The market town of Lewes has been hailed the ‘Bonfire Capital of the World’, and is famed for its Bonfire Night celebrations. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting the South Downs Natural Park or are staying close by during this bonfire season, here’s everything you need to know about the history of Bonfire Night in Lewes.
As everyone knows, Bonfire Night began is a celebration of Guy Fawkes’ foiled Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Celebrations in Lewes started almost immediately but were not officially held on the 5th November. They were more like riots which took place at random, until the 1820s when the Lewes Bonfire Boys began celebrating with bonfires and setting off fireworks on the South Downs.
There was a strong anti-Catholic undercurrent to the celebrations. Between 1555 and 1557, seventeen Protestants known as the ‘Lewes Martyrs’ were burned at the stake during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I, and their legend was soon absorbed into the Lewes Bonfire Night Traditions, remembered even today by seventeen burning crosses which are carried through the town centre as part of the procession.
Celebrations today attract crowds from across the South Downs and are one of the biggest South Downs family attractions in the calendar. Events kick off with a parade through the town centre, with the seventeen burning crosses. A wreath is laid at the war memorial, and then women’s and men’s races take place in which flaming tar barrels are pulled behind competitors.
There are not one but five separate bonfires lit, and each year effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V are burned, as well as other figures (recently these have included David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson).
Events are organised by Lewes Bonfire Council and various local bonfire societies, with upwards of 80,000 people attending each year. If you’re in the area and have South Downs accommodation over the bonfire season, this is an event not to be missed. Temperatures may be plummeting but that doesn’t put people off. Wrap up warm and enjoy the biggest bonfire celebration in the UK.