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Cliffe Bonfire Society

The Cliffe Bonfire Society insists that it is not anti-catholic; it is the only the aggression of Pope Paul V that they do not forget.
Effigy of Pope Paul V,
waiting in the grounds of Jireh
Chapel (Free Presbyterian

Residual Religious Nationalism

As a regular observer of the Cliffe's proceedings I frequently hear the startled remarks of first time visitors to the event. They look on incredulously: can this be happening today, now? In the highly secularized society of south east England the country's religious past is easily forgotten; English / British patriotism for many centuries had a religious character. When the historian, Sir Lewis Namier, recommended that whenever you see the term 'English Reformation' you should translate it as 'English nationalism' he was right, but even so it was a religiously-legitimated nationalism, and one that took a long time to become secularized.

The central motif of this English nationalism is not that of national liberation but of national deliverance from the Papacy and its Catholic continental allies. The longest serving Tory prime minister since the Great Reform Act of 1832 was not Margaret Thatcher, but the Marquis of Salisbury, who could pronounce without a qualm in 1892 that 'England is the Protestant nation of the world'. The Cliffe, then, is a survival of the religious nationalism of English society. But why does it survive, and so vigorously?

Lewes is an old urban centre which through the bloody experience of its 17 Marian martyrs acquired its own distinctive niche in this traditional national history. The religious complexion of English nationalism, which progressive liberals and radicals attempted to exorcise in the nineteenth century in order to cement the Union with Catholic Ireland, was staunchly maintained by the Tory Party and connived at by mainstream liberalism. So while the Protestant middle classes of Lewes often looked on disapprovingly at the excesses of the behaviour of the proletarian 'Bonfire Boys', events both in Ireland (such as Daniel O'Connell's Repeal campaign) and England (such as the 'Papal Aggression' of 1851 when the Catholic Hierarchy resumed territorial titles) could be presented as justifying the 'No Popery' intransigence of the Bonfire Boys, and revitalised their activities.

click thumbnails to see a larger version
Trad Jazz Band
Bonfire Boys Dressed In The Traditional 'Guernsey' Costume
Scottish Pipe Band
Jazz Band
Bonfire Boys
Pipe Band

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