About This Festival
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Every year on November 5th, Brits light bonfires and set off fireworks to remember their good luck in stumbling upon Guy Fawkes just before he attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605. Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators plotted to assassinate King James I over increasingly repressive moves against Catholics.
The anti-papacy sentiment began under Queen Elizabeth I after she was excommunicated in 1570. Soon priests were being executed, Catholics were forbidden from performing Mass, and began fleeing the country. When James I ascended to the throne, Catholics hoped that the repression would end. Unfortunately for them, the king instead declared Catholicism a superstition. Fawkes, a devout Catholic, had had enough, and decided to kill the king, the Prince of Wales, and members of the House of Commons and the House of Lordsby detonating 36 barrels of gunpowder smuggled into the building’s cellar. Word leaked, and Fawkes was arrested, tortured, and executed.
In celebration of the revealed Gunpowder Plot as it was known, people began lighting bonfires and burning the conspirators in effigy. In January of 1606, Parliament declared November 5 a national day of thanksgiving, and a holiday was born. The grandeur of the plot struck such a chord with the monarchy, that to this day sentries search the cellars of Parliament before the seated regent enters the building. And, even though he wasn’t the ringleader (that dubious honor fell to Robert Catesby), Guy Fawkes, with his tall hat, mustache and Van Dyke, became the face, an image so powerful, that masks of him have come to represent the anti-authority hacker collective Anonymous.
Some towns took to the annual bonfires, while in others, like Lewes, which is about an hour or so south of London, the day became a reason to riot and burn random buildings. The arsonists became known as Bonfire Boys and were largely clamped down until the mid-19th century when the first two Bonfire Societies were formed, and some formalities were encoded into the Lewes' celebrations. Now Lewes is famous for holding the largest and most elaborate Bonfire Night celebrations.
Bonfires, Burning Crosses, & Fireworks
Lewes Bonfire Societies function much like the crewes of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Each group has its own meeting place (all pubs, except one), and each has unique colors (displayed on wide-striped sweaters) and costumes, individual nomenclature, and separate parade routes (since each society represents individual districts of the city). The striped sweaters are part of the “smugglers” costume that some members of each group wears with white pants, tall boots, and red hats. The costumes are incredibly detailed and elaborate.
Cliffe: One of the original societies founded in 1853, they wear black and white sweaters, Viking and French Revolution costumes.
Commercial Square: Founded in 1855, costumes are themed Native American, American Civil War soldiers, smugglers wear gold and black striped sweaters.
Lewes Borough: Originally founded in 1853 as the "Lewes Bonfire Society," (now the name for the collective of all societies) costumes are themed Zulu and Tudor, smugglers wear blue and white striped sweaters. Known for carrying the 26.5 lb Monster Iron Key in their procession indicating they have official permission to roam the streets of Lewes.
Nevill Juvenile: Founded in 1967 specifically for children, Nevill has remained a juvenile society. They dress like Valencians, Medieval citizens, and British military members from the early 20th century. Their sweaters are green and white.
Southover: Disbanded in the 1980s, the Southover group reappeared in 2005. They dress as monks and pirates, their sweaters are red and black, and they even have a Samba band. They also carry burning crosses along with torches, providing an extra layer of eeriness to their procession.
South Street: Started originally as a group for children only in 1913, members of the now all ages group dress as 18th century British colonials and English Civil War soldiers. Their striped sweaters are cream and brown.
Waterloo: Costumes include Ancient Greeks and Romans and Mongol invaders; sweaters are red and white striped.
Lots of prep goes into November 5. In September, individual societies hold torch-making parties and begin designing effigies. In addition to Guy Fawkes, other unliked political luminaries are added to the line-up, and Lewes commemorates the burning at the stake of 17 Protestant martyrs under Queen Mary I. In October, the societies as a whole hold costume competitions and award points, prizes, and winning cups. Let's just call it truly old school. Parades start taking place a couple weeks before November 5 leading up to the big night of burning.