Lewes Bonfire is a series of celebrations in the town of Lewes, East Sussex which form the UK’s largest and most famous Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night festivities, with Lewes being called the Bonfire capital of the world.
Always held on 5 November, unless the 5th falls on a Sunday, when they are held on Saturday 4th, the event not only marks the date of the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but also commemorates the memory of the seventeen Protestant martyrs from the town burnt at the stake for their faith during the Marian Persecutions.
There are six societies putting on five separate parades and firework displays on the 5th, and this can mean 3,000 people taking part in the celebrations, and up to 80,000 spectators attending in the small market town with a permanent population of just under 16,000.
The history of bonfire celebrations on 5 November throughout the United Kingdom have their origins with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where a group of English Catholics, including the now famous Guy Fawkes, were foiled in their plot to blow up the House of Lords.
The following January an act entitled ‘An Acte for a publique Thancksgiving to Almighty God everie yeere of the Fifte day of November’ was passed which held that the 5 November should be held in perpetual remembrance of the plot, with a special service held in every Church of England parish church.
Celebrations in Lewes were not planned or carried out annually, but were more random events that were more like riots. They continued until they were banned by Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth. However, they were reintroduced when King Charles II returned, but still on a random basis. Interest waned by the end of the 18th century but in the 1820s large groups of Bonfire Boys started celebrating with fireworks and large bonfires. The celebrations became more and more rowdy until in 1847 police forces were drafted in from London to sort out the Bonfire Boys. There were riots and fighting, and restrictions were clamped down on the celebrators, their locations moved to Wallands Park, at that time fields, not the suburb it is today. However, in 1850 they were allowed back to the High Streets. By this time the former riots had become much more like the processions carried out today. In 1853 the first two societies, Cliffe and Lewes Borough were founded and most of the others were founded later in the same century.