An Historical Pageant of Rugby
Organised by the Percival Guildhouse and Hospital of St Cross
Place: Hospital of St Cross Field (Rugby) (Rugby, Warwickshire, England)
Number of performances: 5
1–4 July 1931
1, 2, 3 July at 7.30pm; 4 July at 3pm and 7.30pm 1931.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Harris, E. Sewell
- Secretary: Mr A. Neale-Dowswell
- Director of Music: Mr W. Izatt
- Mistress of the Robes: Mrs R.W. Shann
- Mistresses of the Dance: Miss G.M. Eaborn and Miss A.M. Henton
- Stage Manager: Mr K.D. Walker
- Master of the Horse: Mr C.B. Thompson
- Narrator: Mr T.M. Watson
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Chairman of the Pageant Committees: Mr R.F. Sims
Produced by Percival Guildhouse and the Hospital of St Cross with the co-operation of The Rugby Historical Association, Rugby School, The Philharmonic Society, St Marie’s Choir, Women’s Institutes and others.
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Bradby, G.F.
- Robinson, Mrs E.
- Talbot-Kelly, R.B.
G.F. Bradby (Prologue).
Mrs E. Robinson (all the Book and Episodes except Episode II).
Captain R.B. Talbot-Kelly (Episode II).
Names of composers
- Parry, Hubert
- Elgar, Edward
Numbers of performers150
The Proceeds were divided equally between Percival Guildhouse and the Hospital of St Cross.
Object of any funds raised
- Grandstand: Not Known
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: n/a
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Bear with us gentle audience, as we try
To hold the mirror up to History;
Here you shall see a vanished world revived—
Our fathers ‘in their habit as they lived’
From ancient Druids and the British clans
To hardly less remote Victorians.
They trod the field in which our show appears:
The summers we delight in once were theirs:
And, to itself, each passing generation
Appeared the crowning glory of creation.
Ourselves, perhaps, in a distant age
Will furnish matter for another stage,
And some more perfect pageant label us
Primitive Georgians with their clumsy ‘bus!
To every dog his day—and not for long!
But every day is worthy of a song.
Life is a Pageant and Time travels fast;
We are the Present: now behold the Past.
Prologue read by:
Venerable Archdeacon Hunkin on Wednesday
The Viscountess Feilding on Thursday
Mr W.W. Vaughan on Friday
Mr C.W. Browning on Saturday afternoon
Mr W.H. Perkins, Director of Education for Warwickshire on Saturday Evening
Episode I. The Druids, 1 BC
Druids are coming from Caer Guorie (Warwick) to celebrate the feast of Hirvan (Midsummer) at Rochberie. The villagers, led by two acolytes, enter and prepare the altar. Druids approach singing ‘The Holy Sanctuary is complete’. The Arch-druid reads auguries but is interrupted by Queen Keridwen, who, having failed to turn her ugly son handsome, implores the Arch-druid to make him a druid, which he does. Avagddu drinks from the Holy Grail ‘which in after years he is to take to Jerusalem in time for Our Saviour’s cruxifiction.’ Dancing and singing ‘To the Oak’.
Episode II. Incidents on Watling Street, AD 150
A party of female slaves and children from Leicester Market, with slave-master and two legionaries, halt by the roadside. Peasants return and give the collapsed women beer. A Romano-British lady is carried in on a litter by slaves with a view to purchase, but moves on. An old peasant woman and her children are jeered at by a local outlaw ‘Robin Hood’ in traditional costume. Four footpads rob a merchant and slave on their way to Leicester. A pay convoy with auxiliaries, marching northwards, is attacked by the outlaws, who triumph and kill a number of them, before moving on.
Episode III. The Domesday Inquest, AD 1086
The scene is the Village Green at Rochberie where Thurkil of Warwick, who was outlawed by Canute and who refused to assist Harold at Hastings, was allowed to keep his possessions before being driven out by Henry de Newburgh. The episode opens with spring dances, interrupted by a messenger, who announces Thurkil and King’s Commissioner’s arrival. The villagers gloomily make preparations for their unwelcome visitors, who appear and extract necessary information about the value of land and the number of ploughs, free men, villeins, serfs, etc.
Episode IV. The Foundation of Rokeby’s Early Church, AD 1140
Thurbert of Bliney and Rokeby, with his wife and son Henry, comes to Rokeby (village) to meet Ernald de Bois, his wife and daughter. Thurbert consents to erect a church at Rokeby and to dedicate it to St Lawrence, the Roman Martyr. A shortened ‘watch-night’ or wake service takes place, and the foundation stone is laid. All sing Psalm CXXII [‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”/Our feet are standing/in your gates, Jerusalem’], and they retire.
Episode V. The Marriage of Baroness Talboys, AD 1553
In 1521 the manor and town of ‘Rokeby’ [Rugby] were given to Sir Gilbert Talboys and his wife, Elizabeth (who was the former mistress of Henry VIII). Elizabeth became a Baroness and later married Lord Dudley.
The scene is Elizabeth and Dudley’s marriage. Lawrence Sheriff arrives on his ‘ambling nag’ and greets his old friend Richard Foster, ‘another Rugby benefactor’. The witch, Mother Shipton, appears and is driven away. The bridal procession issues from the church and there are various dances; ‘the graceful minuet’, ‘Pavane’ and ‘Basse Dance’ with the ‘Bridal Song’. As guests prepare to leave, Mother Shipton reappears and utters prophecies, before being driven away as guests depart.
Episode VI. The Cavaliers at Rugby, AD 1642
Scene: High Street, Rugby on Sunday Morning.
(Rugby declared for Parliament due to the offices of Rev. James Nalton, and the town was raided by Cavaliers under Captain John Smith of Skilts.) Rugbeians are going to church, including Abigail and Richard Elborow and Naomi and Moses Cowley. Their sons enter later to enjoy ‘their stolen holiday’. Their game of leap-frog is interrupted by the troop of Cavaliers who gag and bind them. The Cavaliers raid the houses. The congregation comes out of the church. Their fathers want to punish the children, but their mothers believe they have suffered enough and intervene. The Rev. James Nalton and Sir William Burnaby approach and the crowd all depart to learn of the extent of the raid.
Episode VII. Rugby Football, no date
‘Episode VII shows the evolution of Rugby football from the elves’ game [there was a popular myth that it derived from “Robin Goodfellow and the Football Fairies”]. Lawrence Sheriff enters and finds Robin Goodfellow kicking the burst ball about. Lads enter in groups until the 1823 game is played, during which Webb Ellis picks up the ball and runs. Then follows the School House (white trousers) v. School game from “Tom Brown’s School Days”, during which Dr Arnold, with Queen Adelaide and attendants, appear and are nearly mobbed by the boys.’ The episode features a number of characters from the book including ‘Old Brooke’, Warner, Tom Brown, East, Flashman, Crab Jones, and Griffiths.
Episode VIII. Dinner and Festivities in Honour of Queen Victoria’s Coronation, 28 June 1838
This scene is reconstructed from various historical sources available at the Public Library Museum. A public dinner where J. Caldecott presided. Singing of ‘Non Nobis Domine’ by the Rugby Glee Society. Toasts to Her Majesty and other figures. The scene also features Dr and Mrs Arnold.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Dudley, Ambrose, earl of Warwick (c.1530–1590) magnate
- Shipton, Mother (supp. fl. 1530) supposed witch and prophetess
- Nalton, James (c.1600–1662) Church of England clergyman and ejected minister
- Arnold, Thomas (1795–1842) headmaster and historian
- Adelaide [Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen] (1792–1849) queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, consort of William IV
- Ellis, William Webb (1806–1872) Church of England clergyman and supposed originator of rugby
Director of Music: Mr W. Izatt. ‘The music of this is either traditional or gathered from the oldest works extant.’ Pieces included ‘Jerusalem’ (Hubert Parry, Edward Elgar orchestration, words by William Blake).
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Leamington Spa Courier
Book of words
- Book of the Rugby Pageant. Rugby, 1934).
12pp plus 4 plates. Price: 6d.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
Sources used in preparation of pageant
- Archival materials held at the Rugby Public Library Museum.
- Coventry Herald and Observer, 6 July 1838.
- Hughes, Thomas. Tom Browne’s Schooldays.
This Pageant was on a relatively small scale, held in a small town in Warwickshire with a population in the 1931 census of 35100. In some respects, smallness was a great boon to the pageant. It was organised by the Percival Guildhouse, a body formed in 1925 to promote adult education in the town and purchased by former Rugby School pupils as a memorial to Dr John Percival, headmaster of the school, adult education pioneer, and later Bishop of Hereford until his death in 1918.1 The Percival Guildhouse is still an important part of the town. The Hospital of St Cross was the town hospital, and along with the Guildhouse was the intended beneficiary of any profits made. The pageant drew on a wide range of local civic bodies to put the event together, including The Rugby Historical Association, Rugby School, The Philharmonic Society, St Marie’s Choir, and the County Women’s Institutes. Viscountess Fielding, President of the Warwickshire Federation of Women’s Institutes, was a major backer, playing a prominent role (including reading the Prologue on the opening night). The presence of such important local supporters provided sympathetic early press coverage, noting that ‘Pageants seem to be “all the rage” just now’ and going on to suggest that ‘there are few things which rouse such love of history and admiration for “our fathers that begat us” as a Pageant.’2
Preliminary press reports also warmed to the more low-key presentation of scenes, which by and large omitted national figures with at best tangential connections to the town passing through on the way to a more important event. ‘For once, Queen Elizabeth is actually allowed to have a rest, and the marriage of the Lady of the Manor to Ambrose Dudley, the “good Earl of Warwick”, introduces the colour and pageantry associated with Elizabethan England.’3 The Pageant’s early scenes included a story of Warwickshire origin pertaining to the Holy Grail, a story which finds its origins in the Mabinogion.4 The second episode tells a permutation of the Robin Hood story set in Roman times, and the third the tale of Thurkil of Warwick who evidently chose the right side during the Norman Conquest and went from being a Saxon outlaw to an Earl who founded the town of Rochberie (Rugby). It is claimed that one of his descendants was ‘Felice’ in the Guy of Warwick legend (see 1927 Guy of Warwick Pageant) and, even more tenuously, that he was an ancestor of William Shakespeare.5 Later episodes focus on events from the history of the town, including the foundation of the church at Rokeby and the marriage of Elizabeth Talboys and Lord Ambrose Dudley. Ambrose Dudley, like Thurkil, was a great historical survivor: Sentenced to death for his father’s part in putting Lady Jane Grey on the throne in 1553, he was pardoned and rehabilitated because of his role fighting with Spain in the Battle of St Quentin in 1557. Thus the marriage represents a brief moment before Dudley’s momentary fall from grace, which Mother Shipton warns against (though, as Elizabeth was instrumental in sparing his life, we must infer that the marriage was not entirely bad). Elizabeth, a baroness with great lands in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, was Dudley’s second of three wives, and died childless in 1563.
Episode VI makes humour of the otherwise bleak Civil War in which the nominally neutral Rugby was beset by armies. Strangely, the episode makes no allusion to Charles I, who passed through Rugby en route to the Battle of Naseby (1642), just fifteen miles away—or for that matter Cromwell, who stayed in the town in 1645. The pageant similarly omits, desiring to avoid infamous associations with the town, the stay of the gunpowder plotters in the town on the evening of 5 November 1605.
The final two scenes show instances of great civic pride, linking together the school and the game of Rugby Football, along with one of the most famous representations of the town in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the novel by Richard Hughes (though set in the 1830s). The first of these two scenes, observers agreed, was ‘the liveliest… in the production’, being ‘obviously enjoyed as much by the schoolboy players as by the spectators.’6 The final scene commemorates the festivities of Queen Victoria’s coronation, at which—so the Leamington Spa Courier related—the gentlemen ‘were requested to bring their own knives, forks, plates and mugs’.7
The emphatically local nature of the Rugby pageant, which avoided the attempts other pageants often made to link their towns to major historical figures, was appreciated in some press reports. The Leamington Spa Courier told its readers that ‘On a summer evening there is no open-air entertainment more delightful than a pageant. It is very pleasant to sit in the cool air after a hot day and to watch the past, with its colour and romance, come to life once again…Drama, humour, religion, dance and sport all have their place in the pageant and impart the variety and interest which are the secret of its success.’8 Warming to simplicity of the pageant and its message, the same report went on to note the ‘every-day life in the majority of the episodes’, thinking ‘It showed that the spirit of bygone ages can be captured without relying solely on reproductions of history’s grander moments’. The conclusion was that glimpses ‘of normal life in Old England…provide material for a pageant which is just as striking as one with more elaborate scenes on a big scale.’9 Overall, the small scale presented ‘an admirable miniature history of Rugby and has in addition something of the spirit of Warwickshire…that mixture of legend and history for which this country is pre-eminent.’10 Without aspiring to the level of larger county pageants, such as Northampton (1930), the Rugby Pageant successfully evoked a discrete and satisfying sense of local identity and, by its refusal to court major historical figures, presented an original and highly entertaining scene. It demonstrated the continued vitality of (very) local civic cultures deep into the twentieth century.
- The Percival Guildhouse, accessed 27 October 2015, http://www.percival-guildhouse.co.uk/index.php/about-us.
- Leamington Spa Courier, 15 May 1931, 5.
- Giles Morgan, The Holy Grail (Avesbury, 2005), 30.
- Countess of Warwick, Warwick Castle and its Earls (London, 1903), 47.
- Leamington Spa Courier, 3 July 1931, 7.
- Leamington Spa Courier, 15 May 1931, 5.
- Leamington Spa Courier, 3 July 1931, 7.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘An Historical Pageant of Rugby’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1178/