Martyrs, memorials and meaning in Protestant England

Sitting in what William Morris described as ‘a great amphitheatre of chalk hills’, the market town of Lewes is one of Sussex’s particular delights. For all its quiet charm, the town is perhaps best known for its elaborate celebrations of Bonfire Night, during which the several bonfire societies in and around the town converge ina grand procession. It is an anarchic mixture of revelry and symbol, pipes and drums, in which effigies of contemporary political bogeymen are burned. In 2019 it was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but every year Pope Paul V (who was pope in 1605) is also committed to the flames. There is also an act of remembrance for the dead of the two world wars at the memorial in the town centre, and seventeen burning crosses are borne in procession, representing the seventeen Protestants burned at the stake outside the Star Inn under the Catholic Mary I (1555-7). A more eclectic mixture of religious and secular memory and political commentary would be difficult to find in England.

The path from the topmost road of the estate to the memorial field. Image: Peter Webster

But there is another memorial of that Reformation past in Lewes, although one must now work hard to find it. Though it is difficult to see from most of the town, from the vantage point of the castle keep one can pick out, across the Ouse valley on Cliffe Hill to the east, an austere obelisk, described on the tourist viewfinder as a memorial to the Lewes martyrs. Intrigued by this during a visit to Lewes last August, my unplanned pilgrimage to it began.

It was harder than I expected to find my way. There were no signposts that I could see (though I later found it marked on a town guide), and it was invisible from the valley floor due to the trees on the hill. I asked a couple of people – one passer-by, the waitress in the cafe – if they knew it, but no. Eventually, just by a church, I found a road that seemed to snake up the steep hill. But the keepers of the Cuilfail residential estate (which I suppose dates from the 1970s) provide no signposts. Indeed, such signage as there is leaves the visitor in no doubt that the road is private, with no parking allowed. But eventually, up a narrow path (which did have a sign), I found it, on a flat patch of grass sandwiched between the back fences of the gardens of the houses of the estate and a golf course. On a pleasant Sunday in summer, I saw not another soul in the hour or so I spent on Cliffe Hill, while the castle did a healthy trade in visitors, and the town bustled gently; no-one passes by this place. If a memorial must be visible to operate, then this one can have little effect.

As I write, the politics of public memorials are being discussed with a fervency we rarely see, in the wake of the felling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol. There is much talk of ‘erasing history’. But – in and of themselves – such monuments tell us almost nothing at all about those they commemorate – about the history that is supposedly being erased. What they do reveal, much more naively, is the intentions of those who created them, acts just as political (in the broadest sense) as toppling Colston and symbolically drowning him in the waters in which so many of his slaves met their deaths. These objects are indeed historical artefacts, but not of what is commonly supposed. In the case of Lewes, the obelisk and the burning crosses represent two distinct ideas of memory and martyrdom – one largely secular and the other strictly doctrinal – that for a time converged but now are as separate as ever.

John Wolffe has recently shown that the Protestant recovery of the Marian martyrs is relatively recent, a twentieth-century reaction to increased Roman Catholic assertiveness of their own recusant martyrs. The Lewes memorial was erected in 1901; elsewhere, in the 1920s, the Protestant Alliance renovated memorials in Brentwood and at Smithfield in London, and set up new ones in Amersham and in Norwich (both 1931). Wolffe points out the particular conflation in Lewes of religious and secular remembrance in the placing of the new memorial to the First World War on the site of the burnings in the town centre. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council, formed in 1925, provided for the illumination of the memorial on every November 5th, further cementing the connection between the events.

But the years after 1945 saw a remarkably swift waning of this Protestant-Catholic antagonism, so much so that the planned canonisation by the Pope of forty English and Welsh martyrs in 1970 jarred with the ecumenical advances being made at the same time between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, regretted the move, both privately and publicly, and appealed for a new shared Christian martyrology. And in time the ecumenical spirit further pushed this kind of polemical Protestant self-consciousness to the margins, though it continued to thrive in the particular conditions of Northern Ireland.

Yet the annual commemoration service at the Lewes memorial continued, and continues still under the auspices of the Commemoration Council – in June, on a date more congruent with the burnings in the 1550s, not November 5th. (The Council also continued to fund new memorials elsewhere in the county to sixteen more Marian martyrs, the most recent in 1997). The church at the foot of the hill that I passed on my pilgrimage was formerly the Jireh chapel, a Calvinistic Independent chapel built in 1805 and now Grade One listed. As the congregation dwindled, the building was taken over by Lewes Free Presbyterian Church, one of only a handful of English outposts of Ian Paisley’s new church in Northern Ireland. And there appears still to be a close connection between the church and the Council, which retains a postal address in Lewes. The church’s minister, Pastor Philip Knowles, an Ulsterman himself, was the preacher at the 2019 service.

And the collected sermons and addresses from these events that the Council publish are of a kind familiar to students of this continuing Protestant remnant. They speak of a self-conscious, defensive community, dwindling with age, at odds with the mainline Christian denominations, continuing to contend for a pure gospel as the martyrs did. The Council is also connected through personnel and joint activities with Christian Watch, formed in 2001 and devoted to ‘informing Christians about the possible loss of their religious liberties from current and proposed developments within the UK and European Union.’ And so the language of persecution persists, but not at the hands of Rome but of an aggressive secularising state. While the secularised commemoration of Bonfire Night burgeons, a smaller, more specifically religious memory still attaches to the gaunt obelisk on the hill. The object remains, but its history is still being made.

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