Tag Archives: Leicester

Custom demised: Hunting the Hare at Dane Hills Leicester

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If you were to go to Leciester on Easter Monday you may have been witness to the annual congregation of horse-riding dignitaries, amongst them the Lord Mayor, ready to ride off to hunt the hare. The event is first recorded in the Town records in 1668, but as it was probably by then an ancient custom. The association with hare hunting and Easter was not unique to Leicester, there is a 1574 account that 12d was given to to ‘the hare-finders at Whetston Court’ and of course hares are ‘on the menu’ although now beef I believe in Leicestershire’s Hallaton Hare Pie and Bottle kicking! Just over the border in Coleshill, Warwickshire, the parson would give a groat, a calf’s head and a hundred eggs, if a hare was presented to him by the young men of the Parish before 10 o’clock on Easter Monday!

Another account is in the Calendar of State Papers which records:

“1620, April 2. Thos. Fulnety solicits the permission of Lord Zouch, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, to kill a hare on Good Friday, as huntsmen say that those who have not a hare against Easter must eat a red herring.”

Returning to Dane Hills, it is in Throsby’s History of Leicester gives the longest and most detailed account:

“It had long been customary on Easter Monday for the Mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers, in form, to go to a certain close, called Black-Annis’ Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom perhaps originating out of a claim to the royalty of the forest. Hither, on a fair day, resorted the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed.”

However, although hares were the quarry they were perhaps at the time of Throsby’s account getting a bit scarce, therefore after the morning was spent in ‘various amusements and athletic exercises’:

“a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water for commencing the mock-hunting of the hare. In about half-an-hour, after the cat had been trailed at the tail of a horse over the grounds in zig-zag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. . . . As the cat had been trailed to the Mayor’s door, through some of the principal streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the Mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends; in this manner the day ended.”

Why did they do the custom? As the land was held time immemorial as part of the demesne of the ancient Earls of Leicester passing to the crown in the reign of Henry IV, and thus Kelly’s Notices of Leicester believes that:

“this formal ceremony of hunting in their state robes was adopted by the Corporation as an assertion of their right of free warren over the lands in question”.

However, the hunting of the hare is as noted an ancient tradition long older than the medieval perhaps. The site, Dane hill is believed to be derived from a possible pagan deity who is remembered as Black Annis (derived from the Celt Anu?). It was bogeyman or witch who would ‘suck on their blood’, as noted in Leicester Chronicle of 1894, of children. Is it a coincidence that the hunters dragged a cat soaked in anni-seed? This is especially suspicious considering that the legend of the bogeyman was called in the 1890s as ‘Cat Anna’ or did this remember the cat soaked in anniseed?

The custom survived until 1767, but as often happens the associated ‘amusements’ which arose around it continued for longer. An account from April 2nd 1842 notes:

“The Dane Hill Fair was crowded with visitors, principally young people of the working classes, and the fields beyond the spot where the field is held were also thronged with merry-makers.”

This fair was the last vestige of the unusual custom and died out in 1842. And hares or dead cats be sighing relief!

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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