‘A City Pageant in Olden Times’, Panel by Frank Brangwen, Skinners’ Hall
The 1519 Pageant
SAINT AND LONDONER
The Becket Pageant of 2022 was inspired by an historic Becket Pageant which was performed in 1519, four hundred years after Thomas Becket’s birth on Cheapside, while he was still Patron Saint of London.
From the extensive work done by scholars including Professor Anne Lancashire, (editor of the comprehensive three volume edition of the Records of Early English Drama covering the medieval period) we know that this would have been a processional entertainment moving through the principal streets of the City, with large numbers of porters bearing wood and canvas boards above the crowds which supported a number of ‘tableaux vivants’ (moving narrative pictures or dumbshows) performed by guildsmen, child actors and a small number of professional actors on horseback. The procession continued well into the night with torches lighting the way.
The Pageant route began and ended in the St Paul’s area, ran east along Cheapside and Cornhill to Aldgate, then looped back along Fenchurch St. to Gracechurch St., up Gracechurch St. to Cornhill, and back west along Cornhill and Cheapside.
On the map, this route goes from St Paul's on the left of the first panel down the long main road to the extreme right of the panel. It then continues on the main road from left to right on the second panel, coming to an end at Aldgate in the extreme right of the second panel. Going in the opposite direction, the route then loops underneath the main road of the second panel on the curved road, then onto the straight main road, and finally back to St Paul's.
We are grateful to the Historic Towns Trust for permission reproduce these sections of 'Tudor London — the City and Southwark in 1520' ed. by Caroline Barron and Vanessa Harding, published in 2019, ISBN 978-0-9934698-3-1. Available to buy from bookshops (including Guildhall Gallery) or online retailers, RRP £9.99.
Although there would have been no text as such, apart from the occasional descriptive banner, the subject matter of the life of St Thomas would have needed no introduction to the devout Catholic audiences of the early 16th century (rather as the nativity processions of today need no explanation to religious Catholics on mainland Europe).
The occasion for the pageant was the annual Midsummer Watch
Parade which traditionally took place over the two public ‘holy days’ of the Feasts of St John the Baptist (24 June) and Sts Peter and Paul the Apostles (29 June). These London Watch parades, recorded from the late 13th century onwards, were originally devised in part as a marching display of armed force for keeping order in the City, in part as a form of military muster (in which the Crown required freemen to provide arms for use in military defence).
By the late fourteenth century, however, there are records of the Watches incorporating decorative display. For example, in 1477 the King commanded the City to put on the ‘greater watch’ on the eve of St Peter and St Paul due to the presence of the ambassadors of France and Scotland, for which twenty-six companies provided a total of five hundred and ten men for the Watch; the Drapers, who had a mayor in office, are recorded as paying for a morris dance and portable pageant involving gold and silver paper and ‘the nine worthies’ which required fourteen men to carry it.
By the time of the Becket pageant of 1519 (staged by Skinners’ Lord Mayor Thomas Mirfyn), the Midsummer Watch parade had grown into an annual spectacle and street entertainment on an immense scale, best known today from the affectionate account (below) written in 1598 by the historian John Stow recalling the event from his (pre-Reformation) boyhood.
‘On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, white lilies, and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers, had also lamps of glass, with oil burning in them all the night; some hung out branches of iron curiously wrought, containing hundreds of lamps alight at once, which made a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street, etc. Then had ye besides the standing watches all in bright harness, in every ward and street of this city and suburbs, a marching watch, that passed through the principal streets thereof, to wit, from the little conduit by Paule’s gate to West Cheape, by the stocks through Cornhill, by Leaden hall to Aldgate, then back down Fenchurch street, by Grasse church, about Grasse church conduit, and up Grasse church street into Cornhill, and through it into West Cheape again. The whole way for this marching watch extendeth to three thousand two hundred tailor’s yards of assize; for the furniture whereof with lights, there were appointed seven hundred cressets, five hundred of them being found by the companies, the other two hundred by the chamber of London. Besides the which lights every constable in London, in number more than two hundred and forty, had his cresset: the charge of every cresset was in light two shillings and four pence, and every cresset had two men, one to bear or hold it, another to bear a bag with light, and to serve it, so that the poor men pertaining to the cressets, taking wages, besides that every one had a straw hat, with a badge painted, and his breakfast in the mornings amounted in number to almost two thousand. The marching watch contained in number about two thousand men, part of them being old soldiers of skill, to be captains, lieutenants, serjeants, corporals, etc., wiflers, drummers, and fifes, standard and ensign bearers, sword players, trumpeters on horseback, demilances on great horses, gunners with hand guns, or half hakes, archers in coats of white fustian, signed on the breast and back with the arms of the city, their bows bent in their hands, with sheaves of arrows by their sides, pike-men in bright corslets, burganets, etc., halberds, the like bill-men in almaine rivets, and apernes of mail in great number; there were also divers pageants, morris dancers, constables, the one-half, which was one hundred and twenty, on St. John’s eve, the other half on St. Peter’s eve, in bright harness, some overgilt, and every one a jornet of scarlet thereupon, and a chain of gold, his henchman following him, his minstrels before him, and his cresset light passing by him, the waits of the city, the mayor’s officers for his guard before him, all in a livery of worsted, or say jackets party-coloured, the mayor himself well mounted on horseback, the swordbearer before him in fair armour well mounted also, the mayor’s footmen, and the like torch bearers about him, henchmen twain upon great stirring horses, following him. The sheriffs’ watches came one after the other in like order, but not so large in number as the mayor’s; for where the mayor had besides his giant three pageants, each of the sheriffs had besides their giants but two pageants, each their morris dance, and one henchman, their officers in jackets of worsted or say, party-coloured, differing from the mayor’s, and each from other, but having harnessed men a great many…etc.’
Corroborating Stow’s account, records from the Renter Warden Books of the Skinners’ Company (which record detailed expenditure for ‘the St Thomas Pageant both nights’) reveal that the tableaux were accompanied by musicians and actors on horseback, as well as light-bearers and street entertainers such as jugglers and, in addition to the massed military groups, mechanical Giant Puppets similar to Gog and Magog, who lead the Lord Mayor’s show today.
In the absence of a script, the Renter Warden books also offer a rich insight into the dramatis personae and style of the pageant.
‘various payments to sword players and minstrels, - including for 3lb of gunpowder!!’ (Not much health and safety in those days!)
20d to Hans for playing the giant and to his wife, with taboret (a kind of stool)
10d to Richard Ward for bearing the ladder, and for cord and nails to mend the pageant by the way
7s 4d to six men to bear the pageant prison
We can also gather from the records that there were a few professional actors in the leading roles, such as Robert Johnson who is recorded as being paid 3s 6d to for playing Tracy the Knight.
The majority of the players, however, were experienced amateurs drawn from within the Company itself. This is a similar convention to that found in many of the Mystery Plays in Cathedral towns, and a theme we will be looking to replicate in the 2021 City pageant.
It is also possible to glean insights into the storyline by working through the list of characters - Tracy was of course one of the four Knights who murdered Thomas. But there are some more surprising characters listed too, for example, a Sultan, which refers to a popular (and entirely fanciful) myth about Becket’s exotic parenthood. This probably originated in London in the 1240s, and by 1519 had become an established part of Becket’s hagiography.
Briefly, this casts Becket’s mother as a beautiful Eastern princess Rohisa and Gilbert Becket as a devout crusader knight. The couple meet and fall in love during Gilbert’s imprisonment by her father the Sultan during a crusade in the Holy Land. Rohisa subsequently helps Gilbert to escape and follows him back to London with only two words of English - Becket and London. They are reunited. She is baptised a Christian. Thomas is born and the rest is history!