night drew international attention when an effigy of Osama bin Laden went up in smoke, and the 2008 'enemy of bonfire' was the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling holding an Icelandic cheque in his hand. In 2016 there were several effigies of Donald Trump. It will be interesting to see who will have been chosen to parody this year.

Lewes Bonfire Night- Excellent video by Dullbedsitblogger

courtesy of Wiki Commons

courtesy of Wiki Commons

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courtesy of Wiki Commons

courtesy of Wiki Commons

Burning an effigy of the Pope, Lewes 2010

Lewes, East Sussex

Sensible advice for visitors from outside Lewes

The Lewes Pound


Amanda Severn (author) from UK on July 20, 2015:

Hi Ann, I'm a Sussex girl myself, born and bred. Lewes is only a few miles from where I live, and I'm a frequent visitor. It's one of my favourite towns in the UK. Good luck with your hubs, and thank you for stopping by and commenting.

Ann Carr from SW England on July 18, 2015:

Hi Amanda! I know the area well and love the town of Lewes. This is a great hub about their Bonfire Night. It seems to have grown a lot since I was there!

I'm a Sussex girl; born in Shoreham, brought up in Hurstpierpoint, school in Hove and lived in Patcham, Brighton for a while. The South Downs are my old stomping ground and I love them. I have friends who live in Lewes.

Bridgwater, where I live now, also celebrates bonfire night in style and another of my hubs (featured here, thanks) talks about 'penny' for the guy etc.

Informative and inviting hub; off to read your profile!


Amanda Severn (author) from UK on September 01, 2012:

Hi Hedocurus, The Lewes Bonfire Celebrations are loud, noisy, and anarchic. I highly recommend them!

The Lewes pound is accepted by approximately 130 businesses within the Lewes area, and some of the traders discount their goods and services if payment is made in the local currency. When the scheme was first launched only 70 traders registered to take part, but the scheme has slowly grown, and it is popular because it attracts tourists into the town, and encourages locals to spend their money with the many individual traders in Lewes, rather than taking their money to out of town shopping centres. Because the nominal value of the Lewes pound is exactly the same as for regular UK currency, there is no differentiation for tax purposes.

Hedocurus from Olive Branch, MS on August 31, 2012:

Absolutely fascinating. I must admit, I come from a place with very little effigy burning. The idea of the Lewes Pound is intriguing. How is it promoted to the initial merchants? How is it taxed by the central government?

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 26, 2008:

Hi Countrywomen,

I didn't know that such places existed in the States. It sounds like my kind of town! I once visited something similar in Scotland, although it was a little more new agey perhaps:

countrywomen from Washington, USA on November 26, 2008:

Amanda - Yes, one of these days I will visit Europe. Yeah, celebrations are usually similar when people are having fun. I might get one lewes pound for souvenir's sake. I had been to a vedic city in USA which uses a similar currency called Raam(1 Raam = 10 USD) which only locals accept:

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 26, 2008:

Hi Country women

I hope you do get here some day. The Uk is full of history and beautiful and interesting places to visit. Lewes is great quite apart from bonfire night. Very historic and quaint. The Lewes pound is only accepted by the 70 or so businesses that have signed up to the scheme within the Lewes area. You might have difficulty persuading other shops to take it elsewhere in the UK.

The zulu warriors are just Lewes residents in black bodystockings with their faces blacked. They are very over the top in their costumes (see the top of the hub) and very obvious fakes, but a lot of fun!

I had a quick look at the youtube clip that you posted, and it has a similar atmosphere to the Lewes celebrations. I guess people enjoy themselves in similar ways the world over!

countrywomen from Washington, USA on November 26, 2008:

Amanda- Nice hub. I surely want to visit UK. I flew in British Airways once over the heathrow airport but I certainly want to visit it. So much info. Btw Is Lewes pound a legal currency? Also I thought that ZULU warriors existed only in south africa. It is so sad to see in the name of religion such inhuman acts are commited. We have similar effigy burning in India depicting good over evil (Ravana's effigy burning):

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 15, 2008:

Thanks for stopping by Brendan. I know that this sounds quite radical on paper, but the actual event is quite tongue in cheek, and owes far more to tradition and making a gesture of defiance to the authorities, than it does to any deep-seated sectarian rancour. The Pope would no doubt have the good sense to understand that the papal effigy is basically a symbol for an oppression that is now (thankfully) in the distant past.

England in Tudor times was a frightening and unpredictable place for those of strict religious beliefs. King Henry the Eighth fell out with the Pope and used this as an excuse to establish the protestant Church of England. His daughter Mary, who became queen after the death of her brother Edward, was a devout Catholic who sought to reverse her father's reforms. She was subsequently succeeded by her sister Elizabeth who then changed everything back again. Many people lost their lives as a result of all this, but it's all history now.

Brendan Roberts from Auckland on November 15, 2008:

Thanks for sharing about the ghastly murder of protestants. It is important to highlight what has happened, but it must also be questioned whether it was the state that did it or was it a Church trial? There is also another factor to include and that is that Pope John Paul II made the courageous step of publicly asking forgiveness for the sins perpetrated by members of the Church. In light of this is this tradition of hatred against the Pope healthy? We sure have moved ahead tremendously in ecumencal relations during the last century.

God bless

Brendan Roberts

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 15, 2008:

Thanks for stopping by Pinkflag. We enjoyed the parade this year, but it's always a great spectacle!

pinkflag on November 15, 2008:

I went to Lewes bonfire this year and it was great. I really liked the parade.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 14, 2008:

Hi Melissa

Thanks for your kind words. I had a few bits published years ago before I had the children, but I've never tried my hand at travel writing outside of HubPages. It's definitely a good thought though.

Melissa G from Tempe, AZ on November 13, 2008:

Thanks for the info, Amanda. It is interesting how the "why's" behind traditions seem to get lost in the shuffle over the years. :) Nifty costumes, in any case.

Have you ever though about writing for travel publications? You do a great job of setting the scene and incorporating interesting historical tidbits (like the Greenpeace reference). The end result is very captivating.

Shalini Kagal from India on November 13, 2008:

Yes Amanda - the joys of youth!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 13, 2008:

I backpacked and inter-railed in Europe as a teenager, and plan to see it all again some time, preferrably before I become too ancient! I might skip the Youth Hostels this time around though, and I definitely don't plan on sleeping in any railway stations!

Shalini Kagal from India on November 13, 2008:

Really? Well, our next trip is probably after we retire - and we hope to do all of Europe at a really leisurely pace - I do think our backpacking days are over though :)

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 13, 2008:

I lived in Brighton for fifteen years, and I loved being there, as there's always such a lot going on. We only moved out of town when the children came along. We're still on the coast, but in a quieter area now.

Shalini Kagal from India on November 13, 2008:

Thanks Amanda - I;ve been to Brighton but not to Lewes - I mean to read your hub about their own money in a bit - sounds interesting!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 13, 2008:

Hi Shalini

If you ever visit the UK it's definitely worth checking out Lewes, even when it's not bonfire night, as it's a fine old town with a lot of history. There's some great restaurants there too!

Shalini Kagal from India on November 13, 2008:

Thanks Amanda - Bonfire Night looks like a great time to be there - your hub just brings it to life!

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 13, 2008:

Hi Melissa,

It's always good to hear from you. Unfortunately I can't tell you too much about the costumes, apart from the fact that they are traditional themes which have been re-visited at every Lewes bonfire night I've ever been to stretching back nearly thirty years! I'm not a Lewes local myself, (we live twelve miles away) but my father-in-law is from a Lewes family and I will ask him next time I see him. The stripy shirts possibly have sea-faring origins as Lewes is not far from the coast, and the Elizabethans probably hark back to the fact that one of the six wives of Henry the Eighth had a house in the town which is still standing and is now open to the public (Anne of Cleves house). The zulu warriors (my favourites!) are particularly special, but I can't even begin to guess where the idea for them came from!

Melissa G from Tempe, AZ on November 12, 2008:

Great hub, Amanda! I feel like I always learn something interesting about history and human nature through your hubs. :) Do you know what the significance of all the different costumes are, such as the Zulu warriors, and all the striped shirts?

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 10, 2008:

Hi Penmanzee,

Yes, we've come a long way in terms of religious tolerance in the UK. What a wonderful world it will be once all humanity learns to respect another point of view!

PenmanZee on November 10, 2008:

Great hub and interesting information Amanda. It's amazing how far society has come from the days when a person was put to death because he or she chose to think independently. The sad thing though, is that in many nations around the world, they are still at the point in history where such commemorations are a reality. Thanks Amanda.

Amanda Severn (author) from UK on November 10, 2008:

Thanks for stopping by Writer Rider. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. If you ever get over to the UK don't miss out on Lewes bonfire. It's one of the highlights of the Sussex calendar! 

Writer Rider on November 09, 2008:

I love the way you Brits word things! Great hub!

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