Category Archives: Quit rent

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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Custom revived: Damask Rose Ceremony Leceister

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Dead headed!

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!

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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

Custom demised: Jack of Hilton and his curious tenure

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Jack (2)

In the Ashmolean museum in Oxford is a very strange effigy called Jack of Hilton. It was once the property of the manor of Essington between Wolverhampton and Walsall was subject to a strange feudal service custom from the neighbouring Lord of Hilton. An account by topographer Plot (1686) describes it as:

“a hollow brass image, about a foot high, representing a man kneeling in an indecorous posture. …..There were two apertures, one very small at the mouth, another about two-thirds of an inch in diameter at the back..”

Why the holes? Well the structure is what is called an Æolipile, named after Aeolus the Greek God of air and wind, for such a device would spin when heated due to the force of pressure by water. In a way it was the precursor of the engine. An account of one describes it as:

“an instrument consisting of a hollow metallic ball, with a slender neck or pipe, arising from it. This being filled with water, and thus exposed to the fire, produces a vehement blast of wind.”

Jack of Hilton would hold more than four pints of water, of which the Plot notes:

“which when set to a strong fire, evaporates after the same manner as in an Aeolipile, and vents itself at the smaller hole at the mouth in a constant blast, blowing the fire so strongly that it is very audible, and makes a sensible impression on that part of the fire where the blast lights, as I found by experience”

Plot (1686) adds:

“Now the custom was this. An obligation lay upon the lord of the adjacent manor of Essington, every New-Year’s Day, to bring a goose to Hilton, and drive it three times round the hall fire, which Jack of Hilton was all the time blowing by the discharge of his steam. He was then to carry the bird into the kitchen and deliver it to the cook; and when it was dressed, he was further to carry it in a dish to the table of his lord paramount, the lord of Hilton, receiving in return a dish of meat for his own mess.”

Whatever this custom was about is unclear, and it is certainly unique in the country. It is possible that the figure is quite ancient although the museum dates it to 1300. An author in the Mirror of the 18th century notes:

“Besides Jack of Hilton, which had been an ancient Saxon, image, or idol, Mr. Weber shows, that Pluster, a celebrated German idol, is also of the Aeolipile kind, and in virtue thereof, could do noble feats: being filled with a fluid, and then set on the fire, it would be covered with sweat, and as the heat increased, would at length burst out into flames….Some late authors have discovered the extraordinary use to which the frauds of the heathen priesthood applied the Aeolipile, viz. the working of sham miracles.”

So perhaps the custom has very ancient origins. Sadly no-one appears to have investigated. Similarly I question why he is so positioned if the steam only leaves his mouth at force and no where else!