Best thing about Bonfire Night, toffee apples.

Rye – ‘The Fifth’

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

The Gunpowder Treason and Plot

There is no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

A stick ands a stake, for George’s sake,

One for Peter, two for Paul,

If you don’t give us one, We’ll steal ‘em all.

So oller boys, oller boys, make the bells ring

Blow up the Sluice and

God Save the King!

On the second Saturday after November 5 the “Bonfire Boys” stage their annual torch-lit parade through the streets of Rye. This is followed by a “gurt ‘normous bonfire” where the chosen “effigy” of the year is ceremoniously blown-up, and a spectacular firework display. 

This event typically attracts over 10,000 visitors to the town, and results in the town’s roads, and the main roads to London, Hastings and Ashford, being clogged up and closed to traffic from the early evening onwards.

I was not able to get along there myself this year, but here are some photos taken by Dan Skinner in 2006 which should give you some idea of the event.

According to the Rye and District Bonfire Society bonfire started as a direct result of the activities of a group of conspirators who sought to overthrow the Protestant King James 1st and establish a Catholic monarchy on the English throne. These conspirators were led by Catsby and were almost successful in their attempt to blow up King and Parliament on November 5th 1605 with 36 barrels of gunpowder stored in the cellar of the House of Commons. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was caught in the act and King and Parliament were saved.
King James decreed that his lucky escape should be celebrated in perpetuity. The commonest form of celebration in those days was to light bonfires and set off fireworks. It happened for virtually any celebration and this was just one of many fire festivals held during Stuart times.

It is interesting, however, to read what the famous author of children’s books, Malcolm Saville, had to say on the celebrations in his book Rye Royal. One of the teenage protaganists, Penny Warrender says “There’s nothing like the Rye Fawkes Celebrations in all England. There’s a procession and torches and bands and tableaux and fancy dress and a fantastic fireworks display on the Salts down there by the river, and then a bonfire as high as a house. And there’s the boat, Jon. That old hulk at the bottom of the fire. Of course they have to burn it there because it’s too big to be hoisted up. What a fire that’s going to be…I’ll always love Rye, Jon. Not just because it’s old but because things like this make us remember that Ryers have been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years right here where we’re standing…No! That’s stupid because the sea came up the walls and where we’re standing now would have been covered by the waves once.”

However, the fictional bookshop owner, Mr Royal, suggests that the ceremony might have more pagan roots: “Nothing to do with poor Guy Fawkes, Jonathan. I’m sure of that. Nobody in Rye would have cared about the Gunpowder Plot and at that time the sea was right up to the walls. Either of you ever read Frazer’s Golden Bough? I’m not surprised, but if you’re interested in magic and old customs you should have a shot at it one day. Anyway, Frazer tells us that way. Way back when our distant ancestors were fire-worshippers it was customary to celebrate such rites three times a year, Spring, Midsummer and the beginning of November. So there you are. We’re all going pagan tonight and worshipping fire!”

I’ll write more about Malcom Saville and his connections to the area in a future blog.

Doctor Who has had a few adventures on bonfire night – in this halloween story and in Gareth Robert’s The Plotters.