Monday, 22 June 2015

The Burning Question of the Day

Lewes (that's pronounced as two syllables, Loo-ess, with the emphasis on the first) is the county town of East Sussex, about 7 or 8 miles from Brighton.  I have long thought it a delightful little town with an interesting history and an amazing mix of architectural styles.  It is built on a hill overlooking the River Ouse, an important waterway and valley through the Downs, important enough for the Normans to build a castle.  A substantial section of keep remains, giving views of Lewes and surrounding countryside.  The castle's former tilting yard is the site of, perhaps, the only remaining bowling green of the type Sir Francis Drake would have played on. Political rebel Tom Paine is reputed to have had his inspiration for "The Rights of Man" after playing here.

The Battle of Lewes was fought in May 1264 in what is known as the Second Barons War between King Henry III and Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester.  As a result of his defeat, the King was forced to surrender many of his powers.  The battle, perhaps, underscored the power of Magna Carta and could be said to have resulted in "the first tentative steps towards representative democracy".

The worst avalanche ever recorded in Britain occurred in Lewes in 1836.  A large build-up of snow on the nearby cliff slipped down onto a row of cottages called Boulters Row (now part of South Street). About fifteen people were buried, and eight of these died. A pub in South Street is named The Snowdrop in memory of the event.

But Lewes is perhaps best known for the annual Bonfire Night celebrations.  There are a dozen or so bonfire societies in the town and on 5th November every year, each processes through the town to its individual bonfire site.  Although this is a commemoration of the gunpowder plot of 1605, it also commemorates the 17 protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake in Lewes during the Marian Persecutions of 1555 to 1557.

Towards the end of October 1554, a Bible-reading was taking place in the home of one Dirick Carver, a brewer from Brighthelmstone (now Brighton) with John Launder, Thomas Iveson and William Veisey. Under the command of Sir Edward Gage, the High Sheriff of Sussex, the four men were arrested at prayer. It was a short matter of time before they were brought before the court of Bonner, the Bishop of London in Newgate, London. They were kept there until 8 June 1855. After forced confessions were signed, their fate was sealed.

On 22 July 1555, Dirick Carver, was taken by his Catholic persecutors, to Lewes town centre to be burned outside of the Old Star Inn, where the Town Hall currently stands. His Bible was taken from him and thrown into a barrel on the pyre. The crowd called to him, pleading God to strengthen his resolve and his faith. He knelt down and prayed, but was then forced to climb into the barrel too.

Carver took his Bible and threw it into the surrounding crowd. His final words were: “Lord have mercy upon me, for unto thee I commend my spirit and my soul doth rejoice in thee!” His Bible was preserved and is on display in Lewes Museum today. Clear evidence of his blood splattered on the pages of Judges, Zephaniah and Ruth is a graphic reminder of his physical ordeal.

Bonner, the Bishop of London, was not convinced that the heretics were being persuaded back to the Roman faith, so he arranged the largest bonfire of humans the town or indeed the country had seen. On this day, 22nd June, in 1557, Richard Woodman, George Stevens, Alexander Hosman, William Mainard, Thomasina Wood, Margery Morris, James Morris, Denis Burges, Ann Ashdon and Mary Groves were burned outside the Star Inn, Lewes - now the Town Hall.  Of these ten, only Woodman and Hosmer had been brought to trial. The others had been apprehended within the two or three days prior to their martyrdoms, hurried to Lewes and together suffered in one fire.

(Mankind has come a long way in the past 450 years, he commented sarcastically.)

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