Why Lewes is Known as ‘The Bonfire Capital of the World’

(Credits: Far Out / Wikimedia / Geograph)


Sat 5 November 2022 05:00 GMT

Traveling to a place dubbed “the bonfire capital of the world” can seem like a dangerous adventure designed only for the most intrepid and fire-resistant visitors. Instead, Lewes in Sussex, England, is more of a middle-class haven that puts its dark underbelly on display once a year on November 5, with the biggest and most famous Bonfire Night festivities in the UK featuring set up an annual exhibition of anarchic explosives. and ancestral tradition.

Marking the events of Guy Fawkes Night, in which the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament was foiled, Lewes Bonfire Night also commemorates the memory of the 17 martyrs Protestants in the city, who were burned at the stake between 1555 and 1557 by government orders. Thus, many festivities in the city have a religious context, illustrated by high flaming crosses and traditional costumes.

The celebrations are organized by seven companies who hold six separate processions, with several companies from the area also traveling to Lewes for the festivities, resulting in around 80,000 landings in the town, which usually hosts only 17,000.

Indeed, the event itself isn’t awash in modern commercialism, it’s a tradition that dates back to the Oliver Cromwell years in the mid-17th century, when there were none of the safeties or festivities. of the current festival; instead, the events looked more like riots. As he did with most entertainments, Cromwell banned these events before they were reintroduced by King Charles II in the 1660s, although it was not until the 19th century that the organized tradition took hold. started to take shape.

In the 1820s, large groups known as the “Bonfire Boys” began celebrating the occasion with fireworks and large bonfires, with the event growing in popularity and notoriety year after year. Authorities suppressed rioting and fighting, but in 1850 the event took on a form much like today’s Lewes celebrations, with the first two societies, Cliffe and Lewes Borough, being founded in 1853.

Many familiar traditions formed during this time, with the practice of burning an effigy of Pope Paul V, who was head of the Catholic Church at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, beginning in the mid-19th century. This sparked much of the anti-religious messaging around the Lewes bonfire celebrations which continues to this day, with the burning of the religious effigy seen as bigoted and outdated.

Yet it is possible that these anti-religious actions will be phased out, with the tradition of blacking out to imitate Zulu costumes rightly banned by the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society in 2017.

The festival may seem a bit more organized than it was during the riot days of the 19th century, but it still retains a strong and vigorous sense of tradition, as evidenced by the annual burning crosses, the barrel race run”, which consists of hurtling down a street with flaming barrels and the popular burning of controversial effigies. While you can be sure to see Guy Fawkes lit up, in 2021 effigies of British politicians like Matt Hancock, Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson have each been burned at the stake, bridging the gap of four centuries in history.

Although traditions have changed slightly, taking health and safety more and more into account, the wild spirit of Lewes bonfire night has not changed for generations, with visitors sure to feel transported to a completely different place and time.

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Source: faroutmagazine.co.uk


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