The Brilliant and Fascinating History of the Mayfield Bonfire Carnival!

In September 1556, when catholic Queen Mary I was on the English throne, four men were burned at the stake in Mayfield. Their crime? Refusing to renounce their Protestant faith and return to the Roman Catholic Church. You can see a memorial for them just outside Colkins Mill Church and the Mayfield Bonfire Society carry four crosses at the front of their procession in memory of these martyrs. Queen Mary later became known as ‘Bloody Mary’ because of the three hundred Protestant executions that were authorised under her short two and a half reign. Interestingly, there are some who say that the Bloody Mary cocktail was named after Queen Mary I.

Sussex Bonfire Societies were formed to commemorate these burning of Protestant martyrs during the Catholic Reformation of Queen Mary I from 1553 to 1558. Protestants who did not renounce their faith were publicly burnt at the stake, and Mayfield had four such martyrs who were burnt on 24th September 1556. They were John Hart, Thomas Ravendale, a currier (or leather specialist) and shoemaker and two others believed to be Nicholas Holden, a weaver, and an unnamed currier. 

Burnings were carried out in public before large crowds and could involve horrible and prolonged suffering. Martyr’s friends were allowed to hang gunpowder around his or her neck, in the hope that the gunpowder would explode and hasten death, but this did not always work. To commemorate these horrific deaths, the Mayfield Bonfire Society carries four burning crosses at the start of their procession and finishes the evening with a display of fireworks.

Many of the Bonfire Societies of today wear jumpers with a ringed or hooped pattern, known as Guernsey’s or Stripes, with each society wearing their own colours. Mayfield's stripes are black and turquoise.There are two theories as to why this might be. The firstly is that the jumpers were inspired by the striped shirts of the Sussex Smugglers – a multitude of gangs who ruled the East Sussex coastline in the 1700’s. Mayfield itself was a base for a powerful company of Smugglers, with its leader Gabriel Tomkins claiming to smuggle a very impressive 11 tons of tea and coffee a year. The second theory is that, as Bonfire Society celebrations became more popular, busy, and sometimes riotous, it would be particularly difficult for the authorities to single anyone out for punishment if everyone wore the same and also partially “blacked” their faces and wore neckerchiefs to further hinder identification.

Recently there has been some controversy about the traditional view that three more local people, William Maynard, Thomasina Wood and Alexander Hosman were burnt, alongside seven others, on 22nd June 1557, outside the Star Inn at the top of Cliffe Hill in Lewes. Maynard is said to have been a member of an ancient family at Mayfield, and Thomasina a native of Mayfield, a maid in his service. 

In a book on Mayfield by Miss E.M. Bell Irving, one can read a quotation from “The Register of Martyrs” published in 1559, which deals with this event in rhyme: 

When William Maynard, his maid and man,
Margery Morris and her son, Dennis Burgess, Stevens and Woodman,
Groves’ wife and Ashdon’s to death were done,
When one fire at Lewes brought them to death
We wished for our Elizabeth” 

(Taken from 

However, a local historian, Tim Cornish, argues that the only evidence for this is an assertion by M.A. Lower in 1851 that Maynard and Wood were names current in our village. Lower's claims  should be discredited and a generous assessment of him in the Dictionary of National Biography says: “His enthusiasms may have outrun his judgement”. According to the Privy Council, William Maynard was arrested in “Ashrridge” in Kent and burned in Lewes along with two of his servants, Alexander Hosmer from Rotherfield and Thomasina Wood. Ashridge is probably Ashurst, where Maynard was accused of “preaching seditiously in corners”. Two others, of the four who were burned in Mayfield itself, came from nearby Withyham. It seems likely that outlaws crossed the county and diocesan boundary of the Medway to avoid capture. Our village was probably chosen for the executions of others as a place where the authorities felt secure, well away from where the victims lived.

It is so important to keep this history alive, and keep the tradition of the Mayfield Carnival going. You can help by getting in touch and being involved in many ways, either with the Society on the night, during the year helping with fundraising activities that raise the money to stage the carnival, or by joining the walking group that attends other societies events.