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