St Albans Pageant 1953: A Masque of the Queens

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Place: Verulamium Park (St Albans) (St Albans, Hertfordshire, England)

Year: 1953

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 7


22–27 June 1953

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Swinson, Cyril
  • Master of the Music: Lewis Covey-Crump
  • Secretary: H.S. Lait


Patrons: The Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire; The Lord Bishop of St Albans; The Rt Hon. the Earl of Verulam; His Worship the Mayor of St Albans [Alderman W. Bird]

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Executive Committee:

  • Chairman: Alderman J.M. Donaldson, MC
  • Vice-Chairman: Alderman Arthur Blott, JP
  • The Mayor of St Albans (Alderman W. Bird, CBE, JP)
  • Alderman R.G. Thompson
  • Councillor E.A. Garlant
  • Councillor F.J. Lavery
  • Councillor C.F. Preece
  • Councillor R. Thrale
  • W.B. Murgatroyd (Town Clerk)
  • A.S. Moody (City Engineer and Surveyor)
  • John E. Harrison, FIPA
  • W.R. Hiskett, JP
  • L.F. Vick
  • C.W. Swinson (Pageant Master)
  • H.S. Lait (Secretary)

Publicity Committee:

  • Chairman: John E. Harrison, FIPA
  • Vice-Chairman: G. Dorman, MIAMA
  • William Fisher
  • Major P. Scott-Martin, MC, TD
  • Press Officer: Mrs F.W. Gansert

Transport Committee:

  • Chairman: C. Johnstone

Ground Committee:

  • Chairman: A.S. Moody

Box Office Committee:

  • Chairman: Alexander Donald

Seating Committee:

  • Chairman: H.F. Stovell, JP

Music Committee:

  • Lewis Covey-Crump (Master of the Music)
  • Robert Lindsay, BSc, AIC, LRAM
  • Peter Jenkyns, LRAM, ARCM

Costume Committee:

  • Chairman: E.W. Watson
  • Joint Mistresses of the Robes: Mrs F.G. Bradley; Mrs E.W. Watson

Properties Committee:

  • Chairman: L.J. Attewill
  • Master of the Properties: Harold Corble

Horse Committee:

  • Chairman and Master of the Horse: H.G. Beale
  • Secretary: Hon. Mrs Standish Vereker
  • Chairman’s Secretary: Miss Elizabeth Lee

Dance Committee:

  • Mistress of the Folk Dance: Miss Mollie du Cane
  • Mrs Doreen Grieve

Lighting Committee:

  • Chairman: Harold Westell


In most cases, only the name of the chairman is given in the programme.

Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Swinson, Cyril

Names of composers

  • Balfe, Michael
  • Benet, John
  • Chirbury, Robert
  • Covey-Crump, Lewis
  • Dowland, John
  • Dunstable, John
  • Earle, Giles
  • Foster, Arnold
  • Gibbons, Ellis
  • Handel, George Frideric
  • Holst, Gustav
  • John of Forness
  • Kreisler, Fritz
  • Lindsay, Robert
  • Meyerbeer, Giacomo
  • Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
  • Purcell, Henry
  • Stanley, John
  • Williams, Ralph Vaughan
  • Walton, William
  • Warlock, Peter
  • Whyte, Robert
  • Wood, Charles

Numbers of performers


More than1600.

Financial information

Overall loss of £1203. 1s. 4d., resulting in a call on guarantors of 4s .6d. per pound promised.

The total income was £7900, compared with a projection of £13500. Ticket sales raised £6832. 0s. 2d., programme sales £877. 15s. 10d. and the car park £154. 11s. 6d.

Costs included £3757 on the grandstand, £1550 on costumes and props, £1572 on publicity and £251 on horses.2

Object of any funds raised

‘Church extensions and improved local amenities’.3

Linked occasion

Coronation of Elizabeth II

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: 3853
  • Total audience: 18989


The total attendance was 17709, with another 1280 seated on the grass for the performances on Friday and Saturday. This compares with a total grandstand capacity across the seven performances of 26971.4

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

21s.–3s. 6d.

Seats priced at 3s. 6d., 5s., 8s. 6d., 12s. 6d., 15s. and 21s.

Associated events


Pageant outline


The chorus (played by Jean Harwood) enters through the trees, with attendants in medieval costume. She introduces the pageant, in verse, and offers the ‘Pageant Play’ to the queen. The pageant hymn is sung:

Lift up your hearts on high,
Sing and rejoice;
Lift up your hearts on high,
Sing with one voice.
Sing of our ancient town,
Tell of her glory,
Tell of her sorrows too,
Tell all her story
Saint Albans, Saint Albans,
We honour thee to-day.
Saint Alban, Saint Alban,
We follow in thy way.
Bless our endeavours, Lord,
To Thee we pray
Give us new courage, and
Hope for to-day.5

Episode I. Queen Boadicea: The Battle Against the Romans, AD61

The scene opens with a group of British slaves complaining about their cruel treatment at the hands of the Romans. Boadicea speaks to a crowd [based on Dio Cassius’s account of the rebellion]:

The Roman tribes have treated us with scorn,
Extorted cruel taxes,
Taken away the nobles of my court as slaves,
Stripped us of our possessions, outraged my daughters,
And me, they have scourged with whips.

Let us avenge our freedom that is lost,
That we may live again in peace.6

The Britons attack the Romans, and Boadicea makes a victory speech. The chorus describes her death but tells the audience that, after this, the Romans were much kinder to the native people.

Episode II. Queen Matilda: The Solemn Dedication of the Abbey, 1116

Robert the Mason, with a group of masons, joiners, labourers and others, enters. He explains to a country woman that he and his people built the abbey church. Matilda arrives and praises Robert the Mason’s work. There is then a great procession, with the men who built the church and a number of dignitaries: Robert of Mellent, Stephen of Mortain [later King Stephen], Richard of Chester, William of Warrenne, Geoffrey Archbishop of Rouen, Ralph Bishop of Durham, Richard Bishop of London, Roger Bishop of Salisbury, King Henry I, Matilda herself, and their son Prince William. The Bishop of Lincoln makes a speech dedicating the church.7 The chorus explains how the abbey subsequently grew in importance, with Nicholas Breakspear—refused admittance in his youth—evenually becoming Pope and showing great kindness to the abbey.

Episode III. Queen Eleanor: The Abbot and the Women of St Albans, 1274

Countrywomen are singing and sowing corn. They complain about the abbot and his behaviour: he is charging high fees for various rights and has taken away their handmills. Now some men enter, having talked to the abbot’s bailiff; they bring the news that the bailiff has broken their millstones. Brother Michael, a monk from the abbey, arrives and tells the people to go away as there will be a lady visitor that afternoon. The people speculate that this will be the queen. It is indeed the queen: Eleanor arrives and speaks with the abbot, Roger de Norton. In the abbot’s lodging, the two of them hear the protests of the local women, who have surged into the abbey. Eleanor insists on hearing the women’s complaint. However, as the chorus explains, the queen felt that the abbot was within his rights to treat the local people as he did.

Episode IV. Queen Philippa: Her Churching at the Abbey, 1341

The only speaking part in this episode is that of the chorus, who explains that Philippa rode from nearby Langley to St Albans. The cavalcade includes ladies and attendants, one of whom has a gold cloth that Philippa offers at her churching. The abbot, Michael de Mentmore, carries out the ceremony.

Episode V. Queen Katherine: A Royal Visit to the Abbey, 1428

A large crowd is summoned by the abbey bell for mass on ‘this day of festival’. One small boy runs away to collect a ball that he was playing with and is admonished by his mother for running away from church. He plays briefly with another boy, who, his mother tells him, is the king. A great procession enters, including members of the guilds of St Albans, the young King Henry VI, his mother Queen Katherine, and his uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Humphrey admonishes the queen, whose conduct, apparently, is not befitting her status. She confides in the abbot [John Whethamstede], worried that she will not be allowed to remarry, which is what she wants to do. The abbot tells her that she must decide between her happiness and her duty. More happily, the people now enter with a maypole and do some dancing, and the royal party then watches the local people performing a theatrical version of ‘St George and the Dragon’. The queen is distracted by a knight, Owen Glendower, whom she goes to stand next to. The play is described by the chorus, in verse. The royal party leaves at the end of the scene.

Episode VI. Queen Margaret: The Second Battle of St Albans, 1461

Henry VI is at St Albans again, with the Earl of Warwick, Duke of Norfolk, Duke of Suffolk, Earl of Arundel, Lord Bonville and Sir Thomas Kyriel—the last two being ‘virtually his gaolers, though kindly disposed towards him’.8 Henry has happy memories of St Albans. Queen Margaret rides in with the young Prince of Wales, the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter, the Earls of Northumberland, Shrewsbury and Devon, Lord Willoughby, Sir John Grey and her ‘great captain’ Andrew Trollope.9 Margaret vows to attack Warwick where he least expects it. A small party of horse exchanges arms with Warwick’s men, and Sir Humphrey [i.e. Henry] Bourchier says that it is difficult to attack up the narrow hill of George Street. The battle is eventually joined in the town and to the north, and the result is a victory for Margaret’s Lancastrian forces. She is reunited with Henry, who pleads for the life of his captors Bonville and Kyriel. However, Margaret insists that they be killed, and they are taken away.

Episode VII. Anne Boleyn: A Tudor Courtship, 1532

‘Queen Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII at Sopwell Nunnery—1532.’ Townsmen and women arrive with baskets of provisions. They speculate about the king, with one man suggesting that what he most wants is a son. The provisions are delivered to the nunnery by the women, as men are not allowed to enter Sopwell, except for the abbot and his monks. Two ladies are talking in the cloister about the king’s marriage and his intention to divorce Queen Catherine. Anne [Boleyn], Marchioness of Pembroke, enters with the mother superior of Sopwell and the Abbot of St Albans [Robert Catton]. King Henry arrives at an inn, pays for some wine, and tells the innkeeper that he wants a son. Anne, accompanied by Lady Wingfield and her brother Rochford, wants to know how the king fares. She now meets him and they speak of love; he promises to send her messages every day. He wants more hot spiced wine, but the innkeeper brings him cold wine, and Henry threatens to have him whipped.

Episode VIII. Queen Elizabeth I: A Visit to St Albans, 1577

The queen is visiting Sir Nicholas Bacon, his wife Lady Anne, and his sons Francis and Anthony. Nearby are the mayor, town clerk and other prominent local people, including the two MPs for St Albans [John Astley and Robert Stepneth]. The queen is entertained by various groups from other towns and villages in Hertfordshire. She gives her blessings to the county and its people.

Episode IX. Princess Anne: A Visit to the Churchills, 1692

Sarah Churchill is with her husband John in the grounds of Holywell House; there are gardeners and others in attendance. Sarah wants to make various changes to the gardens. They receive news that the princess is coming to visit today, which causes some panic, with servants and others running in various directions. The mayor and alderman, with their ‘ladies’, arrive, and then Anne and Prince George of Denmark. They are welcomed by John and Sarah, who leave the royal pair with Sir Samuel Grimston, son of the late Harbottle Grimston. Sarah remembers that Harbottle ‘was a fine old man, reminding me sometimes of John’s own father. You remember old Sir Winston, your Highness?’ Anne replies: ‘Sir Winston Churchill? Of course I do. I wish there were more men like him.’10 Grimston takes the princess into the garden; meanwhile, the Churchills’ staff present a short masque, ‘The Coming of Spring’. John Churchill presents the mayor of St Albans, Edward Howsell, to Princess Anne. The chorus now explains how St Albans declined in the eighteenth century, with the abbey church and others falling into neglect, as well as the disappearance of the prosperity brought by coach traffic, as the railways arrived.

Episode X. Queen Victoria: The Restoration of the Abbey, c.1856

A meeting about the restoration of the abbey church is taking place, chaired by the Earl of Verulam; he is hopeful that St Albans will become a diocese of its own rather than being in Rochester, as it now is. Meanwhile Lady Verulam, the Marchioness of Salisbury, the Countess of Essex and Countess Cowper are discussing ways of raising money. Lady Verulam says that she would like the queen to ‘signify her approval’ of the local efforts, although it cannot be expected that she will actually visit the town.11 It is agreed that there should be a ball, a fête, a conversazione, a concert and a garden party. The scene ends with various games being plated, an operatic duet at the concert, a comic song, a grand ball and some Highland dancing. The ‘commentator’ explains what happened next: how St Albans abbey church became a cathedral and the town a city, in 1877.


The chorus, with her attendants, arrives and summarises briefly what has been depicted in the pageant. The cast arrives and sings the pageant hymn again (see the Prologue). Each queen processes in turn, with her banner. At the end of the pageant the cast says the Lord’s Prayer and sings the national anthem.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Boudicca [Boadicea] (d. AD 60/61) queen of the Iceni
  • Henry I (1068/9–1135) king of England and lord of Normandy
  • Matilda [Edith, Mold, Matilda of Scotland] (1080–1118) queen of England, first consort of Henry I
  • William [William Ætheling, William Adelinus, William Adelingus] (1103–1120) prince
  • Stephen (c.1092–1154) king of England
  • Warenne, William (II) de, second earl of Surrey [Earl Warenne] (d. 1138) magnate
  • Bloet, Robert (d. 1123) administrator and bishop of Lincoln
  • Salisbury, Roger of (d. 1139) administrator and bishop of Salisbury
  • Eleanor [Eleanor of Castile] (1241–1290) queen of England, consort of Edward I
  • Philippa [Philippa of Hainault] (1310x15?–1369) queen of England, consort of Edward III
  • Catherine [Catherine of Valois] (1401–1437) queen of England, consort of Henry V
  • Henry VI (1421–1471) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Humphrey [Humfrey or Humphrey of Lancaster] duke of Gloucester [called Good Duke Humphrey] (1390–1447) prince, soldier, and literary patron
  • Whethamstede [Bostock], John (c.1392–1465) scholar and abbot of St Albans
  • Margaret [Margaret of Anjou] (1430–1482) queen of England, consort of Henry VI
  • Neville, Richard, sixteenth earl of Warwick and sixth earl of Salisbury [called the Kingmaker] (1428–1471) magnate
  • Bonville, William, first Baron Bonville (1392–1461) administrator and landowner
  • Edward [Edward of Westminster], prince of Wales (1453–1471)
  • Mowbray, John (VI), third duke of Norfolk (1415–1461) magnate
  • Pole, John de la, second duke of Suffolk (1442–1492) magnate
  • Kyriell, Sir Thomas (1396–1461) soldier
  • Beaufort, Henry, second duke of Somerset (1436–1464) magnate
  • Holland, Henry, second duke of Exeter (1430–1475) magnate
  • Percy, Henry, third earl of Northumberland (1421–1461) magnate
  • Trollope, Sir Andrew (d. 1461) soldier
  • Bourchier, Henry, first earl of Essex (c.1408–1483) magnate
  • Anne [Anne Boleyn] (c.1500–1536) queen of England, second consort of Henry VIII
  • Henry VIII (1491–1547) king of England and Ireland
  • Boleyn, George, Viscount Rochford (c.1504–1536) courtier and diplomat
  • Catton [known as Bronde], Robert (1470s?–1552) prior of Norwich and abbot of St Albans
  • Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
  • Bacon, Sir Nicholas (1510–1579) lawyer and administrator
  • Bacon, Francis, Viscount St Alban (1561–1626) lord chancellor, politician, and philosopher
  • Bacon [née Cooke], Anne, Lady Bacon (c.1528–1610) gentlewoman and scholar
  • Bacon, Anthony (1558–1601) spy
  • Astley, John (c.1507–1596) courtier
  • Churchill, John, first duke of Marlborough (1650–1722) army officer and politician
  • Churchill [née Jenyns], Sarah, duchess of Marlborough (1660–1744) politician and courtier
  • Anne (1665–1714) queen of Great Britain and Ireland
  • George, prince of Denmark and duke of Cumberland (1653–1708) consort of Queen Anne [also known as George, Prince]
  • Grimston, Sir Samuel, third baronet (1644–1700) politician
  • Stanley [née Sackville-West], Mary Catherine, countess of Derby [other married name Mary Catherine Gascoyne-Cecil, marchioness of Salisbury] (1824–1900) grande dame and politician manqué

Musical production

Choir: Members of St Albans Bach Choir and St Albans Choral Society.
Orchestra: Members of St Albans Orchestral Society, St Albans City Band, Watford School of Music, ‘etc.’; led by Hilda Parry.

  • Robert Lindsay. ‘Fanfare’.
  • John Stanley (arr. R. Lindsay). ‘Trumpet Tune’.
  • Lewis Covey-Crump. ‘The Pageant Hymn’.

Episode I:
  • Vaughan Williams. Incidental Music.

Episode II:
  • Henry Purcell (arr. R. Lindsay). ‘Passacaglia’.
  • Plainsong for procession (arr. C.P.P. Burton).

Episode III:
  • Arnold Foster. ‘Pastoral Fantasy’.
  • John of Forness (attrib.). ‘Summer Is Icumen In’.
  • Henry Purcell. Prelude to ‘The Fairy Queen’.

Episode IV:
  • Kreisler (arr. R. Lindsay). ‘Chanson Louis Treize’.
  • John Dunstable. ‘Sancta Maria’.

Episode V:
  • Robert Chirbury. ‘Sanctus’.
  • Gustav Holst. Ps.148, ‘Lord Who Hast Made Us’.
  • Trad. (arr. Kenworthy Schofield). Maypole Dance.
  • Arnold Foster. Toccata on ‘Princess Royal’.

Episode VI:
  • Trad. (with descant by Geoffrey Shaw; arr. Lewis Covey-Crump). ‘The Agincourt Song’.
  • William Walton. Incidental Music.

Episode VII:
  • John Dowland. ‘Now Cease My Wandering Eyes’.
  • Giles Earle. ‘Phyllis Was a Fair Maid’.
  • Robert Whyte (arr. Lewis Covey-Crump). Motet for Brass, ‘Laudate’.
  • Peter Warlock. ‘Mattachins’.

Episode VIII:
  • John Stanley. ‘Trumpet Tune’.
  • Ellis Gibbons. ‘Long Live Fair Oriana’.
  • John Benet. ‘All Creatures Now Are Merry’.
  • Lewis Covey-Crump. ‘Master Swinson’s Maggot’.
  • Dance, ‘Greensleaves’ (16th-Century Air, arr. Lewis Covey-Crump).

Episode IX:
  • G.F. Handel. ‘Royal Fireworks Music’.
  • Trad. (arr. Lewis Covey-Crump). Dance, ‘All in a Garden Green’.
  • Music for Masque.
  • Henry Purcell. Jig.

Episode X:
  • Charles Wood. ‘Full Fathom Five’.
  • Michael Balfe. Trombone Duet, ‘Excelsior’.
  • Mozart. Vocal Duet, ‘Lob ihm dich mein lieber’ [in programme: ‘leiber’].
  • Meyerbeer. Ballet Music.

  • Lewis Covey-Crump. ‘The Pageant Hymn’.
  • William Walton. March, ‘Crown Imperial’.
  • The National Anthem (arr. Elgar).

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Herts Advertiser

Book of words

St Albans Pageant 1953: Masque of the Queens, Verulamium, June 22–27, 1953, Souvenir Programme. St Albans, 1953.

Price: 2s. 6d. Copy in St Albans Central Library, LOC.791.624 (and in other locations).

Other primary published materials


The souvenir programme was also the book of words.

References in secondary literature

  • Freeman, Mark. ‘“Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle”: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain’. Social History 38 (2013): 423–455. The focus is on the four pageants at St Albans during the twentieth century.
  • Freeman, Mark. St Albans: A History. Lancaster, 2008. At pp. 303-304.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS): papers on 1953 pageant. Off Acc.1162/3603. Includes typed report, minutes of committees and financial summary. Also references in the St Albans City Council minutes, held at HALS.
  • St Albans Museums: various boxes and albums of photographs and pageant ephemera (uncatalogued). Includes photographs of episodes not seen elsewhere.
  • St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society library, Old Town Hall, St Albans: folder of photographs and pageant ephemera; copies of pageant programme/book of words. 25-minute DVD of pageant highlights.
  • Beardsmore Collection, Hudson Memorial Library, St Albans Cathedral: various pageant ephemera, including postcards.

Sources used in preparation of pageant


Cyril Swinson wrote in the souvenir programme: ‘For my sources of information I have drawn upon contemporary records, and only in Episode 10 have I had to invent the situation. ... For the other episodes I have ranged from Tacitus and the Abbey Chronicles to such modern works as the Victoria County History, the [Oxford] Dictionary of National Biography, Charles Ashdown’s works, and Sir Winston Churchill’s life of his illustrious ancestor: the Duke of Marlborough.’13


Having staged a pageant during the height of Edwardian ‘pageant fever’ in 1907, as well as one of the early post-war pageants in 1948, St Albans did it for the third time during the Coronation celebrations of 1953.14 This was a larger pageant than the one five years earlier—with more than 1600 performers, well in excess of the 1000 of 1948—but otherwise similar in its organisation and emphasis. The pageant-master, again, was Cyril Swinson, who had been praised for his work in 1948 and who was one of the most prolific pageant-masters of the 1950s, and whose brother Arthur later wrote and produced the St Albans ‘pageant-play’ of 1968. The organisation involved many of the same individuals, including Alderman J.M. Donaldson, who chaired the executive committee on both occasions. As in 1907 and 1948, the outdoor venue was Verulamium Park, with the cathedral and abbey church providing the impressive backdrop. As in 1948, the organisers applied for exemption from the entertainments tax and established a number of committees to deal with particular aspects of the organisation, ranging from costumes to horses to music.15

The pageant was called ‘A Masque of the Queens’, reflecting the occasion of the Coronation, and each scene depicted a visit of a queen to St Albans, although perhaps the word ‘visit’ is not appropriate to the Boudicca scene (Episode I). The theme dictated the periods that could be covered, which meant that, apart from Boudicca’s revolt, all the episodes were post-Conquest. Some of the scenes had characters who had appeared in St Albans pageants before, such as Elizabeth I and the Bacon family of Gorhambury, Henry VI and Queen Margaret, Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and John and Sarah Churchill, but other features of the pageant were new. Queen Anne appeared for the first time, as did Anne Boleyn and various prominent ladies of the Victorian period. Developing a trend that was already apparent in the inter-war and early post-war periods, there was more humour and frivolity in the pageant: the ‘comic highlight’, according to one observer, was the smoke-breathing dragon, which featured in Episode V.16 The dragon appears in the surviving film footage of the pageant,17 and it also appears to have influenced children’s writer Rosemary Manning, whose novel Dragon in Danger (1959) tells the story of a dragon who appears in a pageant in ‘St Aubyns’.18

The ‘queens’ theme resulted in an elaborate and ambitious costume drama, featuring a whole gamut of well- and lesser-known historical figures, many of whom were probably not recognisable to the audiences who came. Swinson skilfully blended national and local history in his script and scenes, drawing on the importance of the town and abbey of St Albans in the medieval period and bringing some of the town’s prominent families and abbots into the episodes, as well as monarchs from Boudicca to Queen Anne (Queen Victoria, although mentioned, did not actually appear). He certainly did his research. He wrote in the souvenir programme: ‘For my sources of information I have drawn upon contemporary records, and only in Episode 10 have I had to invent the situation. ... For the other episodes I have ranged from Tacitus and the Abbey Chronicles to such modern works as the Victoria County History, the [Oxford] Dictionary of National Biography, Charles Ashdown’s works, and Sir Winston Churchill’s life of his illustrious ancestor: the Duke of Marlborough.’19

A lot of effort was made, as always, to recruit participants and spread interest in the pageant. The arrangements occasioned some controversy, particularly when it emerged that—as a cost-saving measure—Swinson planned to use recorded music rather than an orchestra. This led to complaints at a public meeting, held at the town hall in December 1952, but the anticipated cost of recorded music, £200, was only one-fifth of what Swinson estimated a full orchestra would cost. Eventually Swinson and the ‘Master of the Music’, Lewis Covey-Crump, adopted a compromise solution, with a 100-strong choir and a 35-person orchestra, which would in total cost in the range of £250 to £300.20 In the end, the musical arrangements were ambitious, with some specially written music and a whole range of songs and orchestral pieces used throughout the two-hour performance.

Although the Coronation was the immediate occasion for the pageant, local patriotism and civic pride were heavily emphasised. As in 1948, the St Albans ‘pageant hymn’ was sung, this time at both the beginning and the end of the show. This song remained in the civic consciousness of St Albans for some time and was even sung at Swinson’s funeral in 1963.21 Swinson wrote in the local press at the time of the pageant: ‘I feel it is all to the good to stimulate pride in the city just now, when it is in danger of becoming a dormitory, or a large disorganized mass.’22 Concerns about the preservation of local history and civic memory were particularly significant in the context of post-war planning and rapid population change: St Albans was a designated ‘expansion town’ and saw a large influx of new residents in this period, while in the following decades its manufacturing base declined and its commuter population increased.23 As Mark Freeman has shown elsewhere, these concerns were shared by pageant organisers in many post-war towns and cities, resulting in the 1950s in a localism that was perhaps even more intense than had been seen during the heyday of ‘pageant fever’.24 As before, the pageant provided a way to bring the past into the service of the present in new and distinctive ways. Thus the souvenir programme (which was also the book of words) included a set of historical notes significantly entitled ‘Past, Present and Future’. The last section, written by the city surveyor, envisioned further suburban development, continued employment in manufacturing industry, and a blend of past and present in the fabric of the city: ‘[t]he future St Albans will be a pleasant place, retaining the best of the old combined in a harmonious way with the modern development and presenting a picture of an English city growing and changing through the centuries’.25 Although the preservation of the civic past was an important element of local politics and culture in the post-war period—Swinson himself was a founder member of the St Albans Civic Society, established in 1961—the emphasis here was as much on the future as on the past, and the pageant reflected a certain degree of confidence in what was to come.

The pageant itself, however, did not live up to expectations. Although it was undoubtedly enjoyed by those who took part in and saw it, it made a financial loss, mostly due to disappointing audiences. Only 17709 people paid to sit in the grandstand across the seven performances, less than two-thirds of the total capacity, although another 1280 sat on the grass for the weekend performances.26 The overall loss was £1203. 1s. 4d., resulting in a call on the guarantors for 4s. 6d. per pound promised. There had been some heavy expenditure, including £3757 on the grandstand and £1550 on costumes and props, and the total income was just £7900, compared with a projection of £13500.27 The organisers had tried to learn some lessons from 1948, when there had been too many expensive seats and not enough cheap ones, but this did not bring the hoped-for audiences to the pageant. The organisers’ report blamed the later start time of 8pm, which dissuaded visitors from beyond St Albans (although some special transport was arranged), traffic bottlenecks resulting from a poor layout of the pageant ground, and the ‘strong counter attraction’ of other Coronation activities, which meant that most advertising was done locally.28 Some of these problems had been foreseen. In March 1953 one member of the committee wrote to Alderman Donaldson with his concerns:

We shall certainly not get the free publicity which we got [in 1948] … We were pioneers, it was a novelty, the country had been starved of pageantry during the war period and more money was available. This time, every town, village and hamlet is having its own celebrations and, therefore, it will not be possible for the press to single out any one collaboration, or they would all expect similar treatment.29

This correspondent urged a smaller, less ambitious pageant, ‘definitely not on the scale of the 1948 one’. In the event, the 1953 pageant was larger and more expensive and proved to be the last outdoor pageant that St Albans staged. A smaller indoor ‘pageant play’ was staged at the new City Hall in association with the St Albans Festival in 1968, but there was nothing on scale of 1953 in the city again.


  1. ^ Herts Advertiser, 19 June 1953, 1.
  2. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, 1953 pageant accounts (attached to pageant committee minutes, 16 October 1953). Off.Acc.1162/3603.
  3. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, pageant committee minutes, 29 December 1952. Off.Acc.1162/3603.
  4. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, folder 2, document N: breakdown of pageant attendance. Off.Acc.1162/3603.
  5. ^ St Albans Pageant 1953: Masque of the Queens, Verulamium, June 22–27, 1953, Souvenir Programme (St Albans, 1953), 9. Copy in St Albans Central Library. LOC.791.624.
  6. ^ Ibid., 11.
  7. ^ St Albans was in the diocese of Lincoln in 1116.
  8. ^ St Albans Pageant 1953: Masque of the Queens, 33.
  9. ^ Ibid., 35.
  10. ^ Ibid., 51.
  11. ^ Ibid., 53.
  12. ^ Ibid., 57.
  13. ^ Ibid., 7. Charles Ashdown wrote the script for the 1907 St Albans pageant and was the author of various books including St Albans Historical and Picturesque (London, 1893).
  14. ^ On the St Albans pageants, see Mark Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display; Pompous Spectacle”: Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Social History 38 (2013): 423–55.
  15. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, pageant committee minutes, 27 November 1952 and 29 December 1952. Off.Acc.1162/3603.
  16. ^ Herts Advertiser, 26 June 1953, pageant supplement, ii.
  17. ^ Films of parts of the 1948 and 1953 pageants can be seen in the library of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society. Peter Swinson, son of the pageant master Cyril Swinson, has restored the films and shown them at a number of public events, including a study day organised by St Albans Museums and the ‘Redress of the Past’ project. See Mark Freeman, ‘Watching Pageant Films’, 29 January 2015, accessed 28 January 2016, and Paul Readman, ‘St Albans Study Day’, 8 June 2015, accessed 28 January 2016,
  18. ^ Rosemary Manning, Dragon in Danger (London, 1959). See Mark Freeman, ‘Dragon in Danger: A Pageant in Children’s Literature’, part 1, accessed 28 January 2016, and part 2, accessed 28 January 2016,
  19. ^ St Albans Pageant 1953: Masque of the Queens, 7.
  20. ^ Pageant committee minutes, 29 December 1952, 26 January 1953 and 2 March 1953.
  21. ^ Herts Advertiser, 11 January 1963, 13; Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display”’, 442.
  22. ^ Herts Advertiser, 26 June 1953, pageant supplement, vi.
  23. ^ Mark Freeman, St Albans: A History (Lancaster, 2008), 287ff.
  24. ^ Freeman, ‘“Splendid Display”’, 453.
  25. ^ St Albans Pageant 1953: Masque of the Queens, 63.
  26. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, folder 2, document N: breakdown of pageant attendance. Off.Acc.1162/3603.
  27. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, 1953 pageant accounts (attached to pageant committee minutes, 16 October 1953). Off.Acc.1162/3603.
  28. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, folder 1, report on 1953 pageant.
  29. ^ Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), Hertford, John E. Harrison to J.M. Donaldson, nd [March 1953], in pageant committee minute book, at 20 March 1953. HALS Off.Acc.1162/3603.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘St Albans Pageant 1953: A Masque of the Queens’, The Redress of the Past,