Bonfire Night bigotry is alive and well in Lewes

The gunpowder plot, four hundred plus years ago, was a violent reaction against incredible intolerance; tonight in Lewes, we have moved on less than we thought.


The reasons why many Britons will be donning their winter coats tonight to stand before a blazing inferno in their back garden or at some local school or pub have dimmed over the years.

The visceral events of November 5th 1605 are generally sketchy in most people’s minds. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators, The Reformation, and Counter Reformation have left behind a Bonfire Night ritual that is now little more than an organising concept for selling copious amounts of fireworks.

Indeed, Fawkes and his collaborators have, if anything, won a better hearing over the centuries, with a greater understanding of the complexity of those feverish years.

But in the East Sussex town of Lewes, said to be home to the largest bonfire night in the country, there is no nuance about the events of 407 years ago. Here the religious ferment of the 16th and 17th centuries lives on, with an annual ‘celebration’ which includes burning an effigy of the Pope while a parade of burning crosses remembers 17 protestants killed during the Counter Reformation outside what is now Lewes Town Hall.

Now there is nothing wrong with positive remembrance of those who were persecuted for their faith; but the burning of an effigy of what is said to be Pope Paul V is a scandalous piece of stone-cold bigotry, especially when one of the bonfire societies in the town, Cliffe, parades under a “no popery” banner each year.

No doubt mindful of its obligations under the Equalities Act, Lewes District Council euphemistically describes the event as a “key part of community culture”.

Speaking ahead of last year’s event, Keith Austin, a former secretary of the Lewes Bonfire Council, said:

“I always tell people that Lewes is not anti-Catholic. It’s more pro-Protestant. In Bonfire there are a lot of Catholic people. It’s about history. There’s nothing sinister about it.”

Of course people in Mr Austin’s position will defend the Lewes bonfire as a largely harmless, albeit tasteless event. But what would the reaction be if that burning guy tonight was a depiction of a Muslim, Jew or gay figure?

Symbolism matters and our equalities legislation should protect minorities from discrimination and abuse. To have anti-Catholic bigotry paraded openly – whether it is dressed up as pseudo-history or not – would not be acceptable if it affected any other minority community.

Bonfire Night attracts 60,000 people to the narrow streets of Lewes, prompting organisers to warn the event is not suitable for young children.

Or Catholics it seems.

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20 Responses to “Bonfire Night bigotry is alive and well in Lewes”

  1. reedvin

    Don’t worry anti-catholic bias is an all year round activity in the uk. No other minority is so badly portrayed particularly by the BBC

  2. Duncan

    It’s good to know you’re so focused on the important things…

  3. Thornavis

    Oh fuck off will you, the Bonfire Societies of East Sussex and Lewes in particular have a long and fascinating history, they are no more anti catholic now than the Church of England, Have you heard of any sectarian conflict in Sussex lately ? No of course not there is none. Dragging in spurious references to Islam is pretty low too, grow up and stop wagging your moralising lefty finger at people who are just having a good time.

  4. Socialist27

    I agree it`s disgusting and pure anti catholic bigotry and should be banned!

    If this was aimed at any other group such as black people or gays or jews or muslims it would be banned.

    justt imagine what would happen if people went out putting up anti islam signs and burning an effigy of the prophet muhammad to mark July the 7th or September the 11th?
    Coming from a family where some members happen to be of catholic background I find this deeply offensive and disgusting.
    I have no problem with normal bonfire night celebrations and fireworks to mark Novemeber 5th but this out of order for 2012.

  5. Selohesra

    The Village of Brockham in Surrey also has huge bonfire tradition – torchlit procession, Guy Fawkes effigy (rather than Pope) – lots of fun, lots of money raised for charity & all welcome regardless of religion or colour. Burning effigy of traitor from history (or indeed the Pope whose cause he was supporting) is no more encouraging anti-Catholic bigotry than a Tom & Jerry cartoon encourages animal cruelty.
    Come on LFF there are much more serious examples of bigotry & prejudioce for you to write articles about

  6. BTP

    What tosh!
    Shame on you left footer for trying to incite hatred and paranoia with your absurd baloney.

  7. J Stewart

    How uneducated to take a spiteful position like this. Could do better.Regards, happily active Cliffe family who are catholic. but that has no relevance. Wally.

  8. uglyfatbloke

    Fortunately the Labour party would never have any truck with an anti-catholic organisation such as the Orange Order….oh wait a minute……

  9. Colour in a field of grey

    Can anyone smell a Liberal Fascist!!! Tow the line free thinker, tow the line..

  10. Lesebyst

    You’re mistaking criticism of the Pope (a vile figure) with an attack on Catholics.

  11. Patrick

    Being a Catholic is not the same as being black

    Religious belief is choice. Race is not.

    If someone wants to lampoon or criticise or attack a belief system then that is completely acceptable.

    We should be able to critique and attack all belief systems freely: and that includes Islam and yes, Catholicism. I am not a religious believer. If someone went out and burned an effigy of Charles Darwin it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. It is part of intellectual freedom. No one should be exempt from that.

  12. Thornavis

    Right so you’ve no problem with celebrating the brutal execution of a catholic who was probably set up by the state ? OK if you say so, however it might be an idea if you knew a bit about the origins of the Sussex bonfire societies, they commemorate the murder by Mary Tudor of Protestants in the sixteenth century, where’s the anti catholic bigotry in that ? Unless you’re suggesting it’s bad form to have knowledge of an act of persecution by the Catholic church and its state allies. Nowadays the whole thing is just a carnival, there’s pirates, Vikings and general dressing up, letting off fireworks and having a thoroughly good time, the burning of the Papal effigy is the one remaining piece of religious symbolism and it’s just that, symbolism to keep a historical tradition alive. Utterly harmless and fake outrage and demands for bans are the real bigotry here.

  13. Martin

    Reading the comments on this article is a disturbingly disheartening experience.

    “Come on LFF there are much more serious examples of bigotry & prejudioce for you to
    write articles about”

    Indeed, let’s just sweep the anti-Catholic bigotry under the carpet because it’s not fashionable
    and move onto a more fashionable form of bigotry against which we can protest,
    in just the way that “The Industrial Revolution and
    its consequences” says that leftists do!

    I shall forgo the opportunity to quote Martin Niemöller but hopefully some of those who browse
    this website will get my point.

    “Bonfire Societies of East Sussex and Lewes in particular have a long and fascinating history”

    And? Not giving the vote to ordinary working people had a long history, should it have been
    retained on that basis?

    “Religious belief is choice. Race is not.”

    Indeed, tell that the people of Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran. In any
    event, the law doesn’t make a distinction.

    “You’re mistaking criticism ofthe Pope (a vile figure) with an attack on Catholics.”

    OK, so you’re saying that if someone I burnt an effigy of the Chief Rabbi or a senior Imam that
    wouldn’t be OK either? Thought not.

    “[the] Sussex bonfire societies, they commemorate the murder by Mary Tudor of Protestants in the sixteenth century…. the burning of the Papal effigy is the one remaining piece
    of religious symbolism and it’s just that, symbolism to keep a historical tradition alive”

    So on the basis that it commemorates a historical event and is just about symbolism it should be
    The rest of the country can happily get along with a bonfire and some fireworks
    but to commemorate something that happened 400 years ago an effigy of the Pope
    should still be burned?
    Interesting, I never thought I’d see the day when a comment on a supposedly left leaning web site would provide the perfect rationale to throw the Northern Ireland peace process
    back thirty years – I bet the Orange Order will be delighted!

  14. Thornavis.

    What a collection of illogical arguments, you could have summed them all up quite simply by saying – I don’t like this it should be banned. Let me just deal with your attempts at dismissing my points. Comparing this to Northern Ireland is exactly where you’re going wrong, unlike there the Sussex history of sectarianism is dead, no one wants to persecute catholics here anymore but we would like to keep our local unique bonfire celebrations ( which are not fixed on November 5 ) which have survived and evolved. Now it’s just entertainment but there is a small part which still echoes the old conflicts, that’s actually a good thing, it helps to make people aware that such things once happened but perhaps you’d prefer this to be airbrushed out of history in case someone has their little feelings all hurt.
    To deal briefly with your irrelevant mention of Rabbis and Imams. What you seem to be suggesting is that it’s OK to celebrate the Protestant Martyrs as long as the cause of their martydom isn’t mentioned ? Just the kind of empty gesture I’d expect from a professional offence taker.

  15. Newsbot9

    Ah yes, the good old right to burn things. Including mockups of people.

    Where is this, precisely? Link me to the statute!

  16. Newsbot9

    Why yes, you are indeed a liberal fachist.

  17. summer

    I am a member of cbs and a catholic and i do not find this offensive all your ignorant comments maybe but not a tradition that lewes is proud of. and the societys who work very hard
    . the ‘no popery’ signs could be banned and was by every society except cliffe who refused. this is a celebrastion of a long time ago!!! lewes is not anti catholic, to say it was is ridiculous it has many catholic schools one of which i went to. it remembers the martyers that died for thier religion. dont come along if u cant appricaite it or understand it for what it is!! trust me ppl do not want outsiders to come in anyway!!!!

  18. Dan Camden

    The important thing here isn’t ‘sectarianism’, it’s that Kevin Meagher has someone to feel superior to. HE has proper principles, you see, not like those nasty, nasty people of Sussex, some of whom probably vote Conservative.

    This, then, is what the Left has been reduced to. Not about justice or equality any more, it’s about showing who’s morally superior to whom, about waving your principles in people’s faces and establishing that you’re better than they are. Look how morally superior I am! Praise me for my correctly aligned moral compass, and burn them on their own unprincipled bonfire! Is it any wonder that Russell Brand looks good by comparison?

  19. LurganRhebel

    It`s 2014, the “No Popery” sign needs to go. Simple. And don’t talk to me about tradition, the KKK have the same argument along with the Orange Order. Regardless of the intention of the sign to mark a time in history it has no place in todays society. The rest of the parade is fine.

  20. Charles

    How clever of you to elide the legal, if occasionally unpleasant, Orange Order with the KKK which is an actively racist organisation

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