The Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta

Other names

  • The Bury St Edmunds Pageant

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Abbey Gardens (Bury St Edmunds) (Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England)

Year: 1959

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 11


10–20 June 1959, 8pm–9.50pm

3 dress rehearsals, only the final of which was open to spectators (700 old people and nurses from hospitals in the area).1

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Ede, Christopher
  • President: H.M. Lieutenant for Suffolk, The Rt. Hon. The Earl of Strabroke, RN (Retd)
  • Design—Setting, Properties and Poster: Ernest Scott
  • Heraldy: Ernest Payne
  • Adviser on Heraldry: Harold Hawes
  • Design—Crowd Costumes and Wardrobe Supervision: Kate Primmer
  • Design—Ballet Costumes: Neville Blackburne
  • Design—Scene 7: Olga Ironside-Wood
  • Design—Scene 8: Pat Teaney
  • Choreography: Wendy Barlow
  • Choreography: Joy Miller [also listed as Howlett]
  • Choreography: Sheila Gorman
  • Musical Director: Harrison Oxley
  • Musical Adviser: Arthur Cole
  • Organist: Norman H. Jones
  • Music Secretary: Gwen Moore
  • Convener: Eileen Ecclestone
  • Convener: Doreen Hogg
  • Convener: Christine Loshak
  • Convener: George Peake
  • Convener: Vernon Watterson
  • Sub-Producer: Ralph Ambrose
  • Sub-Producer: James Bruce
  • Sub-Producer: Lenis Cartier
  • Sub-Producer: Margaret Hurst
  • Sub-Producer: Joan Jenkins
  • Sub-Producer: D.J.P. O’Meara
  • Sub-Producer: Jean Saturley
  • Chief Marshal: Arthur Potter
  • Arena Marshal: A.W. Britt
  • Arena Marshal: A.F. Butler
  • Arena Marshal: G.S. Blackmore
  • Arena Marshal: R. Curstemont
  • Arena Marshal: W.G. Edwards
  • Arena Marshal: J. Snell
  • Master of Horse: A.W. Daniels
  • Wardrobe Staff: Winifred Whiting (Chief Cutter)
  • Wardrobe Staff: Mrs W.J. Boldero
  • Wardrobe Staff: Mrs Coulson
  • Wardrobe Staff: Betty Deacon
  • Wardrobe Staff: Mrs Fitzgerald
  • Wardrobe Staff: O. Ivy Hitchcock
  • Wardrobe Staff: Agnes Johnson
  • Wardrobe Staff: Miss Page
  • Wardrobe Staff: Deborah Pearson
  • Wardrobe Staff: Pat Teaney
  • Property Mistress: Betty Reece
  • Assistant to Christopher Ede: Jill White
  • Orchestra Leader: Angela Richey
  • Historical Notes: M.P. Statham, MA

Scene Producers

Scene I—Ixworth Centre
  • Convenor: George Peake
  • Producer: Ralph Ambrose
  • Wardrobe: Miss Fitzgerald
  • Wardrobe: Miss Page
Scene II—Newmarket Centre
  • Convenor: Eileen Ecclestone
  • Producer: Jean Saturley
  • Wardrobe: Mrs W.J. Boldero
Scene III—Bury St Edmunds Centre
  • Convenor: Vernon Watterson
  • Producer: James Bruce
  • Wardrobe: Betty Deacon
Scene IV—Bury St Edmunds Centre
  • Producer: D.J.P. O’Meara
Scene V—Bury St Edmunds Centre
  • Producer: Joan Jenkins
Scene VI— Bury St Edmunds Centre
  • Design—Ballet Costumes: Neville Blackburne
  • Choreography: Wendy Barlow
  • Choreography: Joy Miller [also listed as Howlett]
  • Choreography: Sheila Gorman
  • Dancers: pupils of the Kathleen Elliot School of Dancing, the Maryse School of Dancing, and the Tinker School of Dancing
Scene VII—Ixworth Centre
  • Producer: George Peake
  • Costumes Design: Olga Ironside Wood
  • Costumes Assistant: Deborah Pearson
  • Costumes Assistant: O. Ivy Hitchock
  • Costumes Assistant: Kay Shield
Scene VIII—USAF Bases, Lakenheath and Mildenhall
  • Convenor: Doreen Hogg
  • Producer: Lenis Cartier
  • Costume Design: Pat Teaney
Scene IX- Sudbury Centre
  • Convenor: Christine Loshak
  • Producer: Margaret Hurst
  • Stage Manager: Charles Johnson
  • Wardrobe: Agnes Johnson

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Publicity Committee—Responsible to the Council for the Organisation of the Pageant:

  • Chairman: The Worshipful the Mayor, Councillor F.G. Banks
  • Deputy Chairman: Councillor S.R. Faiers, JP
  • Alderman E.E. Watson
  • Alderman A.B. Wilks, BEM
  • Councillor C. Grange
  • Councillor J.W.H. Knight
  • Councillor J.R.M. Painter
  • Councillor M.S. Petch
  • Councillor L.C.J. Sewell
  • Councillor A.G.T. Shearing
  • Councillor F.B. Southgate
  • Mr K.V. Challacombe (Bury St Edmunds Round Table)
  • Mr D.F. Field (Bury St Edmunds Chamber of Commerce
  • Mr H.G. Walgrove (Bury Free Press)
  • Mr F.E. Williams (East Anglian Daily Times)

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

  • Tydeman, Richard

Names of composers

  • Britten, Benjamin
  • Hedges, Anthony
  • Cole, Arthur
  • Dawes, Harry
  • Holst, Gustav
  • Jones, Tony Hewitt
  • Mothersole, Wilfred
  • O’Neill, Norman
  • Quilter, Roger
  • Walton, William
  • Warlock, Peter

Numbers of performers


Men, women and children—including 13 Americans in prominent parts and 100 Americans in walk-on parts for the eighth episode. There were 75 speaking parts, though all the actors on stage mimed their words. The voices heard by the audience were spoken by a panel of people seated at microphones in a sound proof box overlooking the arena (they spoke the parts to coincide with actions on stage). For the ballet scene there were 150 dancers aged 7 to 17 and three principal adult dancers. In addition to the human performers, there were 25 horses.

Financial information


  • Admissions (less commission of £521. 13s. 2d.): £8215. 17s. 1d.
  • Programmes: £1201. 8s.
  • Patrons: £627. 0s. 6d.
  • Advertising in programmes: £1050.
  • Other income: £23. 2s. 11d.
  • Sale of costumes: £175.
  • Total: £11292. 9s.


  • Pageant Master and Script: £1550. (Pageant-master Christopher Ede was paid £1000 fee + £250 expenses; author Richard Tydeman was paid £300 for fee and expenses).
  • Grandstand: £997. 16s. 5d.
  • Orchestra and music: £440. 1s.
  • Public address: £243. 11s. 3d.
  • Publicity: £1365. 7s. 10d.
  • Speaking parts: £15. 12s.
  • Electric equipment and current: £233. 2s. 6d.
  • Properties and scenery: £542. 6s. 1d.
  • Back cloth, scaffolding arena: £250.
  • Ground works: £739. 18s. 4d.
  • Costumes (less insurance claim re damaged costumes £51. 12s.): £1198. 16s. 6d.
  • Tentage: £139. 14s. 2d.
  • Chair hire: £62. 10s.
  • Honoraria: £380. 7s. 9d.
  • Cast transportation: £257. 15s. 11d.
  • Cine film: £236. 5s.
  • Miscellaneous (including printing): £480. 5s. 6d.
  • Total: £9133. 11s. 1d.

Profit: £2158. 17s. 11d.5

Object of any funds raised

The first event of the 750th Commemoration of the signing of Magna Carta (which culminated in 1965).


There was no initial object, as it was expected the pageant would make a loss. When it made a profit there was intense discussion about what it should be used for (see summary); in the end, it was decided to lay out shelters in the Abbey Gardens.

Linked occasion

750th anniversary of the Magna Carta (the pageant in 1959 was the first of several events that culminated in 1965).

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: 1500
  • Total audience: 28803


Grandstand capacity of 1500 included open air seating and standing room.

The number of tickets sold for the twelve performances was 28803, broken down as:

  • Covered grandstand: 18000
  • Open air seats: 8415
  • Standing room: 2388

There had been a complete sell-out of seating before the beginning of the run of performances.6 ‘The rush for tickets… exceeded all the expectations of the organisers, and in view of this it has been decided to offer a limited amount of standing room space at 2s. 6d.’

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

£1. 1s. 0d.–2s. 6d.

  • Grandstand: £1. 1s. 0d.; 15s.; 10s. 6d.; 7s. 6d.; 5s.
  • Uncovered seats: 3s. 6d.
  • Standing: 2s. 6d.

Associated events

Sunday 14 June: Magna Carta Commemoration Day. Following an exclusive luncheon (of civic figures from all over the country and abroad) there was a full Civic Procession to the Commemoration Arena with robes, sword and mace bearers and regalia. At the arena at 3pm a Commemoration Service, with choral music:
  • National Anthem, first verse only, sung in unison
  • Hymn A. and M. (R.) 579, I Vow to Thee My Country
  • Hymn A. and M. (R.) 578, And Did those Feet?
  • Hymn A. and M. (R.) 257 and E.H. 393 Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken
During the service, among the ruins of the Old Abbey, Lord Birkett read clauses from Magna Carta, and the High Commissioner for Australia gave an Address. 7000 people witnessed the service.

Other events and activities:

  • An American night where top ranking officers and personnel from all the American bases in the area formed the majority of the audience. Also a women’s institute night, with parties from branches regionally. 
  • An exhibition entitled Bury St Edmunds on Record was on view at the Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk Record Office, Angel Corner, Angel Hill, on weekdays from June 8 to June 23. Admission of 6d. per person, except for prearranged school parties. Exhibits included documents, books, prints and photographs which illustrated the history of Bury St Edmunds from the 11th to the 19th century. (charters, bylaws, statutes, plays, maps, playbills, drawings, etc.).
  • Restaurants put on special pageant menus, and public houses had an extension of their hours from 10am to 11pm.
  • In the Cathedral on the Sunday following the pageant, some of the pageant music was played during a special service for performers and all associated with the production.

Pageant outline

Prologue. The Guide and the Tourists, AD 1959

Heralds emerge and blow a fanfare, before hoisting a flag bearing the pageant symbol to the top of a pole; they then leave. Tourists appear and begin to walk around the ruins, taking photographs and consulting guide books. The tourist Guide now appears, and exchanges greetings with an American couple, a Danish lady, an Italian man, and an Englishman. The Guide explains the motto of the town, and how the Barons met to decide the Magna Carta because of the shrine of King Edmund. The tourists begin to ask questions about Edmund, as the Englishman declares ‘I’ve never heard of him.’ They gather round as the Guide begins the story.

Scene I. St Edmund, AD 856–870

As the Guide describes the Danish invasion, ninth-century East Anglians, many injured, begin to gather expectantly in the arena. An East Anglian Man announces to the excited crowd that Edmund is approaching. Some murmurs in the crowd are heard when they realise he is only a boy of fourteen. Edmund addresses them as King, and jokes ‘It is true that I am young, but it is a fault that I overcome in time’; this sally receives laughter. He declares his resolve to fight the Danish, which brings cheers and shouts of approval. He walks to the throne, where he is anointed by the Bishop, before taking his seat to be crowned. All cheer, as Edmund leaves, followed by the Bishop and court. The Guide describes how twelve years of beating back the Danes ensued, as ‘little English kingdoms’ gradually fell to the invaders, until only East Anglia and Wessex remained. Edmund, now 26, takes a message that announces Crowland sacked and Peterborough taken. Alfred of Wessex, younger brother of King Ethelred, arrives, and announces that the King cannot come to the defence of East Anglia. Edmund declares that they will continue to fight, and beat the Norsemen—though he does not believe he himself will see it. The last and fiercest battle between Denmark and East Anglia now takes place. Edmund is captured, and taken to Ingvar, who mocks him cruelly. Edmund begins to recite the Lord’s Prayer to the anger of Ingvar, before refusing to bow to the Northern gods. Ingvar orders him to be taken away, tied to a tree and shot with arrows. The Guide now relates the death of Edmund, but the eventual victory of Wessex, and the creation of the Edmund Shrine at Beodricsworth.

Scene II. Canute, c. 1035

Monks sit around the shrine, as Pilgrims enter and bestow gifts. The Guide explains how King Canute united the Danes and Englishmen, and gave a charter for the building of the Abbey. Two noblemen now enter and express disgust that two sleeping priests are the only guards to the Shrine. Two local women explain to the noblemen that the priests spend their time fishing, drinking and robbing the poor. The noblemen announce to the women that King Canute approaches, leading to questions about the legend of the King commanding the tide to not wet his feet. The noblemen watch a fat priest, who does not realise the King is approaching, as he makes a derogatory quip to a fisherman about the legend of Canute and the tide. Canute hears but continues to where a large crowd has gathered to meet him. The final sleeping priest is woken up. Canute asks the Priest if he is aware of who he is; the Priest states that he does not care, as long as the donation is big. Canute has him seized, before announcing that the Abbey will be placed into the hands of Benedictine monks he has summoned from the Abbeys of Hulme and Ely. Canute then kneels before the shrine to offer his crown in atonement for the sins of his fathers (referring to Ingvar), and states his intention that the greatest Church in the land must now be built. Canute, as he departs, instructs his men to ‘deal fittingly’ with the Priest who had earlier made fun of the story of the tide; the soldiers tip him into the river.

Scene III. King’s John’s Visit, c. 1200

The Guide describes the building of the Abbey, before mentioning the Kings who visited the shrine—Edward the Confessor, Henry I and Henry II, and Richard the Lionheart. The tourists express (ignorant) surprise that the place is so old. A very large crowd enters and sets up stalls and entertainments, as the Guide announces that King John would visit on a market day. A farmer and merchant are seen haggling over the price of cloth, the farmer disapproving of the merchant’s use of his ‘short’ arms to measure the yards of material. A second merchant brings his own yardstick, and shows that his is longer; the farmer accuses the original merchant of cheating. He calls for the Constable, who arrives, and, it becomes clear, is himself in the pocket of the original merchant. The farmer reluctantly pays up, before the merchant then bribes the Constable, who in turns arrests the second merchant. As the crowd expresses dismay, it is then distracted by a pickpocket, who is put in the pillory. King John then approaches. One of John’s Knight’s arrives first, and explains to the Sacrist that John intends a large donation to the Abbey—but will, embarrassingly, need to borrow something first that he could subsequently offer as a token of his intention. The Sacrist takes the Knight off, as a cantankerous John enters—immediately declaring that taxes must be raised, since the market seems so successful. As John is welcomed by Abbot Samson and takes his place, a dishevelled woman begs mercy for her husband—who has been imprisoned without trial. He dismisses her nonchalantly, and continues to drink wine. John demands that the gifts his royal mother, Queen Eleanor, had laid at the Shrine be brought. John declares the pickpocket to be branded as an outlaw, as the Crowd murmurs disapproval. At this point a Baron approaches Robert and whispers that Fitzwalter is calling a meeting of Barons. John returns, carrying a casket of jewels. He tells Samson that he intends a rich gift, but, in the meantime, would like to borrow the jewels—to Samon’s distress. The Knight then passes John the gift he has taken from the Sacrist; John in turn gives it to a puzzled Samson, who recognises it as the Abbey’s own. He then also gives Samson a purse, before hastily departing—the laughing Knight also taking back the silk gift, ‘to remind the King of the gift – he intends’. The monks express despair upon realising that all that is in the purse is a measly 13 pence. To make things worse, the Prior then informs Samson that John has rejected Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury and has laid ‘violent hands’ on the monastery of St Augustine, leading to a papal interdict. Samson then takes a letter from a messenger that confirms the interdict, banning any man from singing Mass or administering any divine office—on pain of excommunication. The monks and crowd groan, as Samson orders the stripping of the altar, while he is personally divested of his vestments. As the Monks leave, Sir Robert finally gallops earnestly across the arena and into the distance.

Scene IV. The Meeting of the Barons, November AD 1214

The Guide tells how, despite the lifting of the interdict, injustice, greed and oppression still stalked the land under the reign of John. He explains that this was due to the Law being completely invested in the King, with no appeal to court or parliament. The Prior now informs the monks that the Barons are arriving to meet at the Shrine. The monks excitedly and comically discuss the arrangements, such as the music and wine. The Barons arrive and greet each other silently. Langton tells the monks that he will ‘conduct the service’ without their aid. The monks file out; when they are gone, Langton informs the other Barons that they have been summoned to the sacred spot ‘to take action on a matter of vital importance both for the Church and the Realm.’ Fitzwalter now addresses the Barons, laying out bare the horrors of John’s reign. As one Baron declares ‘Death to King John!’ Fitzwalter explains that they need a permanent remedy, ‘a Charter from the King, granting all the liberties that we ask for.’ The Barons excitedly agree. Two parchments are produced by Langton: the first, an old charter of the late King Henry, and the second, a new charter with the main clauses. The Barons swear a solemn oath on the altar, next to the relics of the holy martyred Saint Edmund, promising to ‘compel the King to grant this Charter, or plunge the country into civil war.’ Fitzwalter instructs the men to summon and arm their vassals and to meet in London after Christmas, stating that ‘then,—King John shall sign the Charter!’ They gallop away.

Scene V. After Runnymede, AD 1215

The Guide tells the Tourists how, at Runnymede the following year, Magna Carta was signed, with copies sent to every town and abbey. Tired and dispirited townsmen now enter, before monks also enter from the Abbey. A horn is heard as a courier appears with a sealed scroll. He takes it to the Chief Burgess, while explaining that the town will soon be lifted by the appointment of Hugh of Northwold as the new Abbot (the monks and townsfolk rejoice). He announces that he brings the Charter of Liberties to crowds. Humour ensues as it is revealed the Burgess cannot read. The Prior takes it instead and translates the Latin, and begins to read out the lengthy document. He is frequently interrupted by an impatient old man, who gradually is supported by the crowd. The Prior assents and reads out the important parts: the Church shall be free to elect its Bishops and Abbots; inheritance to be by right and not subject to Royal approval; no knight to be forced to do more for a knight’s fee than he ought. The old man impatiently declares that these are irrelevant to the people. The Prior finally gets to the more relevant parts: that no one will be able to sell, deny or delay Right or Justice; that no fine would to be so heavy as to deprive a man of his means of livelihood; that the wife and children of a debtor are first to be provided for; that merchants are to be free to come and go without hindrance; and that freemen are not to be taken, imprisoned or outlawed except by the legal judgement of his peers or the law of the land. The crowd cheers, as wronged prisoners and outlaws are released to general celebration. The Prior further relates that there will be one measure of cloth and of weights; the bad merchant is seen sneaking away, but is caught; the Constable then enters, as the Prior says ‘And finally—“No justice, sheriff, bailiff or constable to be appointed but such as knows the law and is willing to observe it..”’ The Crowd then seize the constable also, and put him in the pillory with the merchant. The crowd rejoices as the arena empties. The Guide concludes that:

So Magna Carta hailed the Birth of Freedom;—such Freedom as had never yet been known. Those monstrous twins Injustice and Oppression are forced to flee before the Rule of Law; while freedom, being born, grows ever stronger, and leaping over land and overseas, is welcomed now by nations near and far, who use this Magna Carta as the rock on which to build the freedom of the world.

Scene VI. Interlude. The Ballet of the Birth of Freedom

A group of simply dressed dancers, representing common people, perform a dance symbolising everyday life. Two tall dancers in black, representing Injustice and Oppression, then enter, and enslave the everyday people. Twenty-five dancers in colourful tabards, representing the Barons, then enter and dance, before attacking Injustice and Oppression to rescue the people. They are beaten back. The Barons then approach the shrine, and kneel with upstretched arms as a figure representing Saint Edmund leads forth a young dancer representing Freedom—dressed in white with a Magna Carta symbol embroidered on her dress, and carrying a large sealed scroll. She drives back Injustice and Oppression using the scroll as a ‘magic wand’. As the people surround Freedom and celebrate, other dancers are again enslaved by Injustice and Oppression. Two manage to escape and plead with Freedom, who bestows them with their own scrolls; they then also beat back Injustice and Oppression. In a final joyous dance, all the rest mingle and form a tableau around the raised figure of Freedom who is now supported by the figures of JUSTICE (with scales and sword) and CHARITY (sheltering two children beneath her cloak). The tableau is held for a moment, and then all the dancers disperse and exit.

Scene VII. Parliament Meets at Bury, AD 1447

The Guide tells the tourists how the Parliamentary system was set up in the following fifty years, before informing an astonished Englishman that Parliament even met at Bury St Edmunds several times—the most notable being in 1447, under King Henry VI, when Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, died in mysterious circumstances. He explains that Humphrey was an uncle of the young King Henry VI and Lord Protector of England, and that he had many enemies—such as William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, and Cardinal Henry Beaufort. The Duke of Suffolk now enters from one side, and Cardinal Beaufort from the other. They discuss the imprisoned Gloucester and how he must die, as the King and Queen approach. The King makes it clear that he believes Gloucester to be innocent and wishes him released. Beaufort explains that he cannot do this, since he must be brought to trial first. Gloucester is sent for; two soldiers then rush in and announce that Gloucester has been found dead, perhaps murdered. When asked by Henry who the murderer could be, the soldier glances nervously at Suffolk and replies ‘I cannot say.’ A clamour is then heard as the Earl of Salisbury and some of the Commons enter; Salisbury announces that Suffolk has been accused of the murder, and that the Commons declare that unless Suffolk is ‘done to death or banished from this realm’ they will ‘tear him’ from the King’s presence ‘and torture him until he dies’. Beaufort now advises the King that Suffolk had earlier remarked that Gloucester was ‘as good as dead’ already. The King then assents for Suffolk to be banished. Suffolk protests his innocence, as Margaret asks Henry if he really thought the Duke was guilty. He declares that he would not let the Dukes run his land, to which Margaret scornfully replies ‘Instead, you would have the country ruled by the Commons?’ Henry replies ‘I sometimes think they would make a better hand at it.’ Gloucester’s covered body is then brought in, followed by weeping people. Henry and Margaret then follow the bier, as the arena is emptied.

Scene VIII. John Winthrop in Massachusetts, AD 1636

The Guide explains how the influence of Magna Carta spread across the Atlantic to America to become the basis of the law in several different states. The American tourist pipes up, and mentions John Winthrop, who came from Suffolk. The Guide explains that the Body of Liberties drawn up by the General Court of Massachusetts in the 1630s was all based on Magna Carta. The Guide explains that Winthrop also had another Royal Charter given by King Charles I that he took to America and carried as a sign of authority— used on occasions such as the visit of Governor Bradford from the neighbouring Plymouth Colony. Winthrop and Bradford now enter and greet each other—Winthrop introducing his abundant family and the Minister, Mr Wilson (who launches into an unwanted sermon). Winthrop, upon request, explains the charter in the leather box to Bradford—the ‘Magna Carta of the Colony’. All of a sudden three women shriek, and shouts of ‘Indians! Indians!’ are heard. As the assembled militia adopt a position of defence, three bedraggled ‘Red Indians’ enter—the last of the tribe of the Massachusetts Indians, after having been wiped out by small pox. Winthrop offers the Native Americans shelter, but declares to Bradford: ‘Behold the goodness and loving kindness of the Lord, who has thus clearly showed his favour towards us and established our title to this land by destroying the heathen from before our face.’ Bradford replies that perhaps one day the Magna Carta will be extended to the ‘Red Indians’, before chuckling: ‘Those Barons of King John who met in your own County of Suffolk would have been surprised if they could see the results of their work in Massachusetts after four hundred years.’ They then exit.

Scene IX. The Election at Eatanswill, AD 1830

The Guide tells the Tourists that Winthrop was voted out as governor, but voted back in again two years later. The Englishman declares that it was probably rigged—something that would never happen in England. The Guide asks him if he has ever thought about what an election in England was like, and introduces Charles Dickens’ account of the election at Eatanswill in the Pickwick Papers—which he says was based on nearby Sudbury. A stage-coach now rattles into the arena; Mr Pickwick gets out, helped by Snodgrass and Tupman. Various groups enter carrying blue or buff banners and slogans—one aggressive man shouts ‘Slumkey for ever!’ in the face of Pickwick. Mr Perker now enters and explains that the election is about to begin—Fizkin being the other candidate. Perker explains that Fizkin’s people have got 33 voters locked in the pub, getting them drunk to sway their vote, and explains that he, as part of Slumkey’s team, bribed forty-five women with a green parasol the night before. Slumkey now enters to cheers, and greets men and—more reluctantly—children. They all then advance to a raised platform, where a band plays. The scene is raucous as the Mayor tries to silence the crowd to no avail. Slumkey and Fizkin also try to address the audience as fights erupt around them. A vote is taken by show of hands, which the Mayor gives to Slumkey. Fizkin protests and demands a poll, which the Mayor grants; all march off, fights still erupting, as the Mayor goes to see to the necessary arrangements.

Scene X. Bury Becomes a Cathedral Town, AD 1914

The Guide tells the doubting Englishman that the twentieth century is the most exciting of all, since, after a four-hundred-year absence, a Bishop came to seek enthronement in St Edmundsbury in 1914. As he relates this a procession of choirs and clergy enter, before the Bishop is let through into the Cathedral. The Guide then tells of the First World War, as an explosion is heard, with smoke, and a spotlight falls on a First World War tableau. He then tells how the Second World War came soon after, as a spotlight is shown on that tableau. He ends by stating:

And now in Nineteen Fifty-Nine, again Bury becomes a place of pilgrimage. From every free and law-abiding land the Sons of Freedom gather at her birthplace; the ancient words are read, the names remembered, carved in a tablet on a ruined pillar. Buildings may be destroyed and men must die but Freedom lives: her spirit is immortal. Men of the present, now salute the past, and take your places in our history. For time flows on, the future lies before us; And so we sing: ‘Non nobis, Domine,’ ‘Not unto us, O Lord, the glory be…’ Saint Edmundsbury, now and evermore shrine of the King and Cradle of the Law.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Edmund [St Edmund] (d. 869) king of the East Angles
  • Ívarr [Ívarr inn Beinlausi, Ingwaer, Imhar] (d. 873) viking leader
  • Alfred [Ælfred] (848/9–899) king of the West Saxons and of the Anglo-Saxons
  • Cnut [Canute] (d. 1035) king of England, of Denmark, and of Norway
  • Ros, Robert de (c.1182–1226/7) baron [also known as Roos, Robert de]
  • John (1167–1216) king of England, and lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
  • Samson (1135–1211) abbot of Bury St Edmunds
  • Langton, Stephen (c.1150–1228) archbishop of Canterbury
  • Fitzwalter, Robert (d. 1235) magnate and rebel
  • Beaufort, Henry [called the Cardinal of England] (1375?–1447) bishop of Winchester and cardinal
  • Pole, William de la, first duke of Suffolk (1396–1450) administrator and magnate [also known as Pole]
  • Henry VI (1421–1471) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Margaret [Margaret of Anjou] (1430–1482) queen of England, consort of Henry VI
  • Neville, Richard, fifth earl of Salisbury (1400–1460) magnate
  • Winthrop, John (1588–1649) colonial governor
  • Bradford, William (1590–1657) a founder of Plymouth Colony

Musical production

Pageant Orchestra.

The Augmented St Edmundsbury Bach Choir.
Choirs from the County Grammar School, the East Anglian School, the Silver Jubilee Modern Secondary School, The Cathedral Choir, and the St Edmundsbury Bach Choir.
Not performed live—the fanfare and all the music (specially written by Mr Benjamin Britten) was tape recorded a fortnight before in St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Performed pieces included:

  • Opening Fanfare specially composed by Benjamin Britten.
  • Ballet Music specially composed by Anthony Hedges.
  • Other Music by Arthur Cole, Harry Dawes, Gustav Holst, Tony Hewitt Jones, Wilfred Mothersole, Norman O’Neill, Roger Quilter, William Walton, Peter Warlock.
  • ‘Sellenger’s Round’ (Episode III).
  • Roger Quilter, ‘Non Nobis Domine’.
  • Holst, 124th Psalm.
  • A ‘Te Deum’ (Episode X).

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Bury Free Press
East Anglian Daily Times
Suffolk and Essex Free Press
The Times
UK Eagle (A weekly newspaper for American armed forces personnel in the United Kingdom)
The Stars and Stripes

Book of words


Other primary published materials

  • Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta. Bury St Edmunds, 1959.
  • Commemoration of the 744th Anniversary of the Granting of Magna Carta. Bury St Edmunds, 1959. Souvenir and Order of Service.
  • Magna Carta in Pictures. A West Suffolk Newspapers Publication. June 1959.
  • Magna Carta Pageant Supplement, Suffolk and Essex Free Press, 22nd May 1959.

References in secondary literature


Bartie, Angela, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme and Paul Readman. 'Performing the Past: Identity, Civic Culture and Historical Pageants in Twentieth-Century Small Towns'. In Small Towns in Europe and Beyond: 20th-21st Century, edited by Luda Klusakova. Prague, forthcoming.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Richard Tydeman, The Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 1959. Working Script. Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds Branch. EE500/32/4
  • Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust, 1959. EE500/32/3.

    Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds Branch. 

  • Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta. Bury St Edmunds, 1959.

    Box in Record Office: Bury Magna Carta Pageant/Son et Lumiere/St Edmund Year.

  • Newspaper cuttings

    Box in Record Office: Bury Magna Carta Pageant/Son et Lumiere/St Edmund Year.

  • Commemoration of the 744th Anniversary of the Granting of Magna Carta. 1959. Souvenir and Order of Service.

    Box in Record Office: Bury Magna Carta Pageant/Son et Lumiere/St Edmund Year.

  • Ephemera—stickers, leaflets, posters.

    Box in Record Office: Bury Magna Carta Pageant/Son et Lumiere/St Edmund Year.

  • Magna Carta in Pictures. A West Suffolk Newspapers Publication. June 1959.

    Box in Record Office: Bury Magna Carta Pageant/Son et Lumiere/St Edmund Year.

  • Magna Carta Pageant Supplement, Suffolk and Essex Free Press, 22nd May 1959.

    Box in Record Office: Bury Magna Carta Pageant/Son et Lumiere/St Edmund Year.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



The Bury St Edmunds Magna Carta Pageant of 1959 was a major event, with 12 ticketed performances across 10 days. While it picked up on many of the themes of the 1907 pageant the town had held, most notably in its focus upon Edmund, King John, and Magna Carta, it also extended the chronology well beyond the original’s finale of 1578. It was also much ‘modernised’ in production terms; if aspects of the original remained, they were now performed under bright lights and using amplified sound, with the 75 speaking parts being mimed on stage while a carefully selected panel of people seated at microphones, in a sound-proof box overlooking the arena, spoke the considerably simplified dialogue.14 If it did not capture the nationwide publicity of the 1907 pageant, it was still a notable event in terms of its geographic spread, pulling together dignitaries from all over the Commonwealth. Despite the fundamental economic and social changes Bury had begun to undergo by the 1950s, the appeal of a popular shared history had not yet been diminished, and it was subsequently a great success in terms of attendance and financial profit, galvanising both local individuals and associations into action.

The pageant was sponsored and predominately organised by the Borough Council, which fronted the £10000 cost, following the original suggestion by the Mayor F.G. Banks (serving for his third consecutive year during the pageant). It took over eighteen months to plan and prepare, with two months of rehearsals.15 The organisers managed to secure the talents of Christopher Ede —generally recognised as ‘Britain’s leading’ pageant-master according to the souvenir programme—for £1000 plus £250 expenses.16 Ede was certainly experienced in matters of pageantry; over 20 years previously he had assisted in the production of the Pageant of Parliament (1934) and the Bradford Centenary Pageant (1947). Before the outbreak of the war he widened his experience in films, theatre and revue before, after the war, returning to pageantry. In 1951 he produced the Three Towns Pageant at Hampton Court for the Festival of Britain (1951), which was seen by 70000 people—a considerable attendance for pageants in that period. In 1953 he mastered pageants outside of Britain, such as the Pageant of Rhodesia in Bulawayo, visited by H.M. the Queen Mother and H.R.H. Princess Margaret. Four years later he produced the Pageant of Guildford, visited again by royalty, this time of an even greater pedigree: the Queen herself, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh.17 As close as was possible, then, Bury St Edmunds replicated the coup it had achieved in 1907 when it bagged the father of historical pageantry, Louis Napoleon Parker.

If the idea for a large pageant was generally attributed to the Mayor, he was certainly inspired by a much smaller event he had witnessed in May 1957 in his first few weeks in office. Presented by 70 young members of the St Edmund’s Guild, the Pageant of St Edmund, written by Canon Richard Tydeman, was ‘the forerunner of the Magna Carta pageant for it was the success of this pageant that led to Canon Tydeman being commissioned to write the script for the Magna Carta commemoration.’18 Not quite as widely known as Ede, Tydeman was nonetheless certainly up to the task. He was born at Stowmarket, Suffolk, and had been the vicar of All Saints, Newmarket; rural dean in the same parish from 1954; and appointed an honorary canon of St Edmundsbury earlier in the year of the pageant. He had also written over thirty published plays that had been performed at Suffolk Drama festivals and further afield, including a televised play, as well as several Dramatic Interludes for the Religious Services for Schools (arranged through the BBC). His experience in pageantry was less comprehensive, his only scripts being for the Woodbridge Coronation pageant in 1953, and the Pageant of St Edmund.19 His plays, though, clearly had a widespread popularity; it was claimed in the Bury Free Press that, since 1955, ‘not a single day has passed but that one of his plays has been produced in some part of Britain.’20

The pageant was the first event organised in recognition of the upcoming 750th anniversary of the Magna Carta in 1965, supported by the Magna Carta Trust—the trustees of which were the Chairman of the Pilgrims of Great Britain; the Chairman of the English Speaking Union of the Commonwealth; the Chairman of the Joint Empire Societies Conference; the Rt. Hon. The Lord Mayor of the City of London; the Rt. Worshipful the Mayor of the City of St Albans; the Rt. Worshipful the Mayor of the City of Canterbury; the Worshipful the Mayor of the Borough of Bury St Edmunds; and the Chairman of the Urban District Council of Egham. Each of these towns was connected in some way to the original sealing of the document—Bury, of course, in acknowledgement of the Barons’ meeting in 1214. The patron list for the Trust was even more impressive: the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster; the Moderators of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Free Church Federal Council; the Chief Rabbi; the Lord Chancellor; the Speaker of the House of Commons; the High Commissioners for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Ghana, Malaya, Rhodesia and Nsyasalad; the American Ambassador; and the chairman of the executive committee of the National Trust.21

The main objects of the Magna Carta Trust were to perpetuate the principles of the Magna Carta, through celebrating its 750th anniversary, and in encouraging a recognition of it as ‘the source of the constitutional liberties of all English-speaking peoples and a common bond of peace between them.’22 In this way it reflected the post-war importance of redefining the politics of Commonwealth in the gradual breaking down of Empire.23 As the Mayor declared in the foreword to the souvenir, the pageant hoped ‘to remind living generations of the event and the spread of Justice and Law.’ The Abbey and St Edmund were vital to this, since ‘Western democracy stands on Christian beliefs and the freedom that Law and Justice afford.’24 On the Commemoration day for the event, the ‘distinguished guests’ who took seats in the grandstand before the arrival of the civic procession reflected the Commonwealth influence: the acting High Commissioner for New Zealand, and the High Commissioners for South Africa, India, Ghana, Malaya, and Rhodesia and Nyasaland, as well as the Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission for the USA, representing the American Ambassador.25 The relationship between Magna Carta and the US had already been cemented when, shortly after the forming of the Magna Carta Trust, the Bar Association of the United States of America generously presented a Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede; it was to the colonists of the Mayflower in the 17th century and the system they set up in Massachusetts that they traced the influence of the great charter.26 Seemingly this interest went beyond the Bar Association to more general audiences; when the Charter was taken to the United States at the height of the First World War, over fifteen million Americans went to see it.27

Unsurprisingly, then, it was Magna Carta that provided an ethos for the pageant. W.T. Aiken, the Bury St Edmunds Division MP, backed up the town’s claim to fame as playing a part in the development of Western civilisation, declaring in the Magna Carta Supplement for the Bury Free Press that ‘It was here in Bury St Edmunds that the birth-pangs of English common law began… It was the first liberty document ever to be written down detailing specific rights which people had been thinking about for a very long time.’28 He further claimed that ‘we can trace without any difficulty the authentic offspring of the Great Charter in the Charter of the United Nations.29 Magna Carta was thus given an almost mythical power, which permeated the publicity of the pageant. Even the brought-in expert for the supplement, H.C. Whalley-Tooker, fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and lecturer in law, could not bring himself to dispel its reputation. At first, he argued that the nature of its influence had ‘often been misunderstood’ with much of what had been read into its intentions ‘certainly not’ being ‘in the minds of its originators’. It was, he pointed out, very similar to earlier royal charters, with not much new law within its clauses. Claims that it had enshrined trial by jury or Habeas Corpus were at best simplistic, and at worst, untrue. But, regardless, it had, in spirit, ‘contributed more perhaps than any other single document in our early constitutional history’ to rights—such as due process of law, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment, and freedom from arbitrary taxation—that had been established since the end of the seventeenth century. As he concluded, ‘in some degree “the myth of Magna Carta” has been more important than the reality.’30 This focus continued in the actual episodes of the pageant.

As opposed to the original pageant, and indeed the majority of pageants in general, the actors on stage mimed their words while a selection of people seated at microphones in a sound-proofed box, overlooking the arena, spoke in time to the action on stage.31 The properties designer, local architect, artist and lecturer Ernest Scott, also experimented with the physical production, by having part of the stage as a specially constructed moveable trolley on which some of the main tableaux could move slowly into view.32 Taking place at night, it also depended on floodlighting. Unlike in 1907, the music was played from tape cassette, recorded two weeks prior to the first performance. Directed by Harrison Oxley—something of a musical prodigy, being the youngest cathedral organist in the country after gaining a first class honours in music at Oxford, as well as founding and conducting several Oxford orchestras—a pageant orchestra came together with a series of local choirs (County Grammar School, East Anglian School, Silver Jubilee Modern Secondary Schools, Cathedral Choir, and St Edmundsbury Bach Choir) to record the soundtrack in the Cathedral.33 The costumes were designed by Kathleen Primmer, a New Zealand born artist who had studied in Paris at the Royal Academy School and exhibited in Paris, at the Royal Academy, and the Royal Portrait Gallery, as well as locally in Suffolk. After taking up dress and costume design, as well as scenery for the stage, she had worked on Inglis Gundry operas.34 The costumes were again made locally.35

Perhaps the most interesting development from the 1907 pageant was the inclusion of an intriguing ballet episode, where the impact of Magna Carta throughout the world was acted out as an allegory. Two imposing figures clad in back, representing Injustice and Oppression, at first enslaved dancers representing ‘everyday people’ before being challenged by twenty-five colourful dancers, representing the Barons. When they failed, they approached the shrine of St Edmund and knelt with arms stretched upwards until a figure representing Edmund led forward a younger dancer representing Freedom, dressed in white with a Magna Carta symbol embroidered on her dress and carrying a large scroll. Freedom beat back Injustice and Oppression, before distributing smaller scrolls (representing the spread of Magna Carta ‘ideals’) to the everyday people so they could defend themselves. The ballet ended with a tableau of Freedom surrounded by the liberated people, supported by figures of Justice and Charity. This scene was performed by pupils of the Kathleen Elliot School of Dancing, the Maryse School of Dancing, and the Tinker School of Dancing.

Also interesting was the decision to include an election scene in the fictional ‘Eatanswill’ from the Pickwick Papers written by Charles Dickens—the perhaps tenuous link being the claim that Eatanswill was based on nearby Sudbury. Ede had probably picked up the usefulness of this scene from its inclusion in the Pageant of Parliament in 1934, for which he was an assistant producer. In the event, this farcical scene—full to the brim with bright colourful characters, fighting, bands, and a generally raucous atmosphere—provided an extended opportunity for fun. While there was one battle scene, the pageant, in comparison to the 1907 event, eschewed excessive violence; gone was the violent revolt led by Boadicea, and, this time, the violent torture and death of Edmund took place off-stage. In general the pageant attempted to provide humour—both physical slapstick and more conventional (if now dated) jokes. In the second episode, for example, a lazy monk was pushed into a river, while, in the same episode, one noble said to another ‘One does not tell everything to a woman’ to which his friend laughed and said ‘Indeed no.’ Adding to the humour on the opening night was an unscripted incident, when a paddling of ducks ‘strutted proudly on to the arena’. A boy scout and then a police woman were both unsuccessful in moving the ducks, as the audience laughed ‘in the wrong places’, until, finally, an alderman, armed with an umbrella, ‘gently shooed’ the ducks back into the river.36

In terms of style, the script was much simpler than the 1907 pageant, the language being clear and simple to follow. Furthermore, the quantity of characters and distinct historical periods had been drastically cut down from the original, again making it easier to follow for the spectator, especially one without schooling in history. The inclusion of a Guide and a group of Tourists, who appeared in every episode except the ballet scene, also provided a device for the intended themes of the pageant to be asserted and reasserted. This was especially evident when the Guide declared, at the end of the fifth episode:

Magna Carta hailed the Birth of Freedom; —such Freedom as had never yet been known. Those monstrous twins Injustice and Oppression are forced to flee before the Rule of Law; while freedom, being born, grows ever stronger, and leaping over land and overseas, is welcomed now by nations near and far, who use this Magna Carta as the rock on which to build the freedom of the world.

In contrast to the many post-war pageants that played down the moral narrative that had been so prevalent in Edwardian pageants in favour of a simple community spirit or sheer entertainment, the Mayor was clear in what the ‘wish’ of the organisers was: that visitors ‘enjoy the spectacle in beautiful surroundings, but also ‘realise in part how Freedom was gained slowly and painfully over the centuries’ so that it could be ‘cherished and protected by the generations that follow.’37

This purposeful linking between the historical importance of Magna Carta and the present world was again made clear by the Guide in the eighth scene, which actually took place in America (a novel narrative ploy in itself), when he informed the American tourist that the influence of Magna Carta spread across the Atlantic to America to become the basis of the Law in several different American states. The World Wars, as presented very briefly in the final episode, were short impediments to the growth of freedom; as the Guide stated, ‘Buildings may be destroyed and men must die but Freedom lives: her spirit is immortal.’ Saluting the past, he declared that ‘time flows on, the future lies before us; And so we sing: “Non nobis, Domine”, “Not unto us, O Lord, the glory be…” Saint Edmundsbury, now and evermore shrine of the King and Cradle of the Law.’

In contrast to the 1907 pageant, when many of the leading roles were taken by the elite, the main characters of the 1959 were from a different social class. King John was still played by an important figure – a junior director of a local shoe firm—presumably due to his being a ‘well known and gifted amateur actor’— but the Guide, the largest part in the pageant, was played by a geography teacher at the nearby Ixworth Secondary Modern School (also well known as an amateur actor, trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London).38 Effort was also made to make the pageant inclusive for the many American bases in the area. As well as the aforementioned American episode, in which thirteen Americans took leading roles and 100 had walk-on parts, there was an ‘American night’, where top ranking officers and personnel from the bases formed the majority of the audience.39 Many of the male performers even grew a beard especially for their roles.40

The processions enacted during the Commemoration Sunday also challenge our interpretation of the decline of civic ritual in the twentieth century—often dated as early as before 1914.41 While historians have begun to challenge this interpretation for the inter-war period, the post-war period has thus far been ignored.42 The day itself involved an exclusive civic luncheon, with dignitaries from across the country and further afield, and then a procession to the commemoration arena, the participants garbed in full civic regalia.43 Private correspondence, however, reveals that depth and discussion went into planning the procession. After consulting J.F. Garner’s Civic Ceremonial, the Honorary Secretary of the Magna Carta Trust stated that ‘the most important people may be either first, or last, or indeed in the middle of any procession’; however, the Bury St Edmunds town clerk asserted that, in Bury, it was ‘the practice… for the most important to be at the front of the civic procession’.44 In the event, then, the procession was headed by the Mayor (F.G. Banks), accompanied by the Recorder (Mr P. Colin Duncan), the Town Clerk (Mr Richard R. Hiles), the Clerk of the Peace (Mr T.M. Ashton), the Master of the Rolls (Lord Evershed), the High Commissioner for Australia (Sir Eric Harrison), the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich (Right Rev. A.H. Morris) and the Vice Moderator of the National Free Church Federal Council (Dr W.W. Kay). Then came the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Harold Gillett, in full state, accompanied by two sheriffs of the city, the chief commoner and the town clerk. Following them were the robed Mayors and town clerks of Ipswich, Eye, Sudbury, Lowestoft, Aldeburgh, Beccles, Southwold, Thetford, Canterbury, New Windsor, St Albans and the deputy Mayor and town clerk of Salisbury.45

As had been the case with pageants from their inception in the Edwardian period, there was a commercial angle to its staging. The Mayor’s view was clear on this: ‘As a business seeks to advertise its wares so a town is justified in seeking to tell the world of its past achievements and its present amenities.’46 To heighten this commercial aspect, the Mayor appealed to the Chamber of Commerce to, in turn, instruct their members to decorate their premises, liven up the town, and to stay open later; such an approach would ‘help people to take away a much better impression of the town as a busy centre.’47

Following the pageant many of the civic notables invited to the luncheon and performance sent letters to the town clerk to express their thanks and approval. The town clerk of Sudbury, for example, wrote: ‘The Mayor and I send you this note of thanks for the courteous and most generous hospitality the Mayor of Bury extended to us on June 18th when we were his guests at dinner and at the Pageant. It was a very enjoyable evening we spent with you, and I think the Pageant almost beyond praise for the attractive phrasing which linked the centuries and described the scenes; for the staging of it; and for the high technical finish of voice amplification.’48 Those other town councils and officials involved in the Magna Carta triennial celebrations were also highly complementary. The town clerk of Canterbury spoke for ‘all’ the members of that town council when declaring Bury had ‘set a very high standard for us to follow.’49 The Honorary Secretary of the Magna Carta Trust, H.R.H. Smith, also described the setting as ‘ideal’, and ‘a model on which to work in the future.’50

The Bury Free Press was naturally hyperbolic in its praise, declaring ‘Brilliant… a magnificent triumph for players and producer… a wonderful piece of civic enterprise. This is the unanimous verdict of thousands of people who have seen the first two performances.’51 Ede, too, seemed happy with the result, and paid tribute to the collective spirit that made it possible, telling the press ‘The pageant proved better than I had ever hoped and this is entirely due to the team work of everybody concerned. It has been a long and hard job but the cast and staff have caught the spirit of the project, and this has made it the success it is.’52 They concluded that the ‘splendid tribute’ made all in the town feel ‘proud’ about its ‘great heritage.’53 There had been, of course, an element of trying to awaken the civic pride of the people of Bury, in particular to the town’s ‘historic past’ and its ‘many beautiful buildings and historic associations’ that were taken ‘for granted’, as the Mayor put it.54 For Ede there was a certain kind of social politics in pageantry that, for him at least, could be traced to the emergence of the welfare state. A pageant was, as he wrote in an essay on pageantry in the souvenir of the Guildford Pageant (1957), ‘an opportunity for many to take an active part in a celebration’, something, he argued, that was ‘increasingly important as the individual merges more and more into the State.’ While the ‘patronage of Governments and Local Authorities’ was ‘new’ in the twentieth century, they still, ‘like their medieval forebears’ had ‘to rely on the individual.’55 In a sense, it was in this aim that the cracks in the pageantry movement around the late 1950s became apparent.

If the town had come together to perform a historical theatrical bonanza, inspired by the same spirit that had pervaded it in 1907, there was little acknowledgement of how the town had changed significantly in that time. Since the end of the War, Bury had seen ‘a period of expansion which can only be paralleled by the twenty years before the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the compilation of Domesday Book in 1086.’56 By 1960 the building up of the Mildenhall Council Housing Estate was well under way, joining the Howard Estate and the Nowton Road housing development. Industrial estates were also constructed, as Bury St Edmunds actively courted London firms to come and set up under a town expansion scheme. Agriculture, while still important, was joined in the local economy with new businesses of many kinds—from Nilfisk, the Danish vacuum cleaner manufacturers, to Vitality Bulbs and Vintents, which made specialised cameras.57 Accordingly, the population of the town had climbed sharply; after staying around 16000 from 1881 to 1931, it reached 20056 in 1951 and 21179 in 1961.58 Inevitably, these economic and social changes, and the ‘blurred suburbanised vision’ they represented, were not welcomed wholeheartedly—the famous historian of Suffolk, Norman Sharpe, lamenting ‘the extraordinary decision to double the town, from 20000 to 40000, is relentlessly changing both its heart and country setting.’59 As one local resident wrote in to the Bury Free Press during the pageant: ‘The changing face of Bury! My word, buildings down, buildings up, shops changed. Offices, schools, homes, markets, roads, open spaces. Houses here, there and everywhere. Churches wanted, churches larger. Crowds of people, cars, buses and bicycles. No room to move.’ Yet, as he lamented, ‘surprisingly no one seems prosperous enough (or generous) to give encouraging help in acquiring a permanent theatre for those who provide us with such excellent theatrical and musical productions throughout the year.’ With the imminent closure of the Playhouse theatre, yet good health of the three cinemas, his hope that the pageant was ‘proof of what can be done’ seemed optimistic at best.60

Indeed, when it came to deciding where the profits of the pageant should go, there was only a small amount of (unsuccessful) support for the theatre proposal. More generally, the debate on where the money should go was a highly public and petty argument, with the Mayor, councillors, clergymen, press, and local ratepayers all expressing different opinions with varying degrees of vitriol, as questions of the role of the state clashed with twentieth-century social change. Claims of a right to input came from ratepayers, especially since some of the cost of the pageant had fallen on the rates. As one ratepayer wrote to the newspaper, ‘the ratepayers would have been called upon to foot the bill if the pageant had been a big flop, so the profit is surely theirs, and they can say as to how it should be disposed of.’61 The pageant players, too, wished to make their voice heard, and some even sat in on the council meetings when the topic was discussed. A local woman, Pamela V. Harris, suggested that the money should be used to give mementos to the cast—like a signed certificate, or a Magna Carta mug for the younger performers.62 In a sense, such input reflected the active citizenship that Labour had initially hoped wider state intervention would engender.63 Other suggestions included improving the public baths, or providing playing fields—though the latter suggestion was shot down by councillor Mrs Jorisch, who declared to the council meeting that ‘not everybody could gambol about on playing fields’, adding that she ‘wasn’t “being funny”’ when she suggested the money should go to the new sewer.64 From the beginning there was a groundswell of support for the Cathedral Extension fund—clearly appropriate considering the pageant took place in the Abbey gardens and was so strong on ecclesiastical history.65 After around four months of debate, the Publicity Committee thus came to a decision:

Having regard to the wholehearted support received for the pageant from residents in all parts of Suffolk, the surplus be given, subject to approval of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, to the appeal fund to be launched by the Mayor as a contribution to the Cathedral Extension Fund and with a view to the construction of a bay, to be associated with the Pageant, as part of the new Cloister.66

This, however, was met with even more heated debate in the council meeting, and eventually referred to the Development Committee for further consideration. Disagreement arose from a variety of reasons. On the one hand, spending the money on a charitable purpose like the Cathedral would contravene a now-discovered original minute from early 1958 that had confirmed that ‘any profit accruing from the Pageant would go to the General rate fund.’ As the Councillor Mr R.F. Faiers stated, ‘We have got a moral obligation to the ratepayers of the Borough to stick by this decision, even if we want to rescind it.’ More generally there was opposition towards using the money for a cause that only benefited a certain community. As the Councillor Mr A.G.T. Shearing surmised, ‘We all agree that the pageant was made possible by the efforts of all who took part, irrespective of creed or belief, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic or noncomformist, and to give all the money to the Cathedral would not be fair to all the other religious bodies.’ As well as the aforementioned opposition of Jorisch to playing fields, Councillor Mr J.S.H. Glasswell reminded the corporation that it was already their duty to provide such things out of the rates, irrespective of the pageant and its profit. Jorisch, in a startling outburst, produced a copy of an architectural journal and read out some criticisms of the Cathedral to bolster her opposition. She added: ‘I feel like that about it. I said a long time ago that no money of mine would go to bolster up such a fake job.’ She then pointed to her hat and declared ‘this is three years old’, worn because she had sacrificed her ‘new hat money’ to be a patron of the pageant. She was, thus, adamant that ‘the Cathedral was [not] going to get it [the profit] under false pretences.’67

The Bury Free Press had it right when, the following week, it ran the headline ‘Mean and Miserable Arguments in the Recent Council Debate’.68 Most upset by the council’s reaction was the Cathedral Provost, John Waddington. Responding to the Press, he expostulated thus:

You would think that the Borough Council would be 100 per cent behind the Cathedral Extension Scheme that will put Bury St Edmunds so much more on the map. But, alas, although many of them are keen supporters, a few of our city Fathers and Mothers do not seem to have caught the vision of what we are trying to do and what advantages and responsibilities come to Bury St Edmunds by its having been given the distinction of achieving the status of Cathedral Town.

Provoking his ire in particular was hat-enthusiast Mrs Jorisch. While admitting that he liked her ‘very much’ and enjoyed ‘reading the books she writes and visiting her lovely house’, he still thought that ‘she was very naughty to mislead the council and others by a remark which could have such a damaging effect upon our efforts.’ According to the Provost, a damning article about the Cathedral’s architectural merits, or lack thereof, was actually just ‘a few lines of personal opinion by one contributor to the Architecture Review in June 1959’, whose target was mostly the original builder of the Cathedral in the 15th century, John Wastell; it was due to the faults of the original building that the critic had registered ‘a mild protest against the extension.’ According to the Provost, the extensions would actually ‘improve the present building and give it better proportions and make good its deficiencies.’ He finished by taking a humorous swipe at Jorisch, declaring that she ‘was talking through her three year old hat, which I suggest she should now eat in public as a sign of penance!’69 In the same issue another local man, Bernard Smith, thought it apt to remind readers that, since the inspiration for the 1959 pageant had been Canon Tydeman’s St Edmund Pageant in 1957, the origins of the pageant had been ‘very definitely a religious occasion’; the Cathedral, then, was a very worthy recipient of the profit.70

In the end the council came to what the Mayor described as a ‘happy solution’ to the debate; no money for the Cathedral, but public shelters to be constructed in the Abbey Gardens—something that would enrich the environ of the Cathedral whilst still being available for the use of everyone. While lamenting that the council had been ‘swayed by minority pressure groups and false democratic arguments’ in changing its mind about giving the profit to the Cathedral Extension scheme, the Provost concluded: ‘I am glad the money is going to provide shelters in the Abbey Gardens rather than be ploughed back into the rates or used towards the new sewer.’71 Soon after the decision a paved, open-plan water garden was laid out, with a pair of shelters that looked distinctively of the period; this basic design remains today, though the garden has been enclosed, expanded with extra flowerbeds, and recently refurbished following a £40000 donation.72

Despite this embarrassing money-wrangling, the Bury St Edmund’s Magna Carta Pageant was an undoubted success. Over 50000 people visited the pageant grounds at some point, with around 30000 paying entrance to see the pageant, and it made a decent profit of £2158. 17s. 11d. (approximately £33000 in today’s money).73 It was, in many respects, a triumphant return to the ideals and achievements of the original event in 1907. The Mayor, for example, stated that he had ‘been constantly reminded by older people of the town and district of the splendid pageant of 52 years ago which is still spoken of [as] the greatest venture the town ever embarked upon’.74 The great summer of 1907 was further remembered in the pageant supplement in the Bury Free Press.75 Links to the 1907 pageant remained in other ways; some of the chain mail was used, and ‘many people’ from the original took part again in 1959.76 Updated for the 1950s, it still, however, took place within a period of social and economic flux for Bury. If the possible irrelevance in the 1960s and 1970s of traditional forms of historical pageantry seems obvious to our eyes now, it may not have been quite as clear at the time. Thus, the success of the 1959 pageant almost certainly encouraged the consequent decision to hold a pageant-play, with a very long theatrical run, and based solely on St Edmund, in 1970.


  1. ^ ‘Overseas Visitors among Big Crowds at the First Performances’, Bury Free Press, 12 June 1959, 1.
  2. ^ ‘Commemorating the Magna Carta’, The Stars and Stripes 18, no. 52, 8 June 1959, 11, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  3. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  4. ^ ‘”Ballet of Freedom”: Dancing and the Dancers’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 12.
  5. ^ Taken from ‘Bury’s Pageant of Magna Carta Made a Profit of £2,158’ Bury Free Press, 30 October 1959, 1.
  6. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  7. ^ ‘Borough of Bury St Edmunds, Magna Carta Commemoration Service, Sunday 14th June 1959’, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  8. ^ Letter from H.R.H. Smith, Hon. Secretary of Magna Carta Trust, to Miss J.B. Williams, Secretary of New Zealand House, 23 April 1959, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  9. ^ ‘Bury Pageant Seen by 30,000’, Bury Free Press, 19 June 1959, 1.
  10. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  11. ^ ‘Bury St Edmunds on Record’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 13.
  12. ^ ‘Thousands Coming Here Next Week for the Big Pageant’, Bury Free Press, 5 June 1959, 1.
  13. ^ ‘Thousands Coming Here Next Week for the Big Pageant’, Bury Free Press, 5 June 1959, 1.
  14. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  15. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet.
  16. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta (Bury St Edmunds, 1959), 5.
  17. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 5.
  18. ^ ‘Magna Carta Pageant’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 2; ‘Script Writer Canon Tydeman’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 17.
  19. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 7.
  20. ^ ‘Script Writer Canon Tydeman’, 17.
  21. ^ ‘Magna Carta Pageant’, 2.
  22. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 39.
  23. ^ Francine McKenzie, Redefining the Bonds of Commonwealth, 1939–1948: The Politics of Preference (Basingstoke, 2002).
  24. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 3.
  25. ^ ‘Celebrities Will Attend a Triennial Service’, Bury Free Press, 3 June 1959, 14.
  26. ^ ‘Magna Carta Pageant’, 2.
  27. ^ Ibid.
  28. ^ Ibid.
  29. ^ Ibid.
  30. ^ H.C. Whalley-Tooker, MA, LLM, Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, University Lecturer in law, ‘The Charter’s Effect on Constitutional Law’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 3.
  31. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet.
  32. ^ Ibid.
  33. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 7.
  34. ^ ‘Designs for the Costumes’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 12.
  35. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet.
  36. ^ ‘Wot, No Ducks? Bad Show, Chaps’, Bury Free Press, 12 June 1959, 1.
  37. ^ Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta, 3.
  38. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet.
  39. ^ Ibid.
  40. ^ Ibid.
  41. ^ John Garrard, ‘1850–1914: The Rule and Decline of a New Squirearchy?’ Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 27, no. 4 (1995): 612. Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (London, 2004), 466–9; and Simon Gunn, The Public Culture of the Victorian Middle Class: Ritual and Authority in the English Industrial City, 1840–1914 (Manchester, 2000), 187–197.
  42. ^ Charlotte Wildman, ‘Urban Transformation in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918–1939’, The Historical Journal 55, no. 1 (2012), 119-143; Siobhan Begley, ‘Voluntary Associations and the Civic Ideal in Leicester, 1870–1939’ (PhD Thesis, University of Leicester, 2009); Shane Ewen, ‘Power and Administration in Two Midland Cities’ (PhD Thesis, University of Leicester, 2003), 246–7; Nick Hayes, ‘Civic Perceptions: Housing and Local Decision-Making in English Cities in the 1920s’, Urban History 27, no. 2 (2000); Martin Gorsky, ‘Public Health in Interwar England and Wales: Did it Fail?’ Dynamis 28 (2008), 175-98; Brad Beaven, Visions of Empire: Patriotism, Popular Culture and the City, 1870–1939 (Manchester, 2012), 208; Nick Hayes, ‘Counting Civil Society: Deconstructing Elite Participation in the Provincial English City, 1900–1950’, Urban History 40, no. 2 (2013), 287-314.
  43. ^ Magna Carta Commemoration Sunday 14 June 1959. Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). E500/32/3.
  44. ^ Letter from Town Clerk of Bury St Edmunds, R.R. Hiles, to H.R.H Smith, Hon. Secretary of Magna Carta Trust, 4 May 1959; and Letter from Hon. Secretary of Magna Carta Trust, H.R.H. Smith, to Town Clerk of Bury St Edmund’s, R.R. Hiles, 5 May 1959. Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3. See J.F. Garner, Civic Ceremonial: A Handbook of Practice and Procedure (London, 1957).
  45. ^ ‘Celebrities Will Attend a Triennial Service’, Bury Free Press, 3 June 1959, 14.
  46. ^ ‘Magna Carta Pageant’, 2.
  47. ^ ‘Let Bury Look Alive and Busy while Pageant Goes On’, Bury Free Press, 29 May 1959, 1.
  48. ^ Letter from Town Clerk of Sudbury, R. Coats, to Town Clerk of Bury St Edmunds, R.R. Hiles, 22 June 1959, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  49. ^ ‘Letter from Town Clerk of Royal Borough of New Windsor, J.E. Siddall, to Town Clerk of Bury St Edmunds, R.R. Hiles, 15 June 1959, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  50. ^ Letter from Honorary Secretary of Magna Carta Trust, H.R.H. Smith, to Town Clerk of Bury St Edmunds, R.R. Hiles, 16 June 1959, Correspondence File, Magna Carta Trust (1959). EE500/32/3.
  51. ^ ‘Overseas Visitors among Big Crowds at the First Performances’, Bury Free Press, 12 June 1959, 1.
  52. ^ Ibid., 1.
  53. ^ ‘This is a Memorable Story of our Great Heritage, and how we have Honoured it’, Bury Free Press, 12 June 1959, 7.
  54. ^ ‘Magna Carta Pageant’, 2.
  55. ^ ‘The Pageant Master and his Great Task’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959), 2.
  56. ^ Margaret Statham, The Book of Bury St Edmunds (Buckingham, 1988), 127.
  57. ^ Statham, The Book of Bury St Edmunds, 127.
  58. ^ Statham, The Book of Bury St Edmunds, 140.
  59. ^ Carol Twinch, Bury St Edmunds: A History and Celebration (Salisbury, 2004), 82.
  60. ^ ‘Who will Help with Theatre?’ Bury Free Press, 12 June 1959, 7.
  61. ^ ‘What’s Happening to the Profit from Pageant?’ 3 July 1959, 5.
  62. ^ Ibid., 5.
  63. ^ Steven Fielding, ‘Labourism in the 1940s’, Twentieth Century British History 3, no. 2 (1992): 146.
  64. ^ ‘Strong Opposition to Pageant Profit Idea’, Bury Free Press, 13 November 1959, 1.
  65. ^ ‘Don’t Dissipate Pageant Profit in Small Grants’, Bury Free Press, 10 July 1959, 5.
  66. ^ ‘Strong Opposition to Pageant Profit Idea’, 1.
  67. ^ ‘Strong Opposition to Pageant Profit Idea’, 1.
  68. ^ ‘Mean and Miserable Arguments in the Recent Council Debate’, Bury Free Press, 20 November 1959, 14.
  69. ^ Ibid., 14.
  70. ^ Ibid., 14.
  71. ^ ‘Provost on Pageant’s £2158 Profit Decision’, Bury Free Press, 11 December 1959, 1.
  72. ^ ‘Revamp of Water Gardens in Bury St Edmunds after £40,000 Donation from Regular Visitors’, Bury Free Press, 15 May 2014, accessed 5 August 2014,
  73. ^ ‘Pageant Made a Profit of over £2,000’, Bury Free Press, 26 June 1959, 1.
  74. ^ ‘Magna Carta Pageant’, 2.
  75. ^ ‘Summer, 1907. An Impressive Pageant in Bury—Recalled’, Bury Free Press [Magna Carta Supplement], 22 May 1959, 9.
  76. ^ Pageant of Magna Carta, Information Sheet.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Bury St Edmunds Pageant of Magna Carta’, The Redress of the Past,