is a controlled outdoor fire used for disposal of burnable waste material or as part of a celebration. Celebratory bonfires are typically designed to burn quickly and may be very large.


Guy Fawkes Night

  also known as Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night and Firework Night, is an annual commemoration observed on 5 November, primarily in England. Its history begins with the events of 5 November 1605, when Guy Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. Celebrating the fact that King James I had survived the attempt on his life, people lit bonfires around London, and months later the introduction of the Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot's failure.

The Lewes bonfire dates back to the 16th century and 1850 saw the beginning of the burning of a papal effigy in protest at Pope Pius IX's decision to restore the Catholic hierarchy in England. The event also commemorates the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs.

Within a few decades Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was known, became the predominant English state commemoration, but as it carried strong religious overtones it also became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. Puritans delivered sermons regarding the perceived dangers of popery, while during increasingly raucous celebrations common folk burnt effigies of popular hate-figures, such as the pope. Towards the end of the 18th century reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes and 5 November gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day. Towns such as Lewes and Guildford were in the 19th century scenes of increasingly violent class-based confrontations, fostering traditions those towns celebrate still, albeit peaceably. In the 1850s changing attitudes eventually resulted in the toning down of much of the day's anti-Catholic rhetoric, and in 1859 the original 1606 legislation was repealed. Eventually, the violence was dealt with, and by the 20th century Guy Fawkes Day had become an enjoyable social commemoration, although lacking much of its original focus. The present-day Guy Fawkes Night is usually celebrated at large organised events, centred around a bonfire and extravagant firework displays.

Protestant Martyrs

Since 1858, the Lewes bonfire societies have annually remembered an horrific martyrdom during the period 1555–1557, known as the Marian Persecutions. In the reign of Edward VI, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, came under pressure to abandon her unshakable Catholic views, but when she came to the throne in 1553, in the process of then re-enforcing them, she had no fewer than 288 Protestants burned for their “heretical” views – 17 of these martyrs were burned in Lewes
Mary’s persecution of the Protestants started in earnest in 1555, earning her the dubious name of “Bloody Mary”. Hundreds of Protestants were pursued and forced to languish in appalling conditions in jail while waiting examination or execution. No thought was even given for pregnant women, many of whom gave birth in squalid conditions with both mothers and babies dying in the company of odious criminals. There were eminent Christians in their number too: the Archbishop of Canterbury, several Bishops, dozens of clergymen and scholars – none were spared.
Toward the end of October 1554, a Bible-reading was taking place in the home in Black Lion St  (now site of the Black Lion Pub) of one Dirick Carver, a brewer from Brighthelmstone (now Brighton) with John Launder, Thomas Iveson and William Veisey. Under the command of Sir Edward Gage, the High Sheriff of Sussex, the four men were arrested at prayer. It was a short matter of time before they were brought before the court of Bonner, the Bishop of London in Newgate, London. They were kept there until 8 June 1855. After forced confessions were signed, their fate was sealed. On 22 July 1555, Dirick Carver, was taken by his Catholic persecutors, to Lewes town centre to be burned outside of the Old Star Inn, where the Town Hall currently stands. His Bible was taken from him and thrown into a barrel on the pyre. The crowd called to him, pleading God to strengthen his resolve and his faith. He knelt down and prayed, but was then forced to climb into the barrel too. Carver took his Bible and threw it into the surrounding crowd. His final words were: “Lord have mercy upon me, for unto thee I commend my spirit and my soul doth rejoice in thee!” His Bible was preserved and is on display in Lewes Museum today. Clear evidence of his blood splattered on the pages of Judges, Zephaniah and Ruth is a graphic reminder of his physical ordeal. On 6 June 1556, four more Protestants were taken to their flaming deaths in Lewes. Thos Harland, John Oswold, Thos Avington and Thos Reed had all spent a great deal of time in prison, and still rejected the Mass and refused to go to a church where the language was one they would not understand. Despite these deaths, Bonner, the Bishop of London was not convinced that the heretics were being persuaded back to the Roman faith. So he arranged the largest bonfire of humans the town or indeed the country had seen. The ten hapless Protestants were: Richard Woodman, George Stevens, Alexander Hosman, William Mainard, Thomasina Wood, Margery Morris, James Morris, Denis Burges, Ann Ashdon and Mary Groves.
Such was the conviction of the Protestants’ faith, that they could endure imprisonment, deprivation, torment and burning but they would not recant their deeply held opinions of the fundamental incorrectness of the Roman Catholic faith. The central belief of their Protestant faith was the belief that Jesus Christ was the head of the church, and it was inconceivable that the Roman Catholic Church should put the pope at the head of Christian faith. They stood firm with their principles and endured horrific persecutions, and it was only when Mary Tudor’s reign came to an end in 1558 that they were able to return to open worship. The memory of the Lewes 17 is still celebrated with annual torchlight processions through Lewes which attract up to 80,000 people. Many bonfire societies in the area carry  17 flaming crosses every 5 November
In 1901 a memorial was erected on the hill above the Culfail tunnel



The logistical requirements required for the events often starts as early as February. This has led the Societies to pool resources and work together on each other's bonfires. This creates associated processions, with large festivals like Lewes and Hastings going on late into the night. Due to the size and number of events and mutual collaboration, it became impractical to hold all the bonfires on the traditional Fifth of November. This resulted in the "bonfire season" to be extended over ten weeks through September, October and November.

The first Sussex Bonfire Societies' event starts with the Uckfield Carnival on the first Saturday of September and concludes with Robertsbridge and Barcombe festivals on the third Saturday of November.

The Mayfield bonfire celebrations commemorate two of the Lewes Martyrs who were from the village and four more martyrs that were executed in the village, on a site opposite the current Colkins Mill Church in Station Road, on 24 September 1556. A stone monument to the Martyrs stands in the church's grounds. Mayfield's torchlit procession and carnival takes place on the Saturday nearest to 24 September.

Sources: Wikipedia, BBC, Lewis Bonfire Council,



The America Ground Declaration

Hastings Borough Bonfire Society has a unique tradition of a declaration across The America Ground which was in central Hastings; an area covered by Harold Place, Robertson Terrace, Carlisle Parade, White Rock, Robertson Street, Trinity Street, and Claremont, this area to the West of the Priory-Stream  was outside the Hastings Borough boundary and was the result of the sea receding. This land was settled by squatters who named it "The America Ground" and declared themselves independent of Hastings. 

See The America Ground Declaration for more information.

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