With worldwide eyes upon the city of Leicester this year with the unique reinterrment of Richard III, hopefully this much maligned city might attract many more tourists. However, if these visitors are looking for the survival of traditions, unlike other neighboring towns, Leicester is sadly lacking. Gone have the Whipping Toms and the ride to Black Annis have long since vanished. Yet there is one old curious tradition which is virtually unique, only having one parallel custom surviving in London. However, it is little known or frequented, and although it has a recent ropey revival and re-revival looks destined to stay – the ceremony of the Damask Rose.
The Ceremony of the Damask Rose has as stated only one surviving companion custom – Knollys Rose, however such rents called Quit rents were very common across the country A quit rent was a token rent, established to recognise still the ownership of the property but given as a gift. As can be seen across the country, both rose rents are given in June usually on a date close to the 24th June. The date of course, is significant as 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 which were common in gardens and would also provide a sweet smell for posies at this smelliest time of the year.
A thorny subject
Leicester’s ceremony is newer than its London counterpart dating only from the 17th century. It is now associated with a pub, the old Crown and Thistle Inn in the urban back streets of the city in Loseby Lane. When the rent was set this area was very different, the land was part of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Newarke an establishment founded by the Duke of Lancaster which then transferred to him at the Reformation. A small section of this land, in Fee Farm where the pub now is was purchased by a local shoemaker, James Teele and Elizabeth his wife, on the 24th February 1637 for 40/- and held as noted below:
“To bee holden of Our said Soveraigne Lord the King his heirs and successors as of his honour of Leicester in the site of his Highness Dutchy of Lancaster by fealty only in free and comon soccage and not in Capite; Yielding and Paying therefore yearlye into the Maior of the Borough of Leicester for the time being one Damask Rose at or upon the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist and also yielding and paying all chief rents yearlye yssueing or goeing a forth of the same.”
What is not noted above was that affixed to the price of a rose were at first a groat and then four pennies, Victorian bun pennies and there was some concern that when we went decimal the supply would run out..however the then owners Ind Coope brewery stated that held several years supply. Interestingly it was noted that:
“Mr Smith said that the Treasurer’s department would not like to allow the ceremony to come to an end as it was one of the few old customs left. The pennies, once collected went with the rest of the Corporation’s rent money and the rose ended up in a vase on the city treasurer’s desk.”
Ever since that date it is said that the Lord Mayor would come and collect the rent, continuing when the Town Hall was opened in 1876 requiring a further distance than the nearby guildhall! Then disaster….when the pub was converted to an O’Neill’s Irish theme Bar, the custom appeared to vanish. This according to some sources was in 1999, others 2001. Indeed I tried to trace the survival of the custom around this time to be greeted with a rather non-plused response
A rose rose again
Then I was ideally researching it again and coming across the Lord Mayor’s website noticed it was on the 24th June 2011 sadly I was reading it in July. The revival is excellently captured in the following blog extract emphasising now how immediate a revival can be!:
“Update 6:30pm: Lord Mayor tweets that he’ll see what he can do: https://twitter.com/LeicesterMayor/status/19498460378 Update 28/07/2010: Lord Mayor discussed this on BBC Radio Leicester (34mins in) and apparently O’Neill’s are up for bringing it back: http://twitter.com/LeicesterMayor/status/19721471851 Update 15/11/2010: Leicester Mercury reports that the custom will be brought back next summer. Thanks to the Lord Mayor and O’Neill’s. Update 24/06/2011: The damask rose ceremony was held again after a 10 year absence.”
Mind you they’d be a lot of roses to pay in back rent! I awaited for the date in 2012, nothing on the website…contacted O’Neill’s they suggested it wouldn’t happen this year…I believe the football was blamed. Then in 2013 a revival was on the cards.
A rose amongst the thorns
In 2013 I missed it as I did in 2014. In 2015 I was better prepared. Awaiting outside the Town Hall at quarter to one, soon the Gild of Freeman of the City dressed in their red robes appeared and a few minutes later, The Lord Mayor, Cllr Ted Cassidy and the Macebearer. As the clock approached one, the group led by the Macebearer begun to process to the pub. They snaked through the streets to the bemused faces of shoppers and bus drivers and onto Loseby Lane. Here some local people were prepared; the florist was thanked for the rose (good to see a local source) and the group massed either side of the old door to the pub. The Macebearer approached the door and akin to Parliament’s Blackrod banged on the door, although not with the mace..a few moments later, the landlord, Steve Thorn (ironically appropriately named) appeared, dressed in 17th century clothing. The dressing in old clothing appeared to have been more of a feature of the custom in its dying days if this photo is an indication – perhaps the bar staff were no overly keen to get involved. More importantly, the landlord help a bar tray with the rose and the glistening old pennies. The Lord Mayor examined the pennies but they and the rose were handed back! Not only was no back rent provided but the rent returned…they must have plenty of flowers in the Town Hall!
There were smiles all around by those attending even though clearly it was rather pointless as for a rent ceremony no rent was actually collected. Yet in a city sadly bereft of customs it’s great to see this one revived and embraced by the two groups and hopefully it’ll blossom!
When is it on? It’s not on calendar customs yet but it is always the 24th June