Monthly Archives: June 2013

Custom survived: Rothwell Trinity Fair Proclamation Day

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Rowell Proclamation (14)Fair enough

“I ******* love Rothwell…where else do they get you up a 6 am so you can get bladdered early”

Not perhaps the most erudite introduction to Rothwell (pronounced Rowell), a small market town but perhaps correct. For this is a town which retains a curious and unique custom, which I must admit I had never heard of until recently.

On the Monday after Trinity Sunday, which falls either in late May or June (usually more often in June), this quiet and often bypassed town. However, on that day, often a normal working day, the pubs and restaurants of the town open and serve a very early 6 am pint! Everyone has a drink, even the horse! So important is this aspect, indeed it was probably one of the reasons the custom has survived, that its advertising flyers were beer mats!

This is perhaps a rather antisocial customs for a number of reasons, least of all the fact it starts so early, requiring an overnight stay. So I booked myself a small hotel in the town so that I wouldn’t have to get up that early…6 am is early enough! Booking in the concierge remarked “I have to tell you there is a proclamation outside the main entrance at 6!” if that would put me off. I replied “It’s why I am here…good to see they are bring the custom to my door.”

I woke early, around 5.30 and made the short journey to the west porch of the church where the festivities begun. For a short time, I was the only one and then a large group of teenagers appeared, then another and an even larger group…I immediately thought  “if you’d asked some teenagers to get up at this hour..the response wouldn’t be positive, but get a promise of fighting and you get loads!”

A local couple obviously realising I was not local asked:

“Have you been here before? If not you’ll enjoy it, it’s weird”

Soon enough I could see and hear a procession climbing from the main street towards the church followed by a large number of people. The procession consisted of a brass band, the bowler hatted Bailiff on a horse with his bowler hatted officials accompanied by his bodyguard of halberdiers holding a type of medieval lance. I noticed that the older members held full sized ones whereas the younger members carried shorter ones..the significance of which would become self evident later. As the clock chimed the allotted time, the Bailiff cleared his throat and with a scroll in hand he read out the proclamation:

“Whereas heretofore, his late Majesty King James the first and his progenitors, Lords of the Manor of Rowell had, and used to have, One fair in the year, to be holden within the said Manor, which said fair is now by good and lawfull means come to Zandra Maunsell Powell.

She, the said Zandra Maunsell Powell, doth by these presents notify and declare, that the said fair shall begin this Monday after the feast of the Holy Trinity, and so to continue for the space of five days next, after the holding and keeping of it, and no longer, during which time it shall be lawful for all Her Majesties Subjects to come , to go, to buy and to sell all manner of cattle, merchandise and other stuff being saleable ware and allowed to be bought and sold by the laws of this Kingdom. No toll for cattle, stakes for horses, sheep-pens, shows and stalls are charged for as heretofore. And she further chargeth and commandeth all manner of persons within the liberties of the said fair to keep the Queen’s peace in all things upon such penalties as the laws and statutes of this Kingdom are provided. God save the Queen and the Lord of the Manor.”

The crowd gave out a cheer and the band played the National Anthem. As soon as they had finished, the vicar appeared with the traditional glass of rum and milk, called Rowell Fair rum and milk which was intended to keep the bailiff warm. Once drunk, off they went.

Next they stopped outside the newsagent below the church and did it all over again…except this time the gleeful shopkeeper provided beers for the halberdiers and the band.

So far despite an obvious picturesque and old world nature there was nothing particularly exciting about it. Yet, there was an air of excitement especially amongst the youth element that sometime was about to happen.

At the third stop, the proclamation was read, band played the National Anthem, drinks went down and then there was a pause and all hell broke out. It was as if the surrounding crowd collapsed onto the road as any local lad worth his salt tussled and struggled in the street. Their object, to lay claim to one of the halberdier’s spears….the short ones not the full length, a fight for those of course would have resulted in a loss of some of bystanders no doubt. After much to-ing and fro-ing. One of the bowler hatter men blew a whistle and on we went to the next hostelry.

Rowell ProclamationRowell Proclamation (24)Rowell Proclamation (21)

And so and it went on, but at each pub or in some cases sites of old pubs, the fight became more powerful and yet more comical. At one point the conflict appeared to become very aggressive and intense, with one body halberdier struggling under the weight of a number of burly youths. But then the whistle was blown and immediately without quarrel they all stood up brushed each other down with smiles and handshakes and went on! I quickly noticed that the free alcohol liberally distributed to the halberdiers played into the hands of their disarmers. Who remained sober and more able to wrestle the spears off the increasing more ‘drunk’ bodyguards. However, it all appeared well humoured and despite a combination of alcohol and street fighting not usually being a desirable activity, those police present appeared to find no need for intervention.

The crowd moved on and finally stopped at the Rowell Charter Inn, their final stop. After the final proclamation the crowd disperses and with all the pubs and restaurants open, continue to have a breakfast both liquid and solid!

Fair Tarts

Rowell Fair Day is still a time for homecoming with tasty treats such as home cured ham and Rowell Fair tarts, although I was unlucky not to try one, I did notice they were advertised in a shop window. Below is a recipe!

Despite the details in the proclamation I saw no cattle, pens for sheep nor stakes for horses, these have long gone, but at its height it attracted cattle dealers from far as way as Wales, local people advertising the availability of accommodation with birch branches over their doorways. It also became an important horse fair from the seventeenth century, but what with the advent of the train and better roads, all commercial trading ceased replaced by the now all too familiar frenetic sounds of the pleasure fair.

The proclamation appears to have survived the periods which killed most customs, the war years, but by 1968, it appeared to be at risk as a result the Rowell Fair Society was formed and its work has been very successful in preserving this unique custom if the crowds are anything to go by.

Yet the Proclamation Day is one of those great customs, surviving 800 years, and with its curious mix of pageantry and punch-up should survive many years to come.

Clearly not everyone was out in Rothwell that morning. I later over heard a conservation between two women explaining the day. One saying in reply

“ I wondered my I was woken up by the sound of the national anthem.”

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Rowell Proclamation (47)Rowell Proclamation (43)

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Custom revived: Knollys Rose Ceremony

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014A bridge too far

The ceremony dates back to a indiscretion undertaken by Sir Robert Knollys who in the 14th century owned a property on Seething Lane. I say he, it was really his wife Lady Constance (make of that what you wish) for he was off fighting the French alongside John of Gaunt! Legend tells that she was so annoyed by chaff dust blowing from the threshing ground nearby that she bought that property turning it into a rose garden which was okay..Planning permissions were fine for this. However, she also built a bridge to avoid the mud. This was more of a problem!

A thorny problem

The City decided Knollys had to pay for the lack of permission but realising he had not only fought in France but was also pivotal in helping the King in the Wat Tyler rebellion, a hefty penalty would be a bit ungrateful. Not only this, but Knollys was close friend of the Mayor, Sir William Walworth. So they decided that he and his heirs present a rose at Midsummer from his garden to the Lord Mayor. Then permission was given to ‘make an haut pas of the height of 14 feet’ across the lane

A rose by any other name…

This is not the only rose rent. The ceremony is part of what is called a quit rent, a token rent, established to recognise still the ownership of the property but given as a gift. Other examples exist in the county, but I will focus on these rose rents. The date of course, is significant above, it was a quarter day, when rents were paid on this date, therefore it is not usual to find that quit rents were paid, in particular the giving of a rose. A number of rose rents existed of which this is the last true survivor perhaps.

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Rose to the occasion

Surely after so many years the penalty would have paid. It appeared to have ceased in 1666, doubtlessly after it was burnt down in the great fire. Yet despite the rose rent being paid already for nearly 300 years and doubtlessly paid in full, it was revived in 1924 by the noted vicar of All Hallows by the Tower, Tubby Clayton. Why is not clear perhaps he was proud of the flowers in the garden.

Never promised you a rose garden

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The ceremony is enacted around midsummer and after finding out from the church I decided to witness this ceremony in the 1990s. I waited around 10 o’clock in the garden and soon a small procession appeared of vicar, verger, parishioners, Knollys descendents and members of Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, the later who organise it. The procession consisted of cushion bearer and a number of individuals dressed in the finest ceremonial robes. The cushion being an altar cushion from the church. I was pleased to see the picking of the rose was not taken too lightly: a number of roses were inspected carefully. Too much greenfly. Too many uneven petals. Too few petals…just right. The perfect red rose was selected, cut and then pinned to the cushion by the Master of the Watermen. After getting the members of the procession together they then processed to the Mansion House.  To give a rose to the Mayor this already belonged to the city! I am always amused how such strange ceremonies rarely affect London residents and very few individuals battered an eyelid as a man carried a rose on a cushion accompanied with ceremonially robbed attendants. We soon arrived at the mansion house, where to my surprise I easily slipped in to witness the final part of the ceremony. Sadly my flash wasn’t working, but I did get some video. Here waiting for the rose were the winners of the Doggett Coat and Badge (a ceremony I have yet to record!) in their fine red uniforms guarding the Lord Mayor. The rose was dutifully handed over and gratefully received by the Mayor. And that was it…except I think there was a lunch afterwards. I didn’t manage to get invited to this?!

The ceremony of Knollys rose is one of those customs which typifies the eccentric British: colourful, solemn and completely pointless. And all the best for that!

Custom demised: Midsummer scouring the White Horse of Uffington

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scouring“The Old White Horse wants setting to rights,

And the Squire has promised good cheer;

So we’ll give him a scrape to keep him in shape,

And he’ll last for many a year.”

The White horse of Uffington is a considerable enigma. Thought to be over a couple of millennia old, but how such a fragile monument could survive the centuries is perhaps confusing. The simple answer is by ritual stripping or scouring of the horse. The first reference to regular cleansing of the horse to keep its shape occurs in the 17th century when we are told that inhabitants of local villages had an obligation:

“to repair and cleanse this landmark, or else in time it may turn green like the rest of the hill and be forgotten”.

Thomas Cox’s ‘Britannia’ of 1720, recorded the stripping of this horse of weeds was done each Midsummer and it became a great celebration with feasts and frolics. He notes:

“the neighbouring parish have a custom, once a year, at or near Midsummer, to go and weed it in order to keep the Horse in shape and colour, and after the work is over they end the day in feasting and merriment”.

The ceremony was probably religious in nature to begin with but by the 18th century, revelry had taken over. In Thomas Hughes’ ‘The Scouring of the White Horse’ he describes this celebration as country fair. The fair was attended by acrobats, musicians and a skittle alley. There were flower-bedecked booths and stalls which sold a wide range of odd items from gingerbread, to toys, nuts to ribbons, knives to braces and straps. Alcohol was freely available of course which added to the frivolity. During the day competitions were run such as cudgel fighting, climbing a greasy pole, sack racing. As well as strange activities such as finding the silver bullet in the flour and even a pipe-smoking marathon with prizes ranging from a gold-laced hat to half-a-guinea or a gallon of gin. All this entertainment obviously would cause problems and as such a  huge white tent  was set up to house the county police.  An eighty-four-year-old  man called William Ayres of Uffington, tells of this events, stating of the horse racing:

“Well now, there wur Varmer Mifflin’s mare run for and won a new cart saddle and thill-tugs — the mare’s name wur Duke. As many as a dozen or moor horses run, and they started from Idle’s Bush, which wur a vine owld tharnin’-tree in thay days —a very nice bush. They started from Idle’s Bush, as I tell ‘ee, Sir, and raced up to the Rudge-waay; and Varmer Mifflin’s mare had it all one way, and beat all the t’other on ‘urn holler. The pastime then wur a good ‘un — a wunderful sight o’ volk of all sorts, rich and poor. . . . “

Other events are described:

“There wur running for a peg too, and they as could ketch ‘un and hang ‘un up by the tayl, had ‘un. The girls, too, run races for smocks — a deal of pastime, to be sure, Sir. There wur climmin’ a grasy pole for a leg of mutton, too; and backsoordin’, and wrastlin’, and all that, ye knows, Sir.”

Baskerville claimed it was an ‘obligation’ but the festival or ‘pastime’ was probably the chief incentive. In 1738, Wise said that the games and merrymaking had lost their ‘ancient splendour’ and, by the end of the 18th century, the festivities had become a mere profit making enterprise with many regular stalls and fee-paying contests. Something of its grandeur was, however, popularly revived in Victorian times.

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A midsummer Solstice festival

“Another geaam wur to bowl a cheese down the Mainger, and the first as could catch ‘un had ‘un. The cheese was a tough ‘un and held together.”

Early references suggest the midsummer solstice as the original festive season at Uffington. Certainly the rolling of cheeses is significant, folklorists have often draw a connection between this sport and the turning of the year, the cheese representing the sun and thought to boost its power! Hughes also describes the practice of chasing after a wheel rolled down the manager and Jackson’s Oxford Journal in 1780 notes that a horse’s jawbone was used to ride down!

The stripping away of tradition

Unlike many customs which decline and finally disappear, the festivities were stopped in 1857 when 30,000 rowdy people turned up offending the Victorian sensibilities of the day. After the First World War, the horse became rather overgrown and by 1922 it had almost been overgrown and in the Second World War it purposely covered over. The cleaning of the horse being taken over by the National Trust who own the land, except in a nod to the old ceremony, some several hundred people climbed the hill one bank holiday to help re-chalk the horse. The date was of course difference and the partying absent but it was good to see the Trust recognise the importance of the figure to its community.