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Sussex Bonfire Tradition

The origins of Sussex Bonfires go back to the days of religious intolerance in the 16th Century – a time of upheaval in the Christian church with the rise of Protestantism, and rural poverty.

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Lewes is considered the home of the tradition, and their Bonfire Night celebrations likely began after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. However, it also commemorates the execution of a group of seventeen Lewes Protestant martyrs who were burned to death on flaming pyres between 1555 and 1557 on the orders of Queen Mary I.  

Guy Fawkes was one of group of Catholics intending to blow up the Protestant James I of England (James VI of Scotland) at the opening of Parliament in 1605. In January 1606 James I passed The Thanksgiving Act to celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and his deliverance from danger. Called the Observance of Fifth November Act 1605, it required all church ministers to hold a special service of thanksgiving annually on 5th November, during which the text of the Act was to be read out loud. Everyone was required to attend. The tradition grew of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and bonfires. Fireworks and artillery-fire were also included in some of the earliest celebrations (as recorded in 1660 by parliamentarian and diarist Samuel Pepys). This Act remained in force until 1859. 

The mayhem which ensued from the early Bonfire Night celebrations not only led to the type of civil disobedience expected from young men letting off steam, but also later became a rallying point for farmworkers protesting about mechanisation, conscripted servicemen returning from the Napoleonic Wars into poverty and agitators for political reform. The evolution of the various costumes reflects these issues, and the development of obscuring the face and dressing alike (often in a French seafaring jumper brought home as a trophy by Napoleonic sailors*) allowed early dissenters to make their protest without being identified by their landlords and the establishment.    

Many current day Sussex Bonfire Societies were officially established after the repeal of the Act in 1859. Lewes Borough Bonfire Society, however, was founded in 1853 and Battle, for example, can trace its history back to 1646.

Whilst nowadays the dates of some Sussex Bonfire Society processions are determined by gaps in the calendar, some have historical roots. Lewes always marks 5th November, the date of the Gunpowder Plot, the parade in Hastings always falls on a Saturday around 14th October, the date of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  Mayfield has their event in September because their four martyrs met their fate on 24th September 1556.

* Most Sussex Bonfire Societies today have two costumes, one of which is the traditional hooped patterned jumper. Each society wears their own colours and stripes.

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