Bonfire is the celebration of the failure of the Catholic plot, The Gunpowder Plot, to blow up King James I and parliament so that Catholicism would be the main religion in England.
Before 1534 there was just one Christian religion, but in 1534 King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. However, divorce was not allowed unless the Pope, (head of the Catholic Church) gave permission. As Henry VIII did not get permission he set up his own church called The Church of England, made himself head of it. He made everyone swear to follow his church; the people who did were called Protestants . This is called The Reformation it was made law by the Act of Supremacy in 1534. Henry VIII then divorced Catherine and married Anne. His daughter Queen Elizabeth I carried on the Church of England. Catholics had to practice their religion in secret. James I was the next king and Catholics believed he would be kinder, especially because he had a Catholic mother. However, he was protestant and turned out to be even worse and expected all Catholics to swear an oath going against the Pope leader of their church. Robert Catesby led a group of Catholics to plot against James I. Their plan was to blow up King James I and his parliament at the state opening. They would then make his nine-year old niece queen, making sure she followed their advice. They dug a tunnel to put 36 barrels of gunpowder under The House of Lords; this would have been enough to blow it to rubble, kill the king and may important leaders. There were 14 plotters: Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Robert Wintour, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher Wright, John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Bates, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen and John Grant. Guy Fawkes was in charge of the explosives as he had 10 years military service. He was left guarding the gunpowder underneath The House of Lords. An anonymous letter was sent to Lord Mounteagle warning him of the plot, this letter was sent to the Earl of Salisbury, then the Earl of Worcester and finally to the king who ordered searches. As Guy Fawkes was was disguised he escaped the first search; but a latter search found him with a lantern slow matches and touchwood. The gunpowder was found hidden. He was taken to the king on November 5th and then to the Tower of London. King James I ordered him to be tortured and on November 7th he confessed and named the other plotters. The conspirators were tried and found guilty. They were killed and their bodies put on display as a warning. Thomas Catesby and Thomas Percy had been shot whilst trying to escape, but their bodies were dug up and put on display as well.
In 1606 James I passed the Observance of 5th November Act or Thanksgiving Act. This law said that the failure of the plot should be celebrated. People celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, bell ringing church services and sermons. It remained a law to celebrate the failure of the plot until March 1859.
The burning crosses are symbols that English people have religious freedom. In England people may believe in any religion or none without being persecuted. !7 Protestants were killed in Lewes between 1555 and 1557; the burning crosses began as a way of remembering them. Now they are carried to remember anyone who has died because of their religion and to celebrate England's religious freedom.
The effigies are a representation of something that should be remembered or talked about. Guy Fawkes was not burnt but effigies of him are still placed on bonfires. Sometimes effigies of the Pope are burnt instead or as well, reminding people that is was a Catholic plot that failed. In the past children would make effigies of Guy Fawkes known as guys and push him about collecting money for fireworks asking 'Penny for the guy please.' There was often competition between local groups of children to see who could make the best or biggest guy. Hastings Borough Bonfire Society holds a Guy Competition with the winners being put in pride of place on the bonfire. Bonfire Societies often make huge effigies of something that is in the news locally or nationally. Bonfire Societies do not have an opinion when they burn the effigy or blow it up with fireworks. The idea is to make people think about and discuss that topic.
Bonfire celebrations were popular all over England, but in Sussex they became so celebrated that Bonfire Societies were formed to organise them. As there are so many different societies each society decided to hold its celebration on a different date. Societies invite each other to attend their event. Hastings Bonfire is always held at the end of Hastings Week, where many events are organised around the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings 14th October 1066.
In the past people got excited at Bonfires and sometimes there were disturbances. So the Magistrates would read the Riot Act. People creating a disturbance could get sent to prison or transported. So everyone began to dress in a similar way to disguise themselves. They wore 'Stripes', also called 'Smugglers' jumpers and blacked their faces. This made it very hard to arrest the trouble makers because everyone looked the same. Today people still wear the costume but they keep the law so bonfire is a fun and safe event. Today's costumes are also designed to keep people safe; materials are usually cotton, leather and wool because synthetic materials are often flammable. Members usually wear a hat or cotton scarf to protect their head and strong leather boots to keep their feet safe from sparks and burning embers. Each Bonfire Society has its own costume. You can find out more by looking at their websites. Sussex Bonfire Societies
The procession is a walk carrying burning torches to light the bonfire. Bonfire society members process in ranks of three. This is so marshals can walk up and down the lines making sure everything is okay. The torches are made of wood with hessian wrapped around and dipped into a mixture of pitch and oil.
Here is a short script about the Gun Powder Plot and Sussex Bonfire suitable for KS1 and KS2. Gun Powder Plot Assembly Script
Click on each image for a large PDF version.
• Art - become proficient in craft and design techniques (artistic design and finish)
• D&T - skills to design and make high-quality products (the underlying structure)
• History - know and understand the history of Britain, how people’s lives have shaped this nation and understand the connections between local and national history. • British Values – respect democracy and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith (using The Gunpowder plot for discussion) •
•Community cohesion: to recognise and contribute to the local community.