I love the Bonfire celebration we have here in Lewes on November 5th.
Like everyone else, we celebrate the deliverance of King James I in 1605 from the dastardly Catholic plot to blow him and his Parliament sky high, known as the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes, who had the job of setting the explosives, is the most famous (and most reviled) of the plotters.
The celebrations in Lewes are given a special resonance by the town’s fiercely Protestant history; we also use the occasion to commemorate the deaths of seventeen Protestant martyrs, who were burned at the stake in the town between 1555 and 1558, during Mary Tudor’s attempt to re-establish Roman Catholocism as the religion of England. Brewers, farmers, servants – it’s very moving to think of these ordinary folk who died so horribly and so bravely for their faith.
Of course, the Marian persecutions took place all over England, but the Lewes executions have lived on in folk memory, perhaps because of the town’s rivalry with the town of Arundel over in West Sussex, a centre of Catholicism and Civil War Royalism (Boo!! Hiss!!) .
These days, of course, Lewes is as agnostic as the rest of Britain, but the Bonfire tradition continues and grows as an expression of local independance and pride. The town has seven Bonfire Societies ; each one organises a series of spectacular torchlight processions that include seventeen burning crosses, each bearing the name of a Lewes martyr. Society members drag effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets, along with burning tar barrels, into which they toss fireworks as they go. Each society produces a satirical ‘tableau’ that ridicules (sometimes fondly, sometimes not so fondly) a newsworthy figure; they are, of course, stuffed with fireworks, which are detonated at the end of the night. This year, two societies produced tableaux featuring Alex Salmond that somehow became national news; the fuss confirmed that the rest of Britain just doesn’t ‘get’ Lewes Bonfire.
The evening ends with seven huge firework displays; they are really, properly awesome.
But never mind all that; my favourite part of Bonfire is the fancy dress costumes we wear for the procession. Each Society has a band of smugglers wearing striped jumpers in its special colours. I’m in Waterloo Bonfire Society and our jumpers are red and white, but I’ve never worn one, because I just can’t resist the opportunity to make and wear a fancy dress costume; other societies have groups of Zulus, Native Americans, American Civil War soldiers (both sides), Vikings and many more. In Waterloo, we have a choice of Tartars; Victorians; Greeks and Romans; and Tudors. There are smaller groups too and when my children were younger, we were a family of highwaymen:
This year I achieved my ambition of joining Waterloo’s Tudors. For about 15 years, I had been storing seven metres of garishly coloured but Tudorish patterned upholstery velvet that I bought in a Laura Ashley sale, just in case I ever needed to make a Tudor costume. Only in Lewes would this be a sensible purchase!
This year it came out of the loft and I made it up using Simplicity 3782. I chose the collared version because it can get awfully chilly marching around and even chillier waiting for the fireworks to start, and it doesn’t do to have bare shoulders!
I bought a metre of figured curtain velvet for the skirt panel, collar and sleeve piping, and although it’s not a Tudor colour, I went for magenta – because in Lewes Bonfire, colour and sparkle win out over authenticity. A touch of gold lace, some sparkling buttons, 6 metres of gold braid and a couple of hundred rhinestones later, I had this:
My daughter Martha Jane made me a beautiful tiara. Find her jewellery on her Facebook page, Zephyr Jewellery.
Next year I plan to add a gold lace veil: I can’t wait!
It was such fun to make a costume; I didn’t feel I needed to pay as much attention to precision as I do with Dandy & Rose shirts, and I loved being able to glue on rhinestones! The night was brilliant! Apparently there were 40,000 people watching the procession and fireworks. My friend Sara visited from Sweden especially for the occasion and brought a fabulous costume she’d made; one of my favourite moments was being stopped on our way to the procession and asked to pose with a small girl who clearly thought we might be princesses!
Here we are buying an incongruous bag of chips between processions:
and posing with a Victorian soldier of our acquaintance at the Waterloo Bonfire site:
And with the rest of the Waterloo Tudor crew: