The Pyromaniac Madness of Lewes

On this day in 1605 a man called Guido Fawkes was discovered hiding below the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. He and his Catholic co-conspirators planned to detonate them during the State Opening of Parliament, which would have levelled the building and wiped out the entire Protestant ruling elite of Britain.

The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot has been celebrated across the British Isles ever since. It began as a fiercely anti-Catholic festival, an annual opportunity for Britain’s Protestants to affirm their patriotism, their loyalty to the powers that be, and to express their hatred of Catholicism.

Bonfire Display in Lewes

As the years passed, the tensions between the two versions of Christianity subsided, and nowadays someone setting off fireworks on Bonfire Night bears about as much relevance to the Gunpowder Plot as an atheist opening presents on Christmas Day does to the birth of Jesus Christ.

But in some parts of the country, the roots of the anniversary are still glaringly apparent.

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These photos show the Bonfire Night celebrations in Lewes, a small market town in East Sussex, UK. The seven bonfire societies that collectively create this pyromaniac extravaganza take the event very, very seriously.

Lewes has a particularly bitter memory of the Protestant and Catholic struggles. A few years before the Gunpowder Plot, a Catholic monarch was on the throne – Mary I, or Bloody Mary – and she persecuted the country’s Protestants ruthlessly. In Lewes, seventeen Protestants were burnt at the stake on the high street – they quickly became known as the Lewes Martyrs – and the town has never forgotten.

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Each year, seventeen flaming crosses are paraded through the streets in commemoration of the martyrs, and effigies of the then head of the Catholic religion – Pope Paul V – are wheeled through the town before being burnt on the enormous bonfires on the outskirts. Other effigies include unpopular contemporary figures. Some believe it to be mind-bogglingly politically incorrect, while others see it as harmless fun.

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If you want to experience this legendary festival your best bet is to get there as early as possible; the town understandably gets extremely busy and you’ll want a good vantage point to see the parades. Trains run from the seaside town of Brighton fairly frequently, which can be reached by train from London in an hour.