Priests and Pagans In The English Countryside

Great Britain, Observatory


The English may not be church attendees beyond the odd carol service at Christmas, but they love a good Pagan festival. The Obby Oss carnivals in Padstowe, Cornwall, and in Somerset are Celtic in origin and involve fertility rituals.

The Padstowe festival starts at midnight on May 1 with singing around the town starting at the Golden Lion Inn. By the morning, the town is dressed with greenery, flowers, flags and a maypole. Two groups of dancers progress through the town, one of each team wearing a phallic recreation of a horse. These are the “Old” and the “Blue Ribbon” ‘osses.

“Junior” ‘osses appear, operated by children. Accompanied by drums and accordions and led by acolytes known as “Teasers”, each ‘oss is adorned by a gruesome mask and black frame-hung cape under which catch fertile young maidens as they pass through the town. It’s all very ‘Wicker Man’. Here’s last night’s Wicker Man being burned. Because last night I headed for Lewes, Sussex, for another such festival, the annual burning of the Pope. Although this is associated with Protestantism, the atmosphere is strictly Pagan.

‘Remember, remember the 5th of November…’ In Lewes, the poem has a double meaning – it is not just the Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot being recalled. Since 1858, five Lewes bonfire societies have annually remembered an horrific martyrdom during the period 1555–1557, known as the Marian Persecutions. In the reign of Edward VI, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, was encouraged to abandon her Catholic views, but when she came to the throne in 1553 she had 288 Protestants burned alive – 17 of these martyrs were burned in Lewes.

The martyrs refused to recant their faith because they could not understand the church service in Latin, and the biggest bonfire the nation had ever seen was constructed…

The memory of the Lewes seventeen is still celebrated with deafening (and sometimes dangerous) torchlight processions through Lewes which attract up to 80,000 people. Five bonfire societies carry 17 barrels of burning tar and 17 flaming crosses every 5 November, and popular villains are burned in effigy (this year they included Angela Merkel and Lance Armstrong). The streets glow red with flame, the societies march as American Indians (the mark the loss of the US’ indigenous population), Zulus, Victorian firemen, foxes and other groups that have meaning to the locals.

Meanwhile, we march across a dark field full of treacherous ditches to see the pope and his ministers dragged up into a wooden-framed scaffold and pelted with fireworks, while the town glows red with burning torches as giant firecrackers are hurled into the crowd.

Banners proclaim ‘No Popery’ across the street, and the mob turns unruly as the police watch on. Attendance of the bonfire societies, the best being the Cliffe, requires personal attendance in the village to purchase them from pubs, but there are still people who come from around the world.

We arrived back in London at 5:00am after a punishing night, and are now all safely back at work without much sleep….thanks to Lou, Mike and the gang for organising yet another bizarrely wonderful trip. And if you’d like to see how a professional photographer handled the same images, check out today’s Guardian here.

9 comments on “Priests and Pagans In The English Countryside”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Wow, what an interesting post. Great pictures. And me having just moaned about seeing the old Civil War map in the voting pattern of this year’s U.S. Election. What’s 150ish compared to 400 to 500 years? Is this an early taste of what Bryany and May may next be up to? Or reference to Wolf Hall et al?

  2. admin says:

    Check out the photolink I added, Dan…

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Double Wow!
    A great number of those shots are so atmospheric. The opening one, the one of the square. All of them are enough to make one eager to write a story or a script: B&M say having to go back several years in a row to find a murderous fiend who kills within the crowd, but can’t be caught because the murder weapon can’t be found. It’s always stored way until the next Guy’s day, natch.
    There are suggestions of Gothic novels/film adapts in the pictures, too. “Bar the door Igor!” “Come with me my lovelies, we must fly. Dr. bar the door!”

  4. John says:

    This looks so much more civilized and with historical content than “The Burning Man,” the Southwestern bacchanalia we have over here, that claims to be inspired by these pagan celebrations. Always looks like freaks getting high and naked in the desert to me. One of these days I’ll have to make a special visit to the UK for the genuine rites.

  5. snowy says:

    Before you repair to your closet, and hastily stuff necessaries into a valise, in preparation for a trip to revel in the ancient ceremonies of “Merrie England”. You should be warned most are confections created by the Victorians and are no more authentic than the wearing of ‘tartan’.

    It was a reaction to industrialisation, and a hankering for what was thought to be a better time, and even today they think “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”. (Must go before the English Tourist Board hunt me down for blabbing their dirty little secret.)

  6. John Howard says:

    Talking of Celtic festivals, lets not forget ‘Up Helly Aa’ which takes place in Lerwick in Shetland. Major fire festival marking the Norse invasion and domination of the north of the country. Admittedly, this one was created in the Victorian era as well.

    snowy – how can you say that, do you mean Mel Gibson was wrong? Do have to give my Sgian Dubh back?

  7. snowy says:

    We will skip over my opinion of Melvin, I thought or perhaps falsely hoped that the traditions of the people of the north, would have largely escaped being meddled with by the English.

    Though the nostalgia bug was everywhere, Marie Antoinette was at it, playing Shepherds and Shepherdesses in the gardens at Versailles prior to the French Revolution.

    Attempt to remove a knife, from an unwilling Scot, “Dae ye think ma heid buttons up the back?”

  8. John Howard says:

    Shall we compare ‘chibs’ round the back of the bike sheds?

  9. Nostalgia.Detected says:

    Fantastic images in the Guardian article contrast with prosaic captions underneath – so you get the fierce female pirate blazing with emotion captioned below ‘A woman holds a burning torch’!

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