‘No pope here’ in Sussex?

Emma Tucker has been attending the local November the Fifth celebrations in Lewes since she was three. Awkward, politically incorrect, difficult to explain, she still sees the whole celebration of local anti establishment sentiment:

On the night itself the societies march through the steep streets of Lewes carrying paraffin-soaked torches and crosses and parading effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope of 1605, and other “enemies of the bonfire”. The marchers wear fabulous costumes – Vikings, Zulus (faces blacked up), Elizabethans and Red Indians and are trailed by noisy marching bands. Bonfire Boys run with burning tar barrels to Cliffe Bridge where they toss them, flaming, into the River Ouse. Later the societies reconvene at sites around the town to light mountainous bonfires. Members dressed as bishops conduct bonfire prayers and repeatedly ask the crowd: “What’ll we do with him?”. The answer, of course, is “Burn him!” at which point the popes and Guy Fawkes go up in flames and the firework displays begin.

In spite of what it sounds like, the truth is that Lewes is no more anti-Catholic than any other town in England – that is, not anti-Catholic at all. Plenty of Catholics take part in the celebrations and my chosen vantage point for watching the processions has always been from outside Lewes’s Catholic church. I have never witnessed anything ugly and always take my own, gunpowder-hardy children to watch from the same place.

  • Pete Baker

    In fairness, Mick, I’d suggest that the Gunpowder Plot Society should be linked

  • me

    can we have a parade like this. and can we stand out side the rc church and slag them off. please please please please please please please please please please please please please

  • Christopher Stalford

    There was an excellent article in The House Magazine by the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes about the bonfire celebration in the town. They sound like a real local celebration.

    He talked about the “Enemies of Bonfire” – different effigies that get burnt atop the bonfire – one year it was the PM, another it was Osama Bin Laden and in 1992 it was the local MP himself, who at the time was the leader of the local council – if he, who has been burnt in effigy on top of the bonfire can defend and support the celebrations, I fail to see why anyone else couldn’t.

  • Millie

    Burning effigies of people tried for treason 400 years ago is one thing, but burning effigies of people who are still with us does seem to be in extremely bad taste. England’s dotted with harmless Royston Vasey-type towns and villages with their own local customs and festivals and Lewes is but one of many. Guy Fawkes night is merely an excuse to burn unwanted rubbish lying about the house and to let fireworks off for the kids (which incidentally can be bought in virtually any newsagents, fireworks that is not kids). Or if you’re too lazy to d-i-y then you might even go to a fireworks display, either the main one the council has organised or the one Bob’s putting on down the street. There’s nothing remotely political about Guy Fawkes night, no sing-songs about killing Catholics or anything historical, if you’re lucky you may get the odd BBQ or disco banging out Come On Eileen, but then it’s too bloody cold to do any of that. In fact you wouldn’t even call it cultural, it is what it is: a laugh. If you were to stop someone at random anywhere in England and ask them to write you a one page essay on the origins of Guy Fawkes night you’d be lucky to get even a 1/4 of the page filled up. In other words nobody gives a toss.


    I’m from England and since respect for ones culture and identity is the done thing in NI (no matter how bizarre or offensive) – parity of esteem I believe it’s called – I was thinking of celebrating my British heritage tonight by having a bonfire. And since you’re OK with it would you mind if I burnt any effigy of you on top of it? Just for the craic you understand no hard feelings, in fact why don’t you and the wife come over we’ll have a right old knees up! Are you local? I’m on the Ormeau Rd just off Sunnyside St if you fancy it 😉

  • Christopher Stalford


    Fire away big girl, no skin off my nose!

  • 9countyprovence

    Well it’s all harmless isn’t it. Just like ‘Darkie day’ in Padstow. Even coloureds are welcome!


  • PaddyReilly

    Well as it happens, I was standing outside the Catholic Church (which is opposite the Anglican Church) in Lewes High Street on the night of November 5th and I saw nothing to please Orangemen or offend the touchiest of Papists.

    200 years ago, it is true, the highlight of these celebrations was a massive bonfire surmounted by a Pope made of cloth, stuffed with supernumary cats, whose mewling and yowling as the flames reached them only increased the enjoyment of the spectators.

    Since that time, there has been a seachange in the English character. The RSPCA has come into being, political correctness has taken hold. The blacking on the face of some of the some of the participants referred to was a protection against fire from the torches they were carrying: certainly not an attempt to mimic other races. The No Popery banners were discarded, possibly in the last century. The largest effigy was of Lord Nelson, presumably not intended for incineration.

    Besides that, it is a widely held opinion even among the non-Catholic population of England that St Guido Fawkes was the only man ever to enter Parliament with honest intentions.

    The procession seemed dominated by what might be called sumptuary exhibitionists. Everyone in East Sussex with a fancy dress costume seemed to have processed along that road: there were vast numbers of women dressed in Tudor clothes, along with occasional Henry VIII. This puzzled me at first, but it turns out that Anne of Cleves had a house in Lewes.

    But in the main, the English have moved on. This was a celebration of English popular culture, which is entirely dominated by television and film. There were costumes from Star Wars, Ming the Magnificent leading the parade, Cowboys and Indians galore, creatures probably from Doctor Who. Pagan elements, with a touch of Wicker Man about them, also took part. Anyone, in fact, who wanted to be in the procession, could be.

    The crowd was inclusive, predominantly white, it is true, but showing no hostility to the occasional blacks, with white girlfriends, in their midst. Quite a lot of Chinese were present, and the Gurkhas band played in the procession.

    It was an occasion devoted to fun and fireworks, lacking any political undertones. How much this contrasts with the parades of the benighted province under discussion, I cannot emphasise enough.

    My Eastern European friend made I point which I found interesting. There are parades like this all over Europe at this time of year. When the nights get long and the cold sets in, it is a primitive instinct to light bonfires and set off explosions in order to defy the darkness.