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The History of Sussex Bonfire

If you have lived in Sussex most of your life, you will undoubtedly have heard about our Bonfire season. If you are relatively new to the area, then perhaps not as much… What do you think of when you think of Bonfire? Guy Fawkes and the attempted blowing up of Parliament? OK, yes, that is right. However, there is more behind the Sussex Bonfire Societies and why we hold our annual torchlit processions.

Henry VIII and the English Reformation…
In early 16th Century England, a young Henry VIII desired to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry (the future doomed) Anne Boleyn. The Roman Catholic Church as it stood would not allow this to take place, and between 1532-1534 the English Reformation took place. Born out of political musings rather than religious matters, the most notable moment was when Henry VIII (at the direction of one of his trusted advisors) declared himself ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’, thereby ‘replacing’ the Pope and subsequently governing the laws of the church across the country. The result? Henry VIII was able to divorce Catherine of Aragon – something never seen before.
Mary Tudor and the Protestant Martyrs…
Fast forward to 1553 when Henry VIII’s first daughter (from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon) took to the throne. A staunch Catholic, Mary Tudor was to use her time on the throne (1553 to her death in 1558) to reverse the English Reformation her father had put in place.
Mary wanted Catholicism restored across England and thoroughly rejected the Protestantism brought in by her father. By the end of 1553, Mary had leading Protestant clergymen imprisoned and worked to return the English Church back to the jurisdiction of Rome and the Pope. In 1554 Heresy Laws were also reinstated and Mary’s actions following this led to the name most know her by today – Bloody Mary!
Many Protestants refused to follow the rulings and beliefs of the Catholic Church and during her reign, Mary had hundreds of Protestants burnt alive at the stake.
The most notable number in Sussex occurred in Lewes, with 17 Protestant Martyrs killed under Bloody Mary. Here in Rotherfield we have three such Martyrs: Alexander Hosman, Anne Ashdown (or Aston) and John Ashdown, who were accused of heresy and burnt at the stake in 1557.
During Bonfire celebrations, you may notice at different villages / towns, crosses illuminated with fire within their procession. These crosses commemorate those Martyrs who died back in the 16th Century. At the finale of the Rotherfield & Mark Cross procession we have three burning crosses appear – these represent our Protestant Martyrs – individuals who stood for their beliefs, freedom and independence – to the very end…
Guy Fawkes…
We all know about Guido Fawkes and his group of Catholic co-conspirators who, unsuccessfully, attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605. On 21st January 1606, an Act of Parliament was passed whereby the 5th of November would be celebrated each year as a day of ‘Thanksgiving’. The 5th November has remained a marked day in our calendars ever since and one we all associate with bonfires, burning the guy and celebrating with fireworks!
Sussex Bonfire Societies…
Bonfire gangs developed, notably in the first instance in Lewes, and over time these annual celebrations became quite riotous – it was a day when people could ‘legally’ have a form of unrest, where they could protest against authority and social injustice! In the early 1800s these groups became known as the Bonfire Boyes (and in due course the Bonfire Boyes and Belles!) and despite attempts to ban these yearly Bonfire gatherings they actually continued – spreading outside of Lewes to neighbouring Sussex villages and towns in an uprising against the ‘establishment’. The notable Bonfire phrase ‘We Won’t Be Druv’ (meaning We Won’t Be Driven) stems from this – the refusal to bow to pressure for Bonfire to be ‘driven out’ and standing up for individual freedom. The motto still stands within Bonfire today

Around the 1830s, the first instances of rolling flaming tar barrels commenced within the Lewes celebrations – an act that still continues to this day within the town on Bonfire night.
What are the costumes all about?
All Sussex Bonfire Societies are renowned for their costumes! But why do we dress up? Well, in the very early days of Bonfire events in the 19th century, where the evening’s revelry could get quite easily out of hand, the Bonfire Boyes wanted a means to disguise themselves. If they dressed up in similar clothing then it would be harder to identify people who could then be arrested by the authorities. The men would smudge their faces with black and wear a Smuggler’s Guernsey Jumper. Being near to ports, these striped sailors’ jumpers were easy to obtain, and in time the different gangs had different coloured stripes to identify their groups. But it made it easier for no one individual to be caught because so many looked the same!
Subsequently, other Societies took on this same look, creating their own ‘Society Stripes’ and if you know Rotherfield & Mark Cross, our stripes are the brightest of them all! Not all Bonfire Societies have ‘stripes’, however, pretty much all Societies have what are termed ‘Pioneers’.
Pioneers are those within a Society wearing more extravagant costumes/fancy dress. Some Societies have their Pioneer theme and simply stick with that, whilst others will frequently change what their costumes will be.
Here at Rotherfield & Mark Cross, we have had a fantastic range of Pioneers over the years – Spanish Flamenco Dancers, Egyptians, Spacemen… Currently our Pioneer outfit is the Jester. It fits our event theme of Bonfire-Carnival (a bit more family friendly) and complements our bright Society Stripes that we are really known for!
So, what about the Rotherfield & Mark Cross Bonfire Society?
There is a record of a very simple Rotherfield Bonfire affair back in 1906; it consisted of some village men walking with torches from Johnson’s pond (when there was a pond there!) to Court Meadow. They enjoyed a bonfire with a few fireworks.
The first real report of a village Bonfire event takes us back to 1909 and the event was hailed a surprising success. The Bonfire Boyes torchlit procession, fireworks and bonfire yielded a surprising financial gain - £5 was raised within the village, with the proceeds getting split between Tunbridge Wells Hospital and the local Nursing Association. This event contained the first banner for the Society to be paraded, whilst villagers wore costumes that were then judged at a fancy dress competition. A parade around the village took place, concluding with a mass singsong of the National Anthem. You could say at this point R&MCBS was truly born!
As with most Societies, R&MCBS stopped briefly due to the two World Wars. After the end of the Second World War, the Society unfortunately remained dormant until 1969, when villagers urgently needed repairs at the village halls, both in Rotherfield and Mark Cross. The annual Bonfire Carnival Procession was reborn - led and inspired by Mr Nelson Cox and Mr Jesse Hudson. The money collected during that procession was split between the two halls for their repairs. From there the Procession continued and grew successfully for many years.
In 1973, a surprising turn of events took place, when what was believed to be the original Bonfire banner was found in the attic of the old Pharmacy in Rotherfield. The attic was being cleared out and amongst odds and ends was discovered an old roll-blind: grey and green canvas bearing the words ‘Rotherfield Bonfire Society’ in gold and silver. This is believed to date back to 1909! The banner had a very brief stay on the walls inside the Memorial Institute, but sadly was considered to be too delicate to have on display. Unfortunately, in 2001 the Society disbanded for 2 years, due to lack of local support and finance. Luckily for us all, in 2003 it was brought back to life by Les and Gill Pike, who, with a team of dedicated volunteers, worked to make the Bonfire Carnival big again and an event to excite the local community - bringing enjoyment to all ages. Les became Chairman in 2004 and led the Society all the way through to 2016. Over those years the Procession grew again tremendously; with up to 29 visiting Societies attending our yearly event, amazing firework displays, and thousands of pounds raised from the street collection - which has been split across different local charities and organisations each year. Janet Kipping took over as Chair in 2017 and ran a successful 3 years of the Society, before Ed Paterson became Chair in 2020. Gill Pike stepped down from the Committee in 2017 – after providing 16 years of amazing hard work, dedication and support.
Aside from the work of the different Committees over the years, we have a fantastic troop of dedicated walkers, who attend as many Bonfire Processions each season across Sussex and Kent – representing our fantastic local community and putting in many miles of legwork.
Alongside all the other Societies, we have helped raise thousands of pounds that have helped a great array of local organisations. In 2019, Sussex Bonfire raised over £65,000 collectively for good causes. Now if that isn’t a reason to keep supporting your local Society, we don’t know what is!
Rotherfield & Mark Cross Bonfire Society has been going for 114 years now, or, if you look at it another way, for 463 years since the deaths of Alexander Hosman, Anne Ashdown (or Aston), and John Ashdown. Either way, it proves how Bonfire has stood the test of time – albeit with a couple of breaks!
2020 brought disruption across all Societies, with the outbreak of Covid-19. Fundraising and events as we knew it came to a halt, but work didn't stop for the Society. Planning is always taking place behind the scenes and work is constantly being done to keep the profile of the Society in the public eye and keep the tradition going. It costs over £7,000 to put on our yearly event, so it is important we keep fundraising as much as possible, in order to maintain this old Sussex tradition that so many have fought for over the years. It is also vitally important to maintain the support of the local community and appreciate those who volunteer themselves to join and help the Society to keep going. Hours of individuals' time are given freely and without that, we would not be where we are today.
R&MCBS Motto: ‘For Village & Society’.

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