Having just passed Hallowe’en and its various misconceptions – of which I will write another time – we are fast approaching Bonfire Night. Most folks across the UK will be thinking of the old rhyme. Remember, remember, the fifth of November. Some will even know the full version as repeated in the film V for Vendetta.
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!
There are variations on this from the past but their sentiments are all largely the same. Nice reading for what is usually viewed as a ‘children’s party’day.
As a native-born Sussex maid, bonfire night has a different slant. The county has a long tradition of communal bonfires, and at one time bonfire committees existed in every major town (and many villages) across Sussex (East and West). A few even crossed the border into Surrey. One such being Brockham, just south of Dorking, which draws huge crowds every year with its torchlight processions. (I have always seen a similarity of the Brockham rites to Vikings bale-fires and something for later research!)
Many have fallen by the wayside now. Some during the late 1970s to 90s where many traditions died due to lack of support, when people were far too cool to go yokel, and others falling foul of that old chestnut Health and Safety – or to be more precise, perhaps, falling to their knees under the massive dual burdens of insurance and policing costs, if the rumours are even half true!
The most famous bonfire night that remains is that of Lewes which I believe retains not one but six bonfire committees, each with its own routes and fires. The parades are raucous affairs with the infamous dragging or carrying of flaming tar barrels being seen as integral, though that part of the tradition did not begin until the mid 1800s. There have been many attempts by those in authority to ban the bonfires but to no avail. In 1906 for example the Lewes police sent 130 officers to quell the parades, arresting the leading Tar Boys who were later acquitted of all charges. Only the world war years have seen those annual fires dimmed.
But why Sussex? Possibly because of the forty-one Sussex Martyrs, who were burned at the stake in the reign of Queen Mary for renouncing the return of a Catholic Queen; seventeen of whom were executed before Star Inn, where Lewes Town Hall now stands.
And why commemorate all of this with the gruesome burning in effigy? This is more complex and doubtless bound up with another tradition – that of St Crispin’s Day – when bonfires were lit and drunken rowdiness abounded. Legend has it that St Crispin celebrations were larger in Sussex because several large land owners had fought at Agincourt, and certainly records show that tar barrels were often a part of those events.
More importantly was the ancient tradition, which likely pre-dates Agincourt, of making and hanging an effigy of any specific person (or persons) who had been troublesome to the community in the previous twelve months or had been known to habitually commit offences such as domestic violence. The effigies would be hung in a prominent space such as a signpost or pub signage for the whole community to see and being named as a ‘Crispin’ was a huge social disgrace; an early form of naming and shaming. The Crispin effigies would be cut down and burned in the November 5th bonfires.
It is not a huge stretch to see these ancient forms of justice to be linked with the fire celebrations of the Celtic New Year, which took place midway between autumn and winter solstices. As the Lewes bonfires often burn not ‘Guys’ but effigies of people who have hit new headlines for nefarious deeds over the previous twelve months it is plain that Crispins are far from being a thing of the past.
It would seem too much of a coincidence for all of these things to occur at the same time of year. Guy Fawkes Day may have dominated our modern take but the roots would appear to be as old as society itself.
Food for thought.