Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant

Pageant type

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Place: Chittlehampton Village Square and Parish Church (Chittlehampton) (Chittlehampton, Devon, England)

Year: 1936

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 2


8 and 11 July 1936

  • 8 July at 3pm
  • 11 July at 3.30pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Producer and Director [Pageant Master]: Bosman, Barbara
  • Producers of the Morality Play: F.G. Thomas, Miss C.A. Radford
  • Properties: Frank Lewis
  • Costumes: E.M. Smith and Mrs N.J. Smith
  • Treasurer: J. Cole
  • Organist: Rev. T.B. Strong
  • Secretaries: Mr Vivian and Miss H. Potter
  • Publicity: J.R. Gardner
  • Scenery and Props: Mr Rendle and Waldron


Bosman, Thomas and Radford were from the University College of the South-West Rural Extension Scheme

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Executive Committee

  • Chairman: Rev. Ernest C. Mortimer
  • Hon. Treasurer: J.R. Burgess

Ladies’ Committee for Refreshments

  • Chairman: Mrs. E.C. Mortimer

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

Hofrmannsthal, Hugo von

Names of composers

  • Bach, Johann Sebastian
  • Stravinsky, Igor
  • Bliss, Arthur
  • Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da

Numbers of performers


This is an estimate.

Financial information


[Figures not complete]

  • Teas: £8
  • Handbooks £21 10s
  • Pimpernels: £33
  • Chairs: £12 12s
  • Parking £8
  • Play £22
  • Collection £12 14s
  • Donations £33 10s


[Figures not complete]

  • F.G. Thomas’ expenses of £8 (only asked for £5).
  • Costumes £17
  • Printing: £20

Total Spent: £74

Total Received: £204

Profit: £130

Object of any funds raised

To raise funds towards the Chittlehampton Church Tower restoration fund

Linked occasion

8 July was the feast of St Hieritha, and 1936 was roughly four hundred years since the end of the annual pilgrimages following the Reformation.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Not Known
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 1250


The total audience figure is an estimate. Numbers were in the range 1000-1500

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

Free but there were donations with charges for tea and refreshments

Associated events

  • Church service 
  • Pilgrimage to the church

Pageant outline

Part I. The Martyrdom of Saint Hieritha


The action starts in Celtic springtime. The villagers are going about their daily tasks, with maidens drawing water from the Well. The village Chief returns and they pay homage to him, performing a pagan rite of thanksgiving. The villagers begin to chant as the god Ofydd, deity of Roads and Travel, enters leading seven boys with a golden cord. The Chief breaks the cords and the boys disperse. The ceremony then transforms into a revel. Soon, a Christian missionary appears and begins to preach. The villagers gather and listen sceptically. Eventually, they strike down the missionary, leaving him for dead. Only the maiden Hieritha remains, tending the stranger and restoring to him his fallen cross. The grateful missionary baptises her. The villagers soon return and see that the missionary’s body has gone. They are about to attack Hieritha, but the chief intervenes.


Months have passed since the previous episode. The Well has run dry. The villagers blame the new faith, and they are angry at Hieritha. She alone prays to the Christian god as the others leave her to join in a pagan harvest ritual, the “Crying of the Neck”. Hieritha’s step-mother accuses her of causing the drought and the Chief is forced to deliver her to the gods. They perform a ritual, striking Hieritha with raised scythes. The well fills with water and all are amazed. The missionary approaches and commands the people to fall to their knees. The body of the Saint is blessed and carried off to be buried.

Part II. Medieval Pilgrimage and Fair, 8 July AD 13–

Solemnity and gaiety are mingled in the medieval scene, to commemorate the Patronal Feast of St. Hieritha. The Fair is held in the square. Children dance around the Maypole, the puppet- man shows his dolls and the Players arrive to perform a “pageant”. They present “The Pie and the Tart”, a comedy from across the Channel and “Judgement Day”, a miracle-drama. The children elect their Queen and crown her with flowers. The bells peal out and call the villagers and pilgrims from their play to worship at the Shrine of St. Hieritha. The cast and Players take to the road again. Nothing remains but the sacred Well.

Part III. “The Theatre of the World”

A morality play by Hugo von Hofrmannsthal, translated by T. Gwynn Jones, produced by Mr F.G. Thomas [Director of Exeter University College Extension Scheme] with Margaret Innes. The symbolic characters of the play—Earth, Curiosity, Death, Prophet—comment upon the drama of life played out by the human characters—King, Wealth, Beauty, Wisdom, Peasants, and the Beggar. Death is the stage-manager. The performance begins and ends with a prayer ‘there will be no applause.’1

Key historical figures mentioned


Musical production

Recorded music.

  • Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Bach
  • Veni Sancte Spiritus
  • Earth Worship, Stravinsky
  • The World in Ruins, Bliss
  • Sanctus, Palestrina

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Chittlehampton Parish Magazine
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette
North Devon Journal
Western Morning News
Western Times

Book of words


None available.

Other primary published materials


Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant Drama 8 and 11 July: Souvenir Handbook. Exeter, 1936. [Cost 6d.]

References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Correspondence and material relating to the Joint Committee for Tutorial Classes and Rural Extension Scheme, Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter, Reference LKE/EDU/4/C
  • Copy of Programme, correspondence and financial statement, North Devon Record Office, Barnstaple, Reference B472 add5/30/20 and B472 add5/19/1-5

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Hugo von Hofrmannsthal. The Theatre of the World. Translated by T. Gwynn Jones.

A medieval morality play.


The Chittlehampton Pageant was a strange affair. It was organised by a number of groups from within the village, as well as from other parts of the county, who were brought together by the shared purpose of holding a pageant. Chittlehampton is a small, remote village some eight miles southeast of Barnstaple. The idea of the pageant had been proposed jointly by the Vicar, the Reverend Ernest C. Mortimer, and F.G. Thomas, the director of the University College of the South-West Rural Extension Scheme.2 Mortimer knew Thomas through his own involvement in the Workers’ Educational Association for a number of years, acting as president of the Chittlehampton branch and lecturing in surrounding villages on religion and politics.3 A number of other figures behind the pageant, such as Spencer Vivian the secretary, were also closely connected to the local adult education movement.4

Whilst Mortimer and Thomas had come up with the idea of holding a pageant in the village six years previously, it was only once a coalition of willing parties had emerged that the Extension Scheme agreed to provide assistance: ‘When it was apparent that the various religious and secular Organisations in the village were willing to co-operate in an effort to preserve their common village heritage, then the staff of the Rural Extension Scheme felt justified in giving such help as they could in this venture’.5 Clare Bosman of the University College, who ultimately became the Pageant Master, pledged that ‘she would do all she possibly could in the way of training. There was an opportunity for all to work in groups, and, if they all felt keen on the work, it was bound to be a tremendous success.’6

Although one of the University Colleges’ aims for adult education was the pursuit and preservation of rural drama, the Chittlehampton Pageant was one of surprisingly few in which the adult education movement was directly involved. However the adult education movement was linked in ethos, if not in practice, with the Village Drama movement pioneered in the 1920s by Mary Kelly, which put on a number of pageants and plays in the south and particularly south-west of England. These included pageants in Selborne (1926), Bradstone (1929), Launceston (1931), Bude, and Exeter (1932).7 Both Kelly’s movement and the university extension scheme promoted rural drama as a means of preserving ideas of village communities and folk culture in areas threatened by depopulation,8 and the gradual erosion of old ways of life due to innovations of mass society and modernity, especially the motorcar and the wireless. The desire to preserve (or at least record) rural ways of life was particularly potent throughout the interwar period, attracting many high-profile figures including: the literary critic F.R. Leavis; folklorists and musicologists such as Cecil Sharp and A.L. Lloyd; and historians and archaeologists such as O.G.S. Crawford and W.G. Hoskins.9 This movement has often been attacked as a nostalgic, even reactionary, attempt to turn back the clock on the modern world and recreate an imaginary pre-industrial golden age, wilfully ignoring the poor education, disease and squalor that plagued rural Britain until the twentieth century.10 Nonetheless, Chittlehampton is a good example of how this kind of intervention, whatever the real motivations or intentions that underpinned it, could be successful at motivating communities.

In April 1936 Thomas spoke to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the ongoing plans: ‘A committee of the whole village has been formed, including chapel and church-people, and the story of this saint, and the subsequent development of her legend, is to be mimed in the village square…Chittlehampton is not a large village, and when one remembers that 80 different costumes are required it will be realised that most of the villagers are involved.’11 He praised the villagers for keeping costs for costumes and props to an absolute minimum, and Thomas himself would subsequently claim only £5 in expenses for months of work. In the same article, Thomas also noted the significance of the pageant’s performance date: ‘It is believed that as this play falls on the patronal saint day, certain Church organisations are planning a revival of a large-scale pilgrimage to Chittlehampton.’12 In this sense, the event at Chittlehampton was part of a wider revival of a number of Anglo-Catholic traditions, including the pilgrimage, which took place in the 1930s. The Walsingham Shrine in Norfolk had revived its annual pilgrimage in 1934,13 and the George Herbert Tercentenary Pageant (1933) at Wilton included a pilgrimage from Herbert’s grave at Fugglestone Church to the Church at Bemerton.

Of the Chittlehamptom pageant, the North Devon Journal remarked that it was a ‘conspicuous achievement…No such spectacle has been organized in North Devon before, though there have been, of course, other pageants, under many auspices, “staged” with success. The Chittlehampton effort has taken on the spirit of a public pilgrimage to the noble Church on the hill, and interest in the event has been widespread and intense.’14 The Bishop of Exeter William Cecil had given the pageant his blessing, in no uncertain terms: ‘‘I most fully recommend the restoration of Chittlehampton tower to the generosity of churchmen. This tower is famous throughout Devon, and I think the world, as being one of the most beautiful among the many beautiful towers in Devon. Not only churchmen, but all lovers of architecture will most earnestly wish to preserve it.’15 Only his untimely death prevented his attendance.

The pilgrimage was not without some controversy. The North Devon Journal noted that ‘There are many whose loyalties might not enable them to approve all that is implied in our Pilgrimage, but [sic] whose help we could not have done without. Such help has been given with a whole-heartedness which will not be forgotten or fail of its effect.’16 An avowedly secular institution such as the University College of the South-West would be profoundly uncomfortable with a wholly religious celebration. Furthermore, there were significant numbers of Nonconformists in the village who were at best uncomfortable with the Catholic nature that the proceedings were taking. One commentator (probably the Reverend Mortimer) wrote in a souvenir of the celebrations: ‘Problems of adjustment arose. For the pilgrims, and for many of us, the pilgrimage was the main inspiration.’17 There were further problems: ‘The decision to allow the play “The Theatre of the World” to be acted in the Church was not made lightly or without anxious consideration. There are some who see no place at all for sacred drama in sacred buildings.’18 Yet these tensions were ultimately averted: ‘respect was [given] due to the rules of the University College of the South-West, and to the view-point of the Nonconformist members of the Tower Committee. The principle adopted was to leave every section an entirely free hand within its own sphere, for any haggling over details would have dampened enthusiasm.’19

Thus the pageant itself was divided into three distinct scenes performed by different groups with wildly different religious outlooks, who naturally saw the pageant and the attached celebrations in very different ways. The first, showing the martyrdom of St Hieritha, was done mainly by the church. It revived a particularly gory story of the pagan sacrifice of a young Christian girl in the fourth or fifth century AD, making this part of a ritual to end the drought. The connivance of Hieritha’s evil step-mother added another layer of drama. Hieritha’s death ends the drought, but it is only the deft actions of the missionaries (who apparently did little to avert it) who swiftly claim it as a Christian miracle rather than pagan magic, that secures the community’s conversion. However, the scene is certainly testament to the persistence of old beliefs even within a nominally Christian framework. The second and third scenes are essentially pageants-within-pageants, recreating a medieval feast day before the reformation, and a medieval morality play. These were performed under the auspices of the South-West University College. Indeed, Thomas stressed that the University College only got involved once it had become clear that the pageant was not solely a religious event, stressing in a promotional letter distributed by the Extension Scheme that ‘The whole village has come together in this common effort…all people in the village are co-operating—Chapel and Church, Workers’ Educational Association and British Legion, the Rural Extension Scheme felt justified in offering their help in this common effort along dramatic lines.’20

The only dampening would be from the rain on the day of the first performance:

Then came that ominous lunch-time deluge, and the first part of the Pageant was not finished when the real downpour set in. The behaviour of villagers and visitors in this crisis was one of the happy things about the whole effort. The discomfort was great and the disappointment was crushing, especially for the children waiting in costume…But all went smoothly and cheerfully. Most of the visitors found a nook somewhere, had tea and waited for the play. If Chittlehampton can do nothing else it can rise to emergencies.21

The Saturday performance, which most journalists attended, went off without a hitch in perfect weather attended by an audience of ‘thousands [who] watched enthralled the enacting of the sad story of the martyrdom of the patron saint of Chittlehampton.’22 The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette praised the ‘colourful scenes of medieval pageantry, the villagers retold the glorious story of the martyr saint Hieritha…Figures of centuries ago, wearing the picturesque flowing robes of the Celtic era, once more walked the narrow streets of the village, and assembled for prayer to make holiday in the village square in celebration of the Patronal Feast of St. Hieritha.’23 The large attendance meant that the morality play had to be repeated twice ‘when the congregation was again so large that many had to stand.’24 An anonymous reviewer noted of it that:

The Beggar was played with passion and pathos, a memorable performance. The King was Kingly throughout…Beauty gave a charmingly clear-cut picture. Wisdom looked and lived her part and was most moving in the prayer which converted the Beggar. Wealth earned most credit for rapid work, being called in late to fill a long part…Curiosity played a difficult character part with vivacity and discretion. Death was fatherly but peremptory.25

The entire event was a great success, whatever one’s religious perspective might be. The Reverend Panther stressed how he had enjoyed participating in the ‘Pilgrimage and all the observances yesterday’, attended by hundreds from the summer festival of the Exeter Diocesan Church Union.26 He add that ‘I do not think the general public realised what a historical occasion it was—a revival after 400 years lapse, I thought the attendance good but no doubt the weather hindered many from coming.’ Dating the previous pilgrimage to 1539, Panther suggested that ‘You must have a pilgrimage now every year.’27

The Chittlehampton celebrations, encompassing the pilgrimage, pageants and various pageant plays were important events for a rural community which seldom if ever received much attention. They were a testament to the potential of rural community drama and the university rural extension movement, as well as to the organisational powers of Thomas, Bosman and Radford. The three parts of the pageant, which might potentially have been jarring and incongruous, instead complemented one another. Rural folk culture was presented not as a unified coherent doctrine (as the Nazi Party were then attempting to demonstrate in Germany) but as representing a number of different strands, in which Christianity sat alongside vestigial paganism.

Despite free admission, takings were £204, giving a profit of £130 towards the £750 needed to restore the church tower. Further successful events, including a gymkhana by the Egglesford Hunt,28 allowed works to begin in March 1937.29 Work was completed in March 1939.30 Further pageants were held in Chittlehampton in 1974 and 2000.


  1. ^ Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant Drama (Exeter, 1936), 8.
  2. ^ Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 11 October 1935, 19.
  3. ^ North Devon Journal, 10 November 1927, 5.
  4. ^ North Devon Journal, 18 June 1931, 4.
  5. ^ Programme and Script for the St Hieritha Pageant, Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter, LKE/EDU/4/C
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Mick Wallis, ‘Kelly, Mary Elfreda (1888–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 7 January 2016,; Mick Wallis, ‘Drama in the Villages: three pioneers’, in Paul Brassley, Jeremy Burchardt, Lynne Thompson, eds., The English Countryside Between the Wars: Regeneration Or Decline? (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2007), 102-15; Mick Wallis, ‘Unlocking the Secret Soul: Mary Kelly, pioneer of village theatre’, New Theatre Quarterly, 16 (2000), 347-58. See also the interesting blogpost by Julie Sampson, accessed 11 July 2016, at:
  8. ^ Chittlehampton’s population in 1931 had been 778, a figure which had been declining since the 1850s, when the village contained 1893 residents. See GB Historical GIS, University of Portsmouth, Chittlehampton AP/CP through time, Population Statistics, Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time, accessed 11 July 2016,
  9. ^ Jeremy Burckhardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change Since 1800 (London, 2002), esp. Chapters 1, 8-9, 11-12; Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English writers, artists and the imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London, 2010); Georgina Boyes, The imagined village: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (Manchester, 1993).
  10. ^ Peter Mandler, ‘Against Englishness: English Culture and the Limits to Rural Nostalgia’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 7 (1997), 155-75.
  11. ^ Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 24 April 1936, 9.
  12. ^ Ibid.
  13. ^ ‘History of Pilgrimage’, Walsingham Village, accessed 11 July 2016,
  14. ^ North Devon Journal, 9 July 1936, 5.
  15. ^ Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant Drama (Exeter, 1936), 2.
  16. ^ Ibid.
  17. ^ Sn. ‘Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant’ [Souvenir: Chittlehampton Parish magazine?], copy in North Devon Record Office, B472 add5/19/1-5, unpaginated. I believe the author to be the Reverend E.C. Mortimer.
  18. ^ Ibid.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ Circular letter from F.G. Thomas, [July 1936], Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter, LKE/EDU/4/C
  21. ^ Ibid
  22. ^ North Devon Journal, 9 July 1936, 5.
  23. ^ Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 10 July 1936, 12.
  24. ^ Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 July 1936, 9.
  25. ^ ‘Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant’, unpaginated.
  26. ^ North Devon Journal, 9 July 1936, 5.
  27. ^ Letter from J.D. Panther to E.C. Mortimer [July 1936], in B472 add5/19/1-5.
  28. ^ Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 14 August 1936, 2.
  29. ^ North Devon Journal, 24 March 1937, 5.
  30. ^ North Devon Journal, 30 March 1939, 5.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Chittlehampton Pilgrimage and Pageant’, The Redress of the Past,