Battle Abbey Pageant
Place: Battle Abbey (Battle) (Battle, Sussex, England)
Number of performances: 16
4–16 July 1932
- 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 14, 15 July at 7pm
- 6, 9, 13, 16 July at 3pm and 7pm
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Lally, Gwen
- Director of Scenario: Arthur Beckett FRSL
- Master of Music: James R. Dear
- Organising Director: Mrs A. Shaw-Mackenzie
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Chairman: Sir Harold Brakspear, KCVO, FSA, FRIBA
- Vice-Chairman: Mrs Askwyth
- Executive Committee
- Chairman: Alderman T.S. Dymond
- Vice-Chairman: The Very Rev. the Dean of Battle
- Hon. Director of Publicity: William H. Dyer
- Lord Leconfield
- Duchess of Norfolk
- Duchess of Devonshire
- Marquis and Machioness Abagavenny
- Earl and Countess De La Warr
- Lord Eustace Percy MP
- Viscount Hailsham
- Mrs and Mrs Kipling
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Gurney, Maude
- Beckett, Arthur
- Brakspeare, Sir Harold
- Sheehan-Darem, Muriel
- Raper, Millicent
- Gurney: Episode 1
- Beckett: Episodes 2, 6-8
- Brakspeare: Episodes 3-5
- Sheehan-Dare: Episodes 3-5
- Raper: Episode 9
Names of composers
At the final performance this figure was increased to 3500
Numbers of performers2700
At the final performance this figure was increased to 3500
- Publicity £800
- Stands £751
- Tents £150
- Printing £227
- PA System £115
- Landscaping £75
- Pageant Master £434
- Producer £409
- Music £359
- Author £26
- Costumes, wigs, etc. £2218
- Performers’ tea £500
- Transport £1513
- Office Expenses £200
- Executive transport £120
- Insurance £36
- Horses and properties £1418
- Payment to Abbey £150
- Night watchmen £48
- Police £66
- Screening Arena £307
- Sundry Expenses £60
- Commission 100
- Car Park £397
- Programmes £250
- Sale of Postcards £40
- Admissions to Abbey £110
- Donations to costume £180
- Sale of properties £33
- Admissions £7260
- Donations £70
Total Receipts: £8362
Minus Entertainment Tax £1210
Total Deficiency £29301
Object of any funds raised
In Aid of Hospitals and Medical Charities of East Sussex
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 45000
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
£1 1s–1s 6d.
The final performance was followed by a procession and a church ceremony in the Abbey.
Episode 1. Harold at the Norman Court, 1065.
The Norman Court in its austere beauty when William compelled Harold to take the oath of allegiance to him on the sacred relics.3
Episode 2. The Battle of Hastings, 1066.
The famous battle, commencing with the daring action of the Norman Minstrel Taileffer and ending with the death of Harold and the routing of the English, followed by the search for Harold’s body by Edith of the Swan-neck.
Episode 3. The Consecration of the Abbey, 1094.
The consecration of the Abbey that William had vowed to raise on the site of the battle. The consecration takes place in 1094 when William Rufus is present to see the realisation of his father’s vow.
Episode 4. The Dissolution of the Monastery, 1538.
Nearly 500 years later the suppression of the Monastery of Battle Abbey takes place, to the distress of the small tenants and country folk. Dr Richard Layton and Thomas Legh, authors of the Black Book, superintended the looting of the Monastery.
Episode 5. The House-Warming and the Curse, 1538.
That same year, Sir Anthony Browne, the first owner of Battle Abbey, holds his great House-Warming Banquet, when the mysterious Monk appears and utters the famous Curse to the consternation of the guests.
Episode 6. The Funeral of Sir Anthony Browne, 1548.
A most impressive spectacle when the first private owner of Battle Abbey is followed to his grave with all the pomp and ceremony of a spectacular period.
Episode 7. The Visit of Queen Elizabeth to Northiam, 1573.
All the pageantry and beauty of this age of Poetry and Song will be displayed in the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Master and Mistress Frewen of Northiam
Episode 8. The Smugglers in Sussex, 18th Century.
No pageant in Sussex would be complete without some record of the period when smuggling was so prevalent along this coast.
Episode 9. Battle Fair, 1876.
Another leap through time and the famous Fair of Battle will be seen with all its attractions.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Harold II [Harold Godwineson] (1022/3?–1066) king of
- William I [known as William the Conqueror] (1027/8–1087) king of England and duke of Normandy
- William II [known as William Rufus] (c.1060–1100) king of England
- Layton, Richard (c.1498–1544) dean of York and agent in the suppression of the monasteries
- Legh, Sir Thomas (d. 1545) diplomat and ecclesiastical administrator
- Browne, Sir Anthony (c.1500–1548) courtier
- Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Sussex Agricultural Express
Hastings and St Leonards Observer
Book of words
No book of words available
Other primary published materials
Battle Abbey Pageant [Programme]. London, 1932.
[A copy of the Programme was also produced in French.]
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- East Sussex Records Office
- Copy of Programme ACC9872/1
- Copy of posters, tickets and French programme BAT/6/4/6/4900/2
- Digitised photographs and copy of programme available, ‘Battle Abbey Pageant 1932’, Battle Abbey http://www.battle-abbey.co.uk/pageant.html
Sources used in preparation of pageant
Pageants were often promoted as a means of boosting the status of the place in which they were held, acting as an advertisement of a town, city, or a region. Unfortunately, pageants were often responsible for revealing the tensions within communities. The Battle Abbey Pageant of 1932 was conceived as a pageant for the whole of East Sussex in late 1931, at the height of the Great Depression. Sussex, an agricultural county, had 11096 unemployed men listed in the 1931 census, a rate of 9.4%.4 Many of the districts of East Sussex called upon to provide the 7000 performers (equivalent to almost 2% of the entire population of the county) demanded by the Pageant Mistress, Gwen Lally, proved unwilling from the start. At the first meeting, the Mayor of Rye declared that ‘Many people in Rye suggest that the town would receive little advertisement were it to take part in the pageant, and the time and money spent by the people of Rye on it could be spent more profitably elsewhere.’5 Many of the performers would have to travel significant distances by train to each of the sixteen performances (spread out over two weeks), plus a number of rehearsals at the site dictated by Lally. This would in effect mean two weeks unpaid leave for many at a time of acute economic crisis and depressed wages, with employers proving supremely willing to allow sabbaticals. By February 1932, Hastings had recruited a grand total of 8 people for the smuggling scene.6 In March, the Mayor of Rye formally abandoned his town’s episode after having made ‘several unsuccessful attempts to obtain volunteers’ (even the British Legion refused to help), and resigned from the committee.7
By April only around £3000 out of the £4000 guarantee fund had been secured. At this point both Bexhill (which had raised a paltry 30 performers) and Hastings pulled out, and suggested the pageant be abandoned. The Mayor of Bexhill declared that ‘I am almost convinced that the pageant will be a failure… I must ask for my name to be struck off the two committees to which I belong; otherwise, if you go on I shall wish you all success privately’.8 The idea of one district to one episode was abandoned, and those who had signed up as performers were pooled for distribution across the whole set of episodes. Ultimately Hastings and St Leonards, Eastborne, Heathfield, Battle, Bexhill, and Sidley provided performers, though without the official sanction initially supplied. The lack of performers became the butt of several local wits in the newspapers.9 By the end of May only 1500 had signed up, with appeals to various villages (involving members of the executive visiting as recruitment sergeants) carried on throughout June.10
Given such stark warnings and such a weak response from the local population, discretion would probably have been the better part of valour. As usual, however, the participants and organisers took no heed. Lally declared that she and her friend, Miss Annabelle Gibson, ‘had felt definite psychic influences in the Abbey grounds at late rehearsals…I think that the monks were probably not displeased with us, for we were doing them no dishonour in making those lovely scenes live again’. She also declared that she had even seen a ghostly monk, which she took as an omen to proceed.11 A letter to the Bexhill-On-Sea Observer attempted to rally demoralized troops:
Times are hard and things are difficult. Then let us have some new and inexpensive form of entertainment to take us out of ourselves. Our history is glorious, then let us hearten ourselves by reviving it and our pride in ourselves…Let us be Spartans and Stoics, and economise, and not grouse, and to carry on and carry through!12
The author seemed unaware that a key part of stoic teaching involved knowing at what point to abandon an unliveable life, and the pageant proved anything but inexpensive.
To make matters worse, the few who had volunteered for the smuggling episode were informed by the Dean of Battle, W.W. Youard, that smugglers and other ‘“disreputable” characters’ would be excluded from the final procession and service: ‘it would obviously be incongruous for smugglers or the fat woman from Battle Fair to appear in costume in the procession or at the service.’ One of the players disputed this, arguing that ‘the history of Sussex smuggling was rich with incidents that showed how closely the eighteenth-century clergy were allied with the smugglers.’13 Youard insisted that ‘There has never been any intention to exclude smugglers or any other performers’, though stressed that the smugglers would not be wearing costumes.14 The pageant opened with 2600 performers, many of whom had been taken from local schools. Reviews were laconic and hardly enthusiastic: the Times referred to it as ‘beautifully staged’, but said little else. Attendees during the first week were far below anticipated levels, despite fine weather. Notable events included the visit on 9 July of the French Ambassador and the Mayors of Rouen, Calais and Boulogne, which the Manchester Guardian declared to be ‘Another invasion of Sussex by the Normans’.15 Lord Ebbisham, who greeted the French visitors, suggested that the episodes in the pageant depicting the Norman Conquest ‘must arouse sympathies with France, which had suffered three invasions during the last one hundred years’.16 Quite how the guests took this diplomatic faux-pas was not recorded. In any case, attendances were somewhat more encouraging during the second week, with the Hastings and St Leonards Observer writing that ‘As the days have passed the performers have grown more and more perfect in their roles, the production has quickened and increased in smoothness’.17 The Saxons who fought the Battle of Hastings in blistering heat each afternoon grew tired of suffering defeat, with one wounded Saxon declaring ‘I reckon it’s about time they reversed history, and let us win this blinking battle’.18 On 14 July (coincidentally, Bastille Day), the Saxons were reinforced by several dozen schoolboys from Eastbourne, and the battle was apparently much closer and hard-fought than on previous occasions, with at least one Norman horse having to be put down.19 Though the final performance was boosted by a further thousand volunteers, this was too little too late to reverse the debacle.
Recriminations began a week after the final performance. Several correspondents were favourable, with the ubiquitous commemorative poem and one Thomas Adams praising the Pageant for ‘awakening the county spirit and dramatic instincts of the people of East Sussex’, believing that ‘if there has been a reasonable loss in money it has been more than offset by the spiritual gain of East Sussex communities.’20 However, such expressions of approbation were massively outweighed in column inches by the excoriating criticism offered by ‘A Near Observer’ (possibly someone with some connection to the Pageant):
The ‘battle’ was farcical; it was neither spectacular nor dramatic, but this was not the fault of the performers. The fault was that the scenario and production were bad. With the number of people in the battle scene in the hands of some one able to deal with ensemble this episode would have been an outstanding feature. It was all wrongly conceived; the armies were a rabble and the battle a riot... The spirit was all wrong… [and] although [the pageant was] good in parts it could have been an outstanding success if properly run. I have found that a large number of people really enjoyed it, but always found that these people had never seen a pageant before.21
The critic proceeded to go through each episode in dissecting all the failures. The first episode ‘wanted dialogue to explain; the people in front did not know what was going on’, the third episode was ‘all unconnected’ the fourth ‘wanted “words,” and needed speeding up’. The writer praised the Funeral episode, but declared the smugglers ‘a muddle’.
‘I understand that there is a possibility that the guarantors will be called on. This is the result of the muddle on the business side’ concluding that ‘I shall remember the Battle Pageant as something that just missed the mark’.22 Predictably, this attached was followed by a flurry of letters in defence of the pageant, accusing the anonymous writer of cowardice, though the editor of the Hastings and St Leonards Observer (ironically unsigned) agreed that ‘My own opinion is that whilst praise for the pageant has perhaps been a little more lavish than it deserved, it was certainly a very fine spectacle.’23 The newspaper went on to list the advantages enjoyed by the pageant an ‘ideal’ and ‘pregnant spot in England’s history’, which enjoyed kind weather. The writer, Cayley Calvert, who had the prospective Pageant Master for the cancelled Lewes Pageant of the previous year, suggested that:
It seems incredible that with such paramount advantages financial failure should result. To lose the objective and fall back on the pretext of having given something artistic, even if not too interesting and entertaining, is unsatisfying. Under such circumstances surely a thanksgiving service was out of place. Instead of praising God from whom all blessings flow, would it not be more to the point to institute an enquiry as to what has become of the takings from such a colossal attendance of 45,000 people.24
However many correspondents wrote in defence though, they failed to escape from the sense of failure which clung to the pageant. A large deficit of nearly £3000 was reported, with Lally having to defend herself from the charge of taking too high a salary and expenses.25 From the itemised expenses published, it became clear that the expenditure on costumes (£2218), horses and properties (£1418), and transporting volunteers to and from the pageant (£1513) had been the main causes of the large expenditure; the Entertainment Tax levied on income rather than profits (£1210) had further rubbed salt into the wound.26 Praising Lally as ‘a genius’, the Chairman of the Executive Committee, Alderman Dymond blamed the ‘financial stringency of the time, which resulted in cheaper seats being patronised at the expense of the dearer’, as well as poor attendances during the first week.27
In any case, the Battle Abbey Pageant was a systematic and spectacular failure from its inception. At the height of the depression a disunited and dispersed county had been encouraged to come together to perform a pageant based around a decidedly weak script whose most memorable episodes revolved around a great English military defeat. Lally’s previous success at Ashdown Forest in 1929 had perhaps left her unprepared for the scale of the debacle at Battle. Whilst she would go on to be successful in the Pageant of Runnymede (1934) and the Pageant of England (1935) in Slough, the grand-scale failure of Birmingham (1938) proved the hit-and-miss nature of large-scale pageantry which Lally favoured.
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 12 August 1932, 11.
- Synopses text taken from Battle Abbey Pageant [Programme] (London, 1932), unpaginated.
- GB Historical GIS, University of Portsmouth, East Sussex AdmC through time, Work & Poverty Statistics, Census Unemployment by Sex, A Vision of Britain through Time, accessed 4 July 2016, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10186109/cube/CENSUS_UNEM
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 27 November 1931, 8.
- Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 13 February 1932, 10.
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 11 March 1932, 13.
- Bexhill-On-Sea Observer, 9 April 1932, 14.
- See, e.g., A.A. Irvine, Letter to the Bexhill-On-Sea Observer, 14 May 1932, 3.
- Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 21 May 1932, 3; Sussex Agricultural Express, 24 June 1932, 6.
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 15 July 1932, 16.
- Bexhill-On-Sea Observer, 14 May 1932, 3.
- Times, 25 June 1932, 9.
- Times, 27 June 1932, 8.
- Manchester Guardian, 9 July 1932, 14.
- Observer, 10 July 1932, 19.
- Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 16 July 1932, 9.
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 15 July 1932, 16.
- Thomas Adams, Letter to Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 23 July 1932, 13.
- ‘A Near Observer’, Letter to Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 23 July 1932, 13.
- Letter to Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 23 July 1932, 7.
- Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 30 July 1932, 3.
- Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, 15 April 1933, 10.
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 12 August 1932, 11.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Battle Abbey Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1261/