Custom demised: The Byzant Ceremony Shaftesbury Dorset

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In Shaftesbury museum is a curious relic from a lost bygone custom. The structure an ornate shaft was called the byzant and a curious ceremony which maintained ancient rights for the town. The custom being at first on Holy Cross Day, the first Sunday after the 3rd of May, being in 1622 transferred to the Monday before Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day.

Many people visit Shaftesbury for its picturesque hill top setting, especially taking in the famed Gold Hill, but this location caused problems for the town as it did not have a reliable water supply. Yet, at some point someone in the settlement came to an idea at nearby Enmore Green at Motcombe was a water supply which could be utilised.

However, the town could not just take the water some sort of tribute would have to be established with the giving of gifts. Thus arose the Byzant ceremony. The custom dates back to at least 1364 and its first written account is 1527 as below:

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A detailed written reference is in A compleat history of Dorsetshire c 1716. Its name possibly derived from a middle-eastern tradition of royalty giving a special coin called the bezant at religious events. Although it appears the coin was replaced with something clearly ceremonial, the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, whose land the spring lay, still received more functional gifts. John Symmonds Udal in his 1883 article in Dorset County Chronicle state::

“raw calves head, and a pair of Gloves, which his Steward receives distributing at the same time among the People twelve Penny Loaves and three dozen of Beer.”

The former probably from a quit rent and the later to provide for hospitality. The Byzant ceremony thus developed into a celebration with the attendees singing and dancing their way to the spring, a distance of half a mile or so. Before them would be the town officials, the Mayor and council, and in front of them would be two officials. One carried a calf’s head which carried a purse of money and another carrying the ornate Byzant or prize-besom covered with ribbons, flowers, feathers and jewels. John Symmonds Udal (1883) state:

“The mayor and burgess of Shaftesbury…dress up a Prize-Besom, as they call it (somewhat like a May Garland in form)”

Chambers in his Book of Days describes the byzant as:

“A frame four feet high was covered with ribbons, flowers, peacock’s feathers, jewellery, and gold and silver coins, from which the last name was taken, a bizant being an ancient gold coin, and the amount, probably, of the original water tax.”

Once at Enmore Green, the gifts and byzant were handed over. The Lord would receive the ornate staff but then hand it back. As John Symmonds Udal (1883) notes:

“The prize-besom, which was worth usually £1500 being adorned with plate and jewels borrowed of the neighbouring gentry) is restored to the Mayor and brought back again to the Town by one of the officers with great solemnity.”

Despite the futile nature of the ceremony the village of Motcombe could still refuse access if it did not happen. After the ceremony the attendees would make their way back, rather tiringly up the hill to Shaftesbury.

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Sadly practicalities dominated and thus when an artesian well was established on the hill providing a reliable source of water the need to fete Enmore Green was gone but that may not have been the sole reason for its demise. The ritual really died out in 1830, being abolished by the Marquess of Westminster when he purchased the Motcombe estate. The decision was not popular at Enmore. Udal 1922 Dorsetshire folk-lore notes:

“ on the Tuesday and during the week after the custom, a fair was held at Enmore green, a hamlet of Motcombe, in which the wells were situate, and further that the people filled up the wells with rubbish, being disgusted, that the custom had been abolished.”

The protestations fell on fallow ground and now the only remembrance ended up in Shaftesbury museum. Thanks to Claire Heron for the photos!

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