The Historical Pageant of Northampton Nonconformity
This entry was compiled by Tom Davis
Place: Castle Hill Hall (Northampton) (Northampton, Northamptonshire, England)
Number of performances: 2
21 and 22 April 1910, evening
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Writer and Producer [Pageant master]: Pierce, William
- Stage Manager: Alice Chapman
- Secretary and Business Manager: Mr J.C. Higgins
- Lime Light: Mr W.J. Bassett-Lowke
- Perruquier: Mr P. Ward
- Costumes: Simmons and Co., Covent Garden, London1
Rev. William Pierce wrote and produced the pageant.
Names of executive committee or equivalent
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Pierce, William
Names of composers
Numbers of performers50
Object of any funds raised
Linked occasionLocal celebrations of Rev. Blower’s appointment as the First Minister of Castle Hill nonconformist Church.
- Grandstand: No
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: n/a
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Associated eventsThe pageant took place as part of the local nonconformist celebrations regarding the appointment of the Rev. Richard Blower to the ministry of Castle Hill. There were church services and other small-scale celebrations of thanks.
Epoch I. Northampton, During the Martin Marprelate Tracts and 1588 Defeat of the Spanish Armada
The action opens in the home of a bookbinder, Henry Sharpe, who is assisting in the preparation of ‘heretical and traitorous’ radically protestant books. It is clear that these books must be hidden from public eyes, as can be seen from his eagerness to hide them when he fears he is disturbed. Neighbours are being rowdy outside Sharpe’s house; talking to the neighbours, it is made clear that the reason for their jubilation is the English victory over the Spanish. This ends the first scene of ‘Epoch I’.
The next scene is set in the house of Henry Godley. Infamous preacher and writer John Penry and his wife Eleanor (also the daughter of Henry) are talking, and Eleanor is begging John to give up his dangerous writings as they are newly married with a young family. However, John disregards this, saying it is God’s will. They are then visited by a sympathetic gentleman, Sir Richard Knightly, who arrives to warn John that the Bishop (believed to be Archbishop Whitgift) has dispatched men and a warrant for his arrest. He hastily leaves, and soon after a maid enters to warn of the approach of guards. John flees. The guards enter and demand that Eleanor tell them where John is, but she refuses and they leave.
In the following scene we see John in prison, having clearly been caught. He is writing to Eleanor, saying that he believes that he will die soon and that she is to put her trust in God and take care of their four young daughters. A maid comes in bringing a letter and some food, which he eats. The letter is from Eleanor who says that she has unsuccessfully petitioned the Queen for his release, though news also comes that their children are well. After the maid leaves another message is brought, this time from the Bishop. It says that John is to be executed that day at 4pm, much sooner than expected. He is to be hanged, and his guards rush off to arrange for the construction of a gallows. John ends the first epoch with a monologue saying that he will die for God’s church and his beliefs, and the curtain falls.
Epoch II. During the Restoration of the Monarchy, Northampton’s Appointment of a First Minister for Their Non-Conformist Church on Castle Hill
Set in the era of the restoration of the monarchy, the action of this Epoch opens with several common workmen reading a proclamation from the local bishop stating that their priest is to be ejected from the church. The congregation are visibly upset and ask their vicar to set up a new church. He refuses as he is too old and tired but expresses his fervent disapproval in what he calls superstitious practices like kneeling to receive Holy Communion; he encourages his congregation that, despite the persecution, they should remain loyal to their beliefs and to God.
In the next scene, several ejected ministers are talking about Rev. Blower who is to be the new minister of the nonconformist church at Castle Hill, Northampton. There are questions about his loyalty and integrity, but these are put to bed after comments that he left his position at Magdalen College, Oxford, over his theological views and disagreements with the establishment. They formally offer Rev. Blower the position; he accepts, despite the dangers and difficulties. It is, however, noted that many of the Church of England priests will not be an issue as they are largely sympathetic to their beliefs.
The third scene begins rather dramatically. The congregation are gathered at Castle Hill as a fire rages in Northampton. They offer prayers and prepare to help as many victims as they can, but they express their belief that this is God’s punishment and that they have been saved from the fire.
Epoch III. Set During the Reign of George II, Looking at the Life of the Future Castle Hill Minister, Rev. Philip Dodderidge
The epoch begins with Philip Dodderidge as a child receiving bible lessons from his mother. He takes particular interest in an illustration depicting the destruction of the Babel Tower. It is also revealed that his great-grandfather was a Bohemian non-conformist who fled to England because of the persecution he suffered.
The second scene starts with Philip studying in London in a melancholy mood. The housekeeper walks in, bringing a letter. It is revealed that Philip is both orphaned and bankrupt, living on the generosity of his sister and brother-in-law. His sister joins in the conversation, and they discuss all the options Philip has had but turned down. Among them was the Duchess of Bedford offering to put him through university if he conformed, and the Chancellor offering to send him to law school. He refused both, however, because he did not want to conform, nor did he believe it fully moral to become a lawyer. There is clearly sympathy from his sister and the housekeeper. Philip finally opens the letter, and it is revealed to be from his old minister at St Albans who has offered to tutor him and then help him find a suitable college to continue his studies and become a minister. Philip is overjoyed with the news and is encouraged to take the offer.
The third scene shows the now Dr Dodderidge at his home in Northampton, where he has set up a theological college. His eldest daughter, Polly, is clearly taken with their guest, the reformist Col. Gardiner, who is on his way to take up a new post helping to quash the Jacobite Uprising. After the daughters leave, they discuss England’s precarious religious situation and how it is washed with sin but will always fight to preserve the liberties of the people. They bid farewell to the colonel. The pageant ends.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Penry, John (1562/3–1593) religious controversialist
- Doddridge, Philip (1702–1751) Independent minister and writer
- Hooker, Richard (1554–1600) theologian and philosopher
- Knightley, Sir Richard (1533–1615) politician and patron of puritans
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Book of words
- Pierce, William. The Historic Pageant of Northampton Nonconformity: Book of the Words. Northampton, 1910.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
Sources used in preparation of pageant
Actual sources are unknown, but a newspaper credits the Rev. William Pierce with extensive research.3
The Rev. William Pierce wrote this pageant in order to mark the appointment of Castle Hill’s first minister, the Rev. Blower. Castle hill was a nonconformist church that had produced and entertained several famous and influential reformist theologians and preachers, and several of its members were considered pioneers in the founding of Calvinist Churches. Pierce clearly wrote his pageant script with great pride. In the words of the Northampton Mercury, it was written ‘with the pen of a keen student and the weight of undeniable authority’4 and by ‘a man whose sympathies have gone out to the men and women he has made speak’.5 He was eager to tell not only the story of Castle Hill but also the persecutions of early reformists. Interestingly, he provided a historical summary for the period of time that each ‘epoch’ of the pageant was based on. The persecution of nonconformists is most evident in the pageant when talking about the plight of the martyr John Penry (Epoch I). He is depicted as a strong, brave, religiously devout and resolute man who, even in the face of execution, stood firm and dedicated to his cause. For this, he is celebrated as a martyr for their reformist and nonconformist cause. Indeed, Northampton and its church at Castle Hill can lay claim to both entertaining and hosting a large array of famous and influential figures in the movement. And if one thing is evident throughout this pageant, it is the immense pride in this fact.
The story progresses, addressing other key and instrumental members of the church on Castle Hill. In the second epoch of the pageant, the Rev. Richard Blower is the key figure. In this epoch, the tyranny of the time (Restoration England) is brought to light, namely the mass ejection of ministers from the Church of England and the so-called ‘Clarendon Code’, which included the ‘tyrannical’ Conventicle Act which sought to ban religious assemblies of greater than five people by those outside the Church of England.6 The ejected vicars are naturally scornful of these new laws, and there is a clear attempt by Pierce to highlight not only the injustices but also the dangers that these men put themselves through for their faith.
We then come across a young Philip Dodderidge, future minister at Castle Hill and founder of a nonconformist academy for students, hoping to be learned in the faith. In the first scene of the third epoch, we see Philip as a young child. In this short scene we discover Philip’s fascination with Biblical stories, namely the story of Babel. This is particularly telling as it stands for the fact that there is no place where sin can be protected from God—a central nonconformist belief. We also learn of his history with the movement on a European level, as his great-grandfather was a religious refugee from the Holy Roman Empire, escaping persecution of similar levels to that in England.
Progressing further into the epoch and Dodderidge’s life, the next scene has jumped nine years to Philip as a seventeen-year-old. Now living with his sister and her husband (a minister), he talks about the death of his parents and how his estate is now defunct. His family connections are revealed and are impressive; he has received offers from the Chancellor and the Duchess of Bedford to sponsor his education. However, he has turned down all such offers on account of his religious views. The Duchess offered to sponsor his education in Divinity if only he would religiously conform, and the Chancellor offered to send him into law. Pierce clearly included this scene to reaffirm Dodderidge’s steadfast belief in the nonconformist cause. Without any regard for potential poverty, he gave up many opportunities to receive wealth and fortune in order to follow his dream of serving God in the way he wished. Fortuitously, Philip receives welcome news from his old minister in St Albans, who agrees to tutor him and then find him a suitable academy in order for him to formally complete his education as a minister. He is overjoyed, as are his sister and house-keeper.
Finally, we see Philip as a fully-fledged minister in Northampton during the reign of George II. He is entertaining a guest, an equally zealous Col. Gardiner who is on his way to preserve English liberties against the Stuart Pretender. There are also talks of a philanthropic endeavour that Philip is entering, namely a hospital in Northampton. Philop and Gardiner disagree over the former’s association, through the hospital project, with a Dr Stenhouse, whom many, including Col. Gardiner, consider to be a heretic. Dodderide’s defence of him indicates his radical beliefs, and there is talk of Witefiled and Wesley as ‘shining stars’, although their belief in apostolic succession is broadly frowned upon.
The Northampton Mercury, a reporter from which sat in on a dress rehearsal performed for school children on 20 April, praised the performance despite noting ‘a few rough edges to plane down’ and ‘a little jaggedness’. In the reporter’s view, ‘there was sober earnestness enough and enthusiasm’, and the pageant ‘went well; and the manner of its going warmed the heart.’7 Warming with a sense of local pride, the writer continued: ‘Nonconformity has never had a pageant to itself in the history of man. Northampton Nonconformity has led the way. The pageant freshens dull memories, it brings home to us something of what persecution really meant’, making ‘Nonconformity something to be wondered at and not ashamed of.’8 The newspaper went on to praise the performers who, though lacking in experience, ‘were willing to learn’, providing ‘seriousness, earnestness and enthusiasm’ in great measure.9
Though small, the pageant was effective and compelling. There were a number of nonconformist pageants across the country in subsequent years, including Light Over England (1938), to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into English (though this prompted a reviewer from the Times to remark that ‘even the genealogical trees of the Bible are not so dull as this’!10), and a number of pageants staged in Bristol during and after the Second World War, including Pilgrims to the Sunrise (1943) and Flame of Freedom (1949). Northampton held major pageants in 1925 and 1930.
By Tom Davis
- Northampton Mercury, 22 April 1910, 10.
- Northampton Mercury, 22 April 1910, 10.
- Northampton Mercury, 22 April 1910.
- Northampton Mercury, 22 April 1910, 10.
- W. Pierce, The Historical Pageant of Northampton Non-Conformity (Northampton, 1910), 17; R. Lodge, The History of England from the Restoration to the Death of William III (London, 1923), 69.
- Northampton Mercury, 22 April 1910, 10.
- Times, 21 September 1938, 8.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘The Historical Pageant of Northampton Nonconformity’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1137/