Pageant of Bignor
Place: Bignor Park (Bignor) (Bignor, Sussex, England)
Number of performances: 2
3 and 4 July 1912 at 2.30pm
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Byng, H.C.
Presented by: Mrs W. White
- Herald: W. Wrangham
- Musical Director: Mrs Spear
- Book of Words By: Miss Herbert and others
- Dances: Mrs Paddon and Mrs Carr
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Mrs Johnstone (head of committee)
- Mrs Johnstone
- Miss Frith
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Kipling, Rudyard
- Herbert, Miss
Kipling’s Poem ‘The Sussex Downs’ was used.
Names of composers
- Coleridge-Taylor, Samuel
- Holst, Gustav
Numbers of performers
Several hundred people took part as performers (West Sussex Gazette, 11 July 1912, 4).
Object of any funds raised
Proceeds to Village Nursing Work.
- Grandstand: Not Known
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: n/a
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
The Herald proclaims the beginning of the pageant and then reads from Kipling’s ‘The Sussex Downs’.
I. The Britons, 150 BC
Head: Mrs Johnstone
The Herald speaks, and druids enter and perform an ancient rite before departing. The Britons continue their occupations, the women cooking, the men cleaning weapons and selling fish. A dragon, nine feet long and black, appears and scares off the people and disappears chasing them. The Britons slowly begin to resume their work. The body of the dragon is brought in to great rejoicing.
II. The Romans, AD 47
Head: Mrs Johnstone
The scene is the entrance to a Roman Villa. The Herald describes the Roman invasion. Roman soldiers march across the green and salute the governor, Faustinus. Nymphs enter to music, who dance around the fountain and group around Caia, over whom Faustinus lays wreaths of flowers. Ancient Britons enter, dance, and fight. Faustinus proclaims their state as vassals, who acknowledge his right and cheer. Nymphs dance around before disappearing into the wood.
IIIa. The Saxons, AD 690
Head: Mrs Johnstone
Saxons enter with weapons. Women enter with corn, children with flowers. The Herald announces Bishop Wilfred’s arrival from the See of York. Saxon women and children dance. Elfrida proclaims the bounty of the earth as brown elves enter and dance with the children. The bishop and monks enter and greet a child. Lady Bertha thanks him for his teaching. All sing a Harvest song, and Bishop Wilfred blesses the earth. All form a procession before marching off.
IIIb. The Saxons and Danes, AD 700
Head: Mrs Johnstone
The Herald announces the Danes sweeping cruelly over the land. Saxons are, however, rejoicing. Harold is happy as more Saxon soldiers arrive, having defeated the Danes. General Wolfstane announces their victory at the battle of Ciss’cester. A Dane enters disguised as a minstrel and sings to them. As Saxons go to sleep, the minstrel disappears to reappear with Danes who attack the sleeping Saxons. However, the Danes are repulsed and taken prisoner.
IVa. The Normans, AD 1100
Head: Mrs Wright Biddulph and Major Drury
Swain, a messenger, announces the Bishop’s arrival to the people of Chichester. Children with flowers enter shortly before a procession of Abbess and Nuns arrive singing Latin chants. Then come four monks and later a procession of more monks and Bishop Stigand, carrying banners and a model of Chichester Priory. Stigand greets them all and gives a Charter to the See of Chichester and foretells that a ‘grat Chuch will presently arrive.’1 The procession exits.
IVb. Matilda, AD 1149
Head: A. Musgrave
A sullen crowd waits in anticipation of Matilda’s arrival, plotting resistance. Children enter, playing games and singing nursery rhymes to kill time. Matilda arrives in a litter. The crowd forms to prevent her arrival, declaring ‘Matilda shall not rule us!’2 Lord de Mowbray scatters the crowd and then helps Matilda to dismount before leaving for the nearby Arundel Castle to rally the defenders. Matilda tries to calm the crowd, and a child offers her a flower. A retinue of knights enters with Lord Arundel, who kneels and kisses Matilda’s hand. Gilbert Mallet, a local burgess, offers her the town’s hospitality. All process out.
V. Ancient Games and Tilting at the Ring, AD 1300–1400
Head: Mrs Johnstone and A. Musgrave
Jesters and Morris dancers with country dancers enter and perform dances. All retire as a procession of ladies with pages enter with falcons on their wrists. Horsemen arrive for the tilting joust, then exit.
VI. Elizabeth, AD 1592
Head: Dr Spear and M. Seaton Karr
Fittleworth Village Green. The May Queen sings, borne aloft by six archers and followed by a crowd of villagers and children. A maypole is set up, and the May Queen is crowned. Children dance around the maypole and women play stoolball. A messenger enters and announces the Queen’s arrival and that her horse is in need of shoeing. The Queen arrives escorted by noblemen and an entourage. The May Queen is disconsolate but curtseys. The Queen is in a good mood and calls on the May Queen to attend on her. The blacksmith leads Elizabeth’s horse to his forge. There is Morris dancing and song. There is a disturbance, and a man is put in the stocks for brawling—he is the May Queen’s betrothed. Elizabeth calls for his release and thanks the May Queen for her assistance. Elizabeth’s horse is ready and she rides off in state, cheered by all.
VII. Charles II Escaping to France, AD 1651
Head: Mrs Waller and R.A. Loyd
Colonel Morley and a hunting party ride past in search of Charles hiding in the woods, offering locals a reward of a thousand crowns to bring him to Arundel Castle. Colonel Wilmot and the King (disguised as a farm servant) arrive. Charles wishes to join the hunt but is pulled back. Charles flirts with pretty girls beside the forge until the blacksmith recognises him and pledges to shelter him. Charles forgets he is a lowly servant and is about to be discovered by Colonel Morley who reappears, until the blacksmith’s wife throws a cloak over the King who hurries into the woods. Morley greets Wilmot suspiciously, who claims the man was merely his errant valet. To make good the illusion, Wilmot cuffs Charles, which puts Morley’s suspicions at rest and he rides off. The people rejoice and there is a feast. Charles gives the blacksmith’s wife an order redeemable when he returns. His health is toasted, and he then goes off.
VIII. Meeting of the Allied Sovereigns, AD 1814
Head: Mrs Nevill
Locals enter talking and laughing in anticipation of the meeting of Emperors and Kings at Petworth Park. Egremont enters and greets the locals. The Royal procession enters from London. The orchestra plays the National, Russian and Prussian Anthems. They are greeted by Reverend Sockett. Children dance, the royalty move off, and the crowd cheers and disperses.
Tableau of All Performers
‘God Save the King.’
Key historical figures mentioned
- Stigand (d. 1087) bishop of Chichester
- Matilda [Matilda of England] (1102–1167) empress, consort of Heinrich V
- Aubigny, William d' [William de Albini; known as William d'Aubigny Pincerna], first earl of Arundel (d. 1176) magnate
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
- Charles II (1630–1685) king of England, Scotland, and Ireland
- Morley, Harbert [Herbert] (bap. 1616, d. 1667) politician and parliamentarian army officer
- Wilmot, Sir Charles, first Viscount Wilmot of Athlone (1570/71–1644) army officer and administrator
- George III (1738–1820) king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and king of Hanover
- Friedrich Wilhem III (1797-1840) king of Prussia
- Alexander I (1777-1825) emperor of Russia
- Prince Paul (1785-1852) prince of Wurtemburg
- Wyndham, George O'Brien, third earl of Egremont (1751–1837) art patron, agriculturist, and philanthropist
A string band performed the following pieces:
- S. Coleridge Taylor. Intermezzo from ‘Nero Suite’ (Episode II).
- Holst. ‘Marching Song’ (Episode II).
- ‘Summer is Icumen In’.
- ‘Sellinger’s Round’, ‘Bobbing Joe’, ‘Princess Royal’ and ‘The Kynge’s Hunte is Up’ (Episode V).
- Orchestra plays the National, Russian and Prussian Anthems and ‘Garter March’ (Episode VIII).
- ‘God Save the King’.
Newspaper coverage of pageantWest Sussex Gazette
Portsmouth Evening News
Book of words
- The Book of the Bignor Pageant (Or Historical Play). Portsmouth, 1912.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Bodleian Library, Oxford: Copy of the programme. John Johnson Coll., box 3.
- Birmingham University Archives: Copy of the programme. Reference XMS107.
- West Sussex Archives, Chichester: Copy of the programme. Reference MS 20384.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
In 1911 Bignor had a population of 112, fewer than the number of performers ‘of all grades of society, and mainly drawn from the immediate district’3 who participated in the Pageant of Bignor.4 As Josephine Johnstone’s foreword to the book of words made clear, the pageant limited itself to the place and its hinterland: ‘Our primary object in holding this pageant has been to set forth some of the stirring incidents with which the history of our County is replete, confining ourselves to a radius of seven miles.’5 This might seem something of a hindrance were it not for the fact that Bignor lies within a seven mile radius of larger settlements on the edges of the Sussex downs including Arundel, which ensured a high profile cast of characters such as Empress Matilda, Elizabeth I (her visit to Arundel Castle six-and-a-half miles away by road), and Charles II (his flight to France).
These scenes all occurred in some form or other in other pageants, although the scene with Queen Elizabeth is significant for the amusing interplay between the despondent May Queen, her errant fiancé, the townspeople and the magnanimous monarch who allows her doppelganger to share the spotlight briefly and to attend to her. The episode featuring King Charles II continues this mild vein of humour centred on the interaction of commoners and royalty, with Charles, the merry monarch, portraying Colonel Wilmot’s valet with humorous consequences.6 The scene, like a similar one in the Pageant of the Isle of Wight (1907), affirms the loyalty of the people through Charles’ common touch and their mutual dislike of the Parliamentarian cause.
The most significant scene of the pageant is the meeting of the Allied Sovereigns at nearby Petworth House (about 6 miles away by road), seat of the Earl of Egremont, on 24 June 1814 following the defeat and abdication of Napoleon and his (temporary) exile to Elba.7 This scene would have been particularly significant given the growing rift between Britain and Germany at the time of the pageant, despite the continuing intermarriage between the respective royal families. Whether or not it was intended thus, the scene provides a poignant image of the shift in the European system of alliances which led to the outbreak of the Great War only two years later, further compounded by dramatic irony as spectators would no doubt be aware that Napoleon escaped from Elba on 20 March 1815 to lead the French army to the field of Waterloo.
As Josephine Johnstone wrote: ‘Our time has been very limited, and we hope our audience will remember this and make generous allowance for the many imperfections they will see. We have been, in many cases, blind leaders of the blind, and but for the most kind help and encouragement given by our friends of more experience, failure must most certainly have followed our ambitious efforts.’8 Nonetheless, the West Sussex Gazette was resounding in its judgment: ‘There could be no two opinions about the pageantry last week at Bignor Park. If you liked this sort of thing, this was emphatically the sort of thing you would like.’9 It went on:
The whole thing was done so well; how could anyone help liking it? The virtue of a picture is in its colours and in the series of pictures suggestive of the old Sussex story, which were set upon the green lawn of Bignor Park, under the trees heavy with July verdure, with a glorious background of the ‘wooded, dim blue goodness of the Weald,’ there was a brilliance of colour and a beauty of harmony to delight an artist’s eye.10
On top of Bignor’s fabled history within a seven-mile radius, the paper added: ‘Almost any place in this old county of ours could furnish, from its richly storied past, the materials for a pageant, but even in this respect Bignor has its special advantages, while for sheer beauty of setting no place in Sussex could surpass it.’11 ‘The impressions’, it noted, ‘one carried away from the pageant were of the extreme beauty of the principal historical costumes, the dignity of the processions, the vigorous naturalness of the “crowds”, the truly delightful dancing and playing of the little children, the magnificent elocution of the Herald’; it particularly singled out the ‘splendid mass of colour when all the various performers assembled at the trumpet-call for the epilogue.’12
The Pageant of Bignor was relatively small in size compared to the major pageants of the Edwardian era, which involved thousands of performers and tens of thousands of spectators. In this, the pageant looked forward to the smaller inter-war pageants such as that held in nearby Arundel in 1923. Nonetheless, it gave currency to the popular suggestion that one could put on a rich pageant, full of historical material, in practically any place in the country.
- The Book of the Bignor Pageant (Or Historical Play) (Portsmouth, 1912), 17.
- The Book of the Bignor Pageant (Or Historical Play) (Portsmouth, 1912), 19.
- West Sussex Gazette, 11 July 1912, 4.
- A Vision of Britain Over Time, Population Statistics: Males & Females, accessed 16 March 2016, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10283103/cube/GENDER.
- Josephine Johnstone, ‘Foreword’, in The Book of the Bignor Pageant (Or Historical Play) (Portsmouth, 1912), 3.
- In fact, the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to the sixth episode of Blackadder the Third, ‘Duel and Duality’ (1987), in which the Prince Regent switches places with Blackadder to avoid fighting a duel with the Duke of Wellington and is cuffed for incompetence and insubordination. See Internet Movie Database http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0526723/; and All Blackadder Scripts http://allblackadderscripts.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/blackadder-iii-episode-6-duel-and.html.
- Arthur Bryant, The Age of Elegance (London, 1950), 101. See the painting by Thomas Phillips, RA, ‘The Allied Sovereigns at Petworth, 24 June 1814’, The National Trust Collections, accessed 16 March 2016, http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/486228.
- Johnstone, ‘Foreword’, 3.
- West Sussex Gazette, 11 July 1912, 4.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Pageant of Bignor’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/992/