This is a guest post by Papa Owl.
The 5th of November is celebrated with passion in the Laughing Owl Household. Across the country bonfire and firework displays takes place to commemorate the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. Most people will have heard of Guy Fawkes but what was so significant about this attempted act of terrorism that it is still remembered today?
Here in Sussex there is a great and long Bonfire tradition that is as strong today as ever. But what is this tradition? Why is it still so strong in Sussex you may ask yourself? The answer to this question goes back over 400 years to a time when Henry VIII ruled England. As with many monarchs over the years Henry wished for a son that would follow his reign. His marriage to Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce the son that he so desired, the only successful pregnancy yielding a daughter, who was to become ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary. As Catherine aged and become less likely to bear the much longed for son, Henry looked to have his marriage annulled by the Roman Catholic Church. Henry attempted to persuade the then Pope, Clement VII to annul the marriage in order that he could marry a young Anne Boleyn, but Clement would not do this. So was set in motion a series of events that culminated in a man from York being found with ‘3 scores barrels of powder’ laid below the Houses of Parliament on 5th November 1605.
Henry could not persuade Pope Clement and England broke away from the Church of Rome and papal authority. Henry did in fact marry Anne Boleyn who bore him a daughter later to be crowned Queen Elizabeth I. Anne fell out of favour with Henry and eventually ended up with her head on the execution block in the Tower of London. Henry went on to marry Jane Seymour who bore him the much longed for son, Edward but unfortunately died in childbirth. Henry died in 1547 having taken 3 more wives none of which bore him any children. Henry’s successor was his only son who was crowned King Edward VI at the age of 9. His reign was short and much influenced by a ‘council of executors’ who took many of the important decisions. This led to Protestantism becoming firmly established in England. Edward was succeeded by his sister, the Roman Catholic, Mary following his death at the age of 15.
Mary’s reign was but a mere 5 years, however it was remembered as a bloody one. Mary was the daughter of Catherine of Aragon and as such was a Roman Catholic. She attempted to restore the power of Rome to England through bloody means. During her reign over 280 people were burnt at the stake for their refusal to recount their protestant faith. And so the link with the strength of Sussex Bonfire celebrations was born in the flames of religious intolerance. Forty-one martyrs died in Sussex during this time, seventeen in Lewes, the others spread between Mayfield and Chichester.
Protestantism was firmly re-established by Queen Elizabeth I following Mary’s death in 1558 and thrived throughout her long reign of 45 years. Elizabeth, often referred to as the ‘Virgin Queen’ failed to produce an heir and on her death was succeeded by King James I the son of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.
King James was a Catholic and many Catholics hoped that England would once again look to Rome for its religion. This was not the case however and James looked to maintain England as a protestant country. Many Catholics felt let down and betrayed by him and a group of plotters formed with the intention of blowing up the King and his parliament at the State Opening of Parliament in November 1605. Their discovery, consequent trial and execution was used as propaganda by the Robert Cecil the Lord Privy Seal to fan the anti-Catholic feelings in England. The discovery of what was to be a terrorist bombing still resonates in the Houses of Parliament when the Yeoman of the Guard checks the cellars before each State opening.
The anti-catholic feelings in the country were further strengthened by the passing of an act of parliament in January 1606 entitled ‘An Acte for a publique Thancksgiving to Almighty God everie yeere of the discovery of the Fifte day of November’. The 5th of November became a public holiday which was marked with special church services and the ringing of church bells. The echoes of this early commemoration can be heard during our event as the bells of All Saints Church in the Old Town are rung as the procession passes. As well as the more formal church services, large bonfires were lit in celebration in the streets, a practise that continued until the early twentieth century before the authorities enforced a move to more suitable sites on the outskirts of towns following a number of houses being burnt down! Some Sussex Bonfire Societies still maintain the tradition of a raging bonfire in the streets as anyone who has attended the Battle celebrations in recent years will know.
|Hastings Bonfire 2014 by Mark Duncan|
There are many bonfires and firework displays around Great Britain but it is only in Sussex that they are so elaborate. The procession of torch bearing bonfire society members, the burning tar barrels, the ‘enemies of bonfire’ are not the stuff of a genteel municipal firework display. Most societies will burn an ‘effigy’ or ‘tableaux’ which often depict local, national or international people or events which have upset the members. The anti-establishment overtones of this act to may be an indicator of why the celebration of the discovery of the gunpowder plot has remained so strong in Sussex. The people of Sussex have long been known to be independent of mind and spirit.
Many villages and towns hold their own celebrations between the start of September and the end of November, with the County town of Lewes holding theirs on the 5th November. This is far from a dying tradition with new societies springing up each year. Here in Hastings we choose to hold our celebrations on the Saturday closest to the Battle of Hastings, another significant landmark in British history. To many these months of celebration may be an extended pub crawl across rural Sussex, to others a chance to celebrate freedom of expression in Great Britain. Each Society will invite the other Sussex Bonfire Societies to attend their event adding to the spectacle by wearing a variety of costumes. If you visit Sussex during the Bonfire season you may see a mixture of Vikings from Lewes, Saxons from Battle, Aztecs from Burgess Hill and many more besides.
Many thanks to Papa Owl for this post, and to Mark Duncan for allowing us to use his photo. If you look closely, you will see Little Owl in the middle of the procession.