I recently moved to the East Sussex county town of Lewes. Lewes is a very pretty, largely quintessential English town surrounded by sheep-dotted rolling green hills and the woodlands of the South Downs. It is also so, well, civilised, certainly in the way defined by my undeniably townie tendencies, which I realise are not everyone’s definition of civilised. The high street is awash with lovely little independent shops and boutiques. It has its own brewery and there are delicious foodie outlets all over the place selling the abundant local produce. There is even a French lady selling French cheese at the market! Youpi! I know it’s not local but still, it’s a massive result. It is undeniably lefty and liberal in spirit. Lewisians live in sin, eat vegan carrot cake and I hardly dare walk around town in my faux-fur gilet just in case someone should assume the worst. Overall, as someone partial to pretty things, vegetarian food and left-leaning tendencies, I feel like these are the kind of people I can get along with. So far, so good.
Until, that is, the 5th of November arrived, a day usually associated with a nice fireworks display and some bonfires and if you’re lucky you can hold a sparkler but only if you keep it WELL away from your face. In Lewes, however, bonfire night has a life of its very own. Before we’d even moved here people kept saying ‘Oooh, you’ll be there for bonfire night then. You MUST be there for bonfire night’. The rate of these comments, accompanied by a knowing (and not un-sinister) smile, only increased as we edged towards the Big Day. On the day itself, my husband and I took the dog for a walk on some nearby land, a lovely big, peaceful field with beautiful views over the countryside. You can imagine our surprise, then, as we suddenly came face to face with this:
Yes, that is an effigy of Putin in a mankini astride a tank being assembled in a field in semi-rural East Sussex. Curiouser and curiouser…
Bonfire night arrived. Safely ensconced in a doctor friend’s consulting room (where else?) we watched the procession make its way through the centre of town. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the parade. There is the huge, thronging crowd and the force of the heat generated from hundreds of individuals walking through the town, all wielding huge flaming torches. In a fabulous fuck you to health and safety a large number of these individuals are small children in highly flammable fancy dress. There are the shockingly loud bangers set off in huge reels to the roaring delight of the crowd. Each Lewes bonfire society – of which there are seven, representing different areas of the town – parades in their own uniform. These range from stripey jumpers to Tudor costumes, to more outlandish tribal wear and, er, French revolutionary dress. After the procession each society goes off to its own area, lights a huge bonfire and sets off a frankly wildly impressive fireworks display (and I say this after having lived in Edinburgh for near on a decade). The whole night is an overwhelming display of fire and heat and very loud noise.
But most striking of all was this:
Seventeen burning crosses carried by hooded individuals making their way down the High Street. As they appeared I wondered how things had turned so unexpectedly sinister, so threatening. Had I been transported to 1920s Indiana? Suddenly all I wanted was to be holed up in the Flint Owl Bakery across the road eating their outrageously delicious cakes for comfort and reassurance that I hadn’t got Lewes all wrong. That was impossible though because the whole street had been boarded up and the crowd control police were actually quite scary if you tried to cross the road.
What was going on? My little historian brain cogs were turning. Time for an investigation.
Lewes celebrates the Gunpowder Plot like the rest of the UK and this accounts for the bonfires, fireworks and effigies of Guy Fawks, although the effigies themselves are more impressive than most: enormous, and lifelike enough for you to really start to feel for poor old Guy as he is wheeled head hanging, hands tied and kneeling to his fate. The crosses, however, come from Lewes’ own history as does the annual effigy of Pope Paul V who became head of the Catholic Church in 1605 and was pope at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. So why are these religious symbols being burned in a town apparently devoid of sectarianism?
In the period 1555-57, Catholic queen Mary Tudor ordered the systematic persecution of Protestant ‘heretics’, a measure known as the Marian Persecutions and which earned her the title of ‘Bloody Mary’. During this time hundreds of Protestants, from peasants to high-profile religious figures, were pursued and imprisoned. Often they were simply left to die in their cells. 288, however, were sentenced to death by Mary, who ordered them to be burned at the stake. 17 of these were martyred in Lewes. Contrary to appearances, the burning crosses are in fact an annual remembrance of those martyrs and the Pope Paul V effigy has become a symbol of protest against oppression and discrimination. What seems so threatening to religious belief is in fact intended to commemorate the victims of discriminatory persecution and to condemn prejudice. This also accounts for the effigies of Putin, a protest against his violation of human rights and his role in the Ukrainian crisis. One of the two effigies, distinctly questionable in taste and appropriateness, depicted him armed with a machine gun standing on the wreckage of flight MH17. I may not have liked the depiction but it seemed hard to not appreciate the spirit in which it was intended.
This year, as it has done in many years previously, Lewes’ bonfire night attracted media attention. The object of interest was this, an effigy of Alex Salmond, which sparked outrage in Scotland and was eventually pulled from the procession (only to be blown up with fireworks from the inside on the sly):
This is where I got confused. Of all the political figures to choose from, Salmond seems a most unlikely candidate for a Lewes roasting. Whether you agree with an independent Scotland or not, Salmond’s undeniable raison d’être is to champion the underdog, to campaign for the freedom of self-determination and the liberation from an (perceived, at least) oppressor. Setting a caricature of someone alight in front a raucous crowd is making a forceful statement and Salmond surely doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with Putin, Osama Bin Laden, Assad and other dictator-effigies. But hey, maybe I’m taking it all too seriously. Voicing my opinions to some local friends, I was told that in fact most high-profile public figures will have an effigy burned at some time or another and that it isn’t necessarily intended as a serious political statement. It’s just a bit of fun, theatre and pantomime. So, what to make of it all? It’s hard to tell if all this cross and effigy burning is saying something, or nothing at all.
For me, bonfire night has rather confusingly made Lewes appear to be both exactly and not at all as it seems. On the one hand, under the surface it is the town I described at the beginning of this piece: relaxed, encouraging of personal freedom and choice, inclusive and, to use that awful word, pleasant. And yet it also hides a loud, bullish side that takes symbolism to something of an extreme and ill-advisedly burns effigies of good people, defeating the point it is trying to make in the process.
One thing is clear to me though. What exists in Lewes is why I love history: history isn’t simple or straightforward. It is strongly subject to interpretation and it certainly isn’t constrained to the past. In our modern times, history manifests itself in weird, wonderful and not-so-wonderful ways. It is dynamic, evolving and constantly taking on new forms and new meanings. If Lewes’ burning protest against Catholic oppression was used to parade through Belfast or outside a Celtic-Rangers game, how different a night it would be in meaning, intention and atmosphere. As a historian, Lewes’ enthusiastic, bold and at times contradictory engagement with its own history, and the way it relates this history to the world around us, has been a delight to observe. Sometimes you find history in full, swinging action in the most unexpected places.
The BBC has a great gallery of Lewes effigies, past and present:
A brief biography of Mary Tudor: http://tudorhistory.org/mary/
© Ariane Galy and History Box, 2016.