East Sussex, UK - Come the 5th November every year, me and my family march with the Cliffe Bonfire Society. This is a side effect of my wife being a fifth generation Lewesian and a pragmatic sense of You wont beat Them, so you might as well join Them.
The whole thing is often portrayed as a big anti-Catholic shindig. The No Popery banners and exploding Pope effigies don't help. Having grown up in Scotland with a certain amount of that The Future's Bright, The Future's Orange, this used to make me feel uncomfortable, but nowadays I'm OK. For a start I haven't found anyone who can definitely confirm for sure whether it's Pope Paul IV that's being burned in effigy, or Pope Paul V. (Number five was in charge when Guy Fawkes was caught and Number four was boss when the 17 Lewes Martyrs were burned.) And from what I can see, what motivates people to march isn't so much religious bigotry, more a sense of whimsical Englishness, tradition, socialising and drink.
Copying and Pasting ever so slightly, here's a quick resume of some of the grim details of the Marian Persecution… Basically, Derek Carver was burned alive in a barrel for the crime of reading a Bible in English.
On 22 July 1555, Derek 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.
After four more burnings, the Bishop of London was still not convinced that 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.
These, and the other seven victims of the Auto de Fe are commemorated by the Five bonfire societies carrying 17 barrels of burning tar and 17 flaming crosses.
Below is the 'Pope' part of the song we all sing:
A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o'cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say old Pope is dead
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Haven't heard it on X Factor yet.
Of course after Mary Tudor was executed the boot was on the other foot and then it was Protestants killing Catholics. No-one commemorates them. This might be an idea for one of the other societies, maybe Southover, whose younger members over-compensate for having liberal, Guardian reading parents by throwing lots of bangers around.
And if you want a taste of what it's like marching in a Bonfire Society, see the You Tube link below.
Antique Church Furnishings
YouTube: Marching with the Cliffe, Nov 5th 2011, Lewes
Story Type: Columnist