“An Easter Custom. — On each recurring Easter Eve, in pursuance of a custom which has continued for more than a century (and which, as a fund was left for the purpose, will continue for centuries to come), the church choir of Market Harborough visit the ‘God’s Acre’ of St. Mary’s, and sing at midnight the beautiful Easter hymn over the grave of Mr. Hubbard, the founder of the chantry of that name.”
The History of Market- Harborough in Leicestershire and its vicinity by William Harrod (1808)
On the outskirts of Market Harborough is a ghostly shell of a church twixt between an industrial site, the railway station and the urban sprawl. Surrounded by a few graves it is a mysterious place. There are many such derelict churches open to the elements slowly decaying, unvisited all bar the curious- this one is an exception though for despite being a ruin once year on the evening before Easter Sunday this desolate place is warmed by the sounds of heavenly voices in a custom which has been done for over 200 years.
Willed to sing
The originator of this unique bequest was William Hubbard, a gardener and more importantly churchwarden. When he died in 1786, aged 63 his will stipulated:
“at the decease of his wife to the Singers of Harborough for the time being for ever the sum of One Guinea yearly on condition of their finding over his grave every Easter eve the EASTER HYMN the said guinea to be paid out of the rent of a house now in the tenure of Mr Clark painter &c In cafe the singers should neglect complying with the donor’s desire the said legacy is to be applied to purchasing shoes for widows.”
Sadly those local widows have shoeless because without fail the congregation of the more substantial St. Dionysius church dutifully come here every Easter Saturday to sing since 1807, presumably the death date of his widow. That guinea has gone a long way! I am not sure whether it pays for anything now but in 1957 a rent charge was still being taken.
Sing when you’re winning!
When I first came to experience this custom, it was a balmy Easter Saturday in 1996, 7th of April. The churchyard was quiet, mysterious and unloved. I located the grey slate gravestone of William Hubbard and waited.
Soon a small choir appeared. Arched around the grave the vicar, curate and choir made a fine sight in themselves but when the hymns were sung it was magical.
Obviously it is a short service. It started with Chorus novae Jerusalem
“Ye choirs of new Jerusalem, your sweetest notes employ, the Paschal victory to hymn in strains of holy joy. For Judah’s Lion bursts his chains, crushing the serpent’s head; and cries aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead. Devouring depths of hell their prey at his command restore; his ransomed hosts pursue their way where Jesus goes before. Triumphant in his glory now to him all power is given; to him in one communion bow all saints in earth and heaven. While we, his soldiers, praise our King, his mercy we implore, within his palace bright to bring and keep us evermore. All glory to the Father be, all glory to the Son, all glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, while endless ages run.”
Then a reading is given in 2016, the Gospel for Easter was Matthew 27 a very adapt piece about Jesus’s burial:
“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
The Guard at the Tomb: The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”
The Easter Hymn was sung
“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia! who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia! sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia! But the pains which he endured, Alleluia! our salvation have procured, Alleluia! now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia! where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!”
Then an Easter Collect and Prayer finishing with a sung grace
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
Eighteen years later passing this way I came to again experience it. However, my sources were incorrect and I’d missed it by an hour! Finally, again in 2016 I came again, on a most appalling Easter evening. Dark clouds were building up and the wind howled through the ghost of the church. After a while I was beginning to think my sources had been incorrect, had the weather put them off…no soon more and more people arrived. The first thing I noticed is how much the congregation had grown since 1996; despite the awful weather it was clear that this custom was still a popular one…and even the dreadful rain was not going to stop the custom. In 1984, so Brian Shuel in his Traditional Customs of Britain was informed by the vicar:
“in really nasty weather, such as the previous year when it was snowing, they have been known to do it themselves”
It did not stop them, nor did it in 1876 as a local newspaper reports:
“Easter Eve – The old custom to sing the Easter hymn over Mr. Hubbard’s grave, in St. Mary’s burial ground, was carried out again on Saturday last, at 8.30, by the church choir. To get to the grave yard this year there was something very unusual. The waters, from the rapid melting of the snow which had fallen on the two preceding days, were out, near the Toll-gate and Gas works, but this obstruction was bravely encountered by about thirty of the choir, besides a few others. Many more who intended to go, declined, when they got to the end of the walk, not liking to got through the flood, and returned again to the town. One gentleman was kindly carried over the flood by a young man named Toomes. This little incident amused the choir boys and one of them was overheard to whisper, ‘I wish he’d drop him.’ We understand this is the 70th year that the above custom has been carried out.”
The only shame was that the weather had prevented the congregation wearing their traditional choral attire. Yet in a way it made the custom seem even more bizarre.
Before the Reformation, sung songs and prayers were common from chapels to great Cathedrals, but although these Chantry chapels survive the bequests have long gone, siphoned off to support schools such as Thomas Burton’s in Loughborough or incorporated into general funds. What is of course unusual with Hubbard is that this is a post-Reformation one. Little did he also know that he think that when he made the bequest that the church would fall into disuse and ruin. Yet this is part of the curious nature of the custom, despite the church and the possible temptation of removing the grave to somewhere more convenient the custom continues.
All in all, Hubbard’s bequest is without doubt one of the countries, a beautiful uplifting tribute to a man long forgotten but still remembered!