Traditions for Burning?
“REMEMBER, remember, the fifth of November!” What is the reason for England’s popular annual cry?
It all goes back to the year 1605 when Roman Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up Protestant King James I of England—the king of Bible-translation fame—along with all his ministers of state. The gunpowder was discovered under the Houses of Parliament and most of the conspirators were put to death, including Guy Fawkes, the first to be arrested. Ever since, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, known as Guy Fawkes’ Night, has been remembered by means of bonfires and firework displays up and down the country.
The children love it! But then, so do the parents who spend around £20 million each year on 100 million fireworks, simply to perpetuate this national custom.
A common sight is the burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes, a strawstuffed figure usually perched prominently on top of the bonfire pile. However, in Lewes, a small market town in southern England, effigies of prominent politicians and local dignitaries also go up in flames, along with those of pop stars and other well-known figures. Each of the town’s five main Bonfire Societies vies with the others to put on the most impressive show. But the fiercely Protestant Cliffe Bonfire Society stands apart. Carrying its “No Popery” banner, it still insists on burning an effigy of Pope Paul V, the contemporary of Guy Fawkes, believed by many to have been implicated in the Gunpowder Plot.
Despite the pleadings of the local town council, the organizers remain adamant that this tradition shall not be lost. They point to the Martyrs’ Monument illuminated on a nearby hilltop. It commemorates Lewes’ 17 Protestants who were burned to death for their faith outside the old Star Inn during the reign of the Roman Catholic queen Mary Tudor.
The chairman of the Lewes and District Council of Churches, a Church of England clergyman, has roundly denounced the practice as “out of date, and offensive to living Christians.” Local Roman Catholic priests are likewise pressing more volubly as the years go by for the demise of “these poisonous anti-Catholic feelings” as they are “a public insult to the Catholic religion,” but to no avail.
“Burn him! Burn him!” The shouting from the pressing crowd rises to a crescendo as the pope’s effigy is prepared for its fate. Stuffed with fireworks, it takes time to explode in a truly spectacular display, pyrotechnics at its best.
As midnight approaches, all effigies having been burned, along with 6,000 torches, and fireworks exhausted, the merrymaking draws to an end. The 12 bands of colourful carnival that threaded its way through the ancient town’s narrow streets during the earlier part of the evening disperse, together with 50,000 revellers from far and wide. The thousands of fancy-dress costumes are carefully stored away and the organizers retire, secretly to plan for an even more spectacular event next year.
For the casual visitor it is all so bewildering, so unexpected. That staid Englishmen should be capable of such religious fervour is an extraordinary fact in itself. But Rome’s intolerance, centuries ago, kindled what many passionate advocates of ecumenism today consider to be a backlash of bigotry, having no place in this 20th century. Traditions die hard—especially in England!—By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles.