- Sydling St Nicholas Pageant
Place: Grounds of Sydling Court (Sydling St Nicholas) (Sydling St Nicholas, Dorset, England)
Number of performances: 4
21 July, 20 August 1925
- Original performances 21 July 1925, 2.30pm and 6.30pm
- Further performances 20 August 1925, 2.30pm and 6.30pm
Grounds of Sydling Court, by generosity of Major Mirkin
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Ashburnham, Ethel
- Conductor: Miss Clapcott
- Responsible for dresses: Mrs Howden
- Catering: Mr S.G. Dubben
Names of executive committee or equivalent
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Ashburnham, Ethel
Names of composers
Numbers of performers60
Object of any funds raised
The Restoration Fund of the Church Clock and other Parochial purposes.
1000-year anniversary of the founding of village.
- Grandstand: Yes
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: n/a
There were very large audiences from all parts of Dorset.1
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Admission: in the afternoon 2s. 4d. and 1s. 2d.; in the evening 1s. 2d. and 6d.
Associated eventsSpecial service at the village church at which the Bishop of the Diocese, the Rev. St. Claire Donaldson, delivered a sermon. The service was conducted by the Vicar of Sydling (the Rev. J. Wynn Werninck) and lessons were read by the Rural Dean of Dorchester (the Rev. G.C. Niven) and the Rev. H.W. Blandford. See summary for more information.
Describes Sydling, ‘far from the world, amidst the Dorset downs’ a thousand years old ‘and still the village slumbers on, unseen, Untouched by changes in the outer world, And all is now, as it has ever been, (Of course we’ve got some motor cars, Two carriers’ vans one wireless set, Two posts, a band, a football team, And now this pageant, which you won’t forget!) Though probably you’re hoping that the play, Is rather better than these halting rhymes!’
Procession. The Passing of Time
An old man with a scythe passes across the stage, followed by Ten Centuries.
Act I. AD 47
In a wood a British woman with two sons and daughter are sewing skins and making pottery. A Briton enters and throws down a deer he has killed. They talk about the nearby Roman Legion on Hod Hill, deciding that it is unlikely they’d come to Sydlands as it was well concealed by the trees and undergrowth. The sons depart into the wood to gather raspberries, when the girl spies a bear—the men leap up with spears to chase the bear at the back of the stage. The bear escapes. The noise of singing romans is heard, as a Centurion enters. He asks the Briton how far to Durnovaria, who tells him it will take a long time, and asks the centurion why he came here so far. The centurion replies that he was chasing deer, and asks where he is, to which the Briton replies ‘Sydlands, an old British settlement.’ The Britons ask the centurion questions about Roman building and art, though maintain that they’d like to see the Romans leave the country. The centurion says he must leave, and exits. The Britons put out the fire and strike camp.
Act 2. AD 936
An old man enters with a bundle of faggots, an axe, and two young boys. They are collecting twigs. As they talk a shepherd enters with his dog. The Shepherd informs the old man that King Athelstan will be visiting Sydling to meet the monks of Abbey Middleton and add the church and land of Sydling to their possessions. The old man and his boys leave to prepare for the arrival of the King. Two monks enter, and converse with the Shepherd about the route they had taken. Other villagers enter, the monks explain they have come to meet Athelstan, and need the villagers’ hospitality. The monks tell the villagers that Athelstan is kind and generous. Women and girls enter with wreaths and flowers to make the village look festive. Enter Abbot and monks, thanking the villagers for preparing for the King’s visit. The King enters on horseback with his retinue, goes to his throne, and speaks to the villagers, declaring them loyal and favoured subjects (shouts of long live the King). The Abbot hails the King, who in turn thanks the Abbot, and proclaims that God will guide the way through the troublesome times. The King then reads from a parchment and grants to Middleton Abbey a charter conferring land, including Sydelinch, to the monks and their successors. The Abbot, on behalf of the Order of St. Benedict, declares that they will confer happiness and peace upon the village. The King leaves in a Royal procession, followed by the villagers.
King John enters with his barons and men at arms; from the other side Brian de Insula and his Lady and two orphan children enter. The King is here to settle disputes. De Insula asks the King for the care and custody of the orphans, the children of Sir William Brito, so he can have their land and their inheritance. The King grants their desire in return for financial gain. A pilgrim enters limping, claiming to have been robbed and left for dead—the money supposedly to be used for the hospital at Dorchester. He also tells of the riches of Bridport; the King replies that they are too rich and must be taxed heavier, and also replies that if the Hospital can afford to tend to injured pilgrims it can also afford to pay a tax! The King exits. Three knights talk about the wicked king, and proclaim that soon England’s Barons will rise and secure a charter to uphold the Anglo Saxon Constitution (Magna Carta).
Act 4. 1312
Three countrymen sit drinking cider, talking of a recent thunderstorm, then remembering a fire a year previously that destroyed the Abbey Tower of Middleton and, with it, the charter that Athelstan gave at Sydling. They then talk of the new charter that King Edward II gave, and joke of the monks who have spent so much on the Abbey Church tower that they would take Sydling’s tithe for themselves. They toast the prosperity of Sydling, and sing Purcell’s drinking song, ‘Five Reasons’ as they get drunker—before their wives arrive and drive them away singing the same thing to an accelerated accompaniment of the orchestra.
Act 5. 1544
Two women sit talking, complaining about King Henry and the Warden. Enter the warden with a fellow of Winchester College, talking about the King and his wives, and the land of Sydling that Henry gave to the College. They discuss the tithes Sydling will have to pay. They then talk of events in London, and then about how best to make money from Sydling. They then state that they must preserve the ancient buildings and the Village Cross, since it is from Saxon times, and so that it lasts another thousand years.
Act 6. 1600
Dame Ursula Walsingham and another Lady are seated in the garden doing needlework, the Lady talking of the life of the London Court; she asks Walsingham if she does not find it dull in Sydling. Walsingham replies that she does not, listing the beauty of its countryside. They then talk of Walsingham’s absent husband, who is away in foreign lands ‘on most important embassies’. A builder enters to inform Walsingham of the progress of the granary she has commissioned for the vicar’s yearly tithe of corn. She proclaims that on the oaken beam of the barn should be carved U.W. to show, in future years, who it was who built the barn for Sydling. Children enter with flowers for Ursula; she asks them to dance, which they do—the Country Dance ‘Gallopede.’
Act 7. 1645
Hubert Hussey, the High Sheriff, discuss the civil war—worrying what it might mean for the future of their children and Sydling. A man enters with a letter from Lady Bankes, which tells of her Castle being besieged by Walter Earle. Hussey pledges to send whatever aid he can to Lady Bankes, ‘For Sydling’s men were ever loyal to His Majesty the King.’
Act 8. 1718
The scene is Sydling Fair. Two smugglers are at the fair, believing that the coastguard men hunting them will never come as far as Sydling. Sir William Smith enters—the smugglers approach him and tell him of a ship ashore at Fleet with kegs of brandy. Smith gives them a key to a place to hide the brandy, telling them if they leave a keg nothing more will be said. They watch a country dance: ‘Brighton Camp.’
Act 9. 1851
Two country women sit drinking tea and talk, indirectly, about the changes that industrialisation and urbanisation is bringing—like one’s daughter leaving to spin silk in Cerne; the cups made from Poole clay; the chains now used on ships instead of Bridport hawsers, putting her boy out of work; and a railway that went to Maiden Newton instead of Sydling. They then talk of some folk going by rail to London to see the exhibition, expressing their preference for Dorchester and leaving ‘new fangled ways o’ travelling to younger folk.’ They talk about how dear things are, before leaving.
Act 10. 1914
And when the war of nineteen-fourteen called
The manhood of the nation to defend
Our country, Sydling men did not hold back;
And wives and mothers did their loved ones send.
Then thirteen gallant lads laid down their lives.
There, in the church, a tablet near the door
Records the names of those who fell. Those names
That with the nation’s dead, will live for evermore!
(The last post is sounded from the top of the Church tower.)
Procession. The Passing of Time
A poem, stating that the pageant has tried its best to show the history of Sydling from earliest times to the present year and for the observers to remember ‘That little Sydling simply did its best! With all our imperfections, we have TRIED. And doing that, we can but leave the rest. All through the thousand years that we’ve portrayed, Men, like ourselves, have lived, and loved, and died, and thirty generations have gone past. The everlasting hills alone abide.’
As the violins get louder and the epilogue ends all the players take up the melody and sing ‘A thousand ages in Thy sight’.
The performance then ends with the case singing ‘The National Anthem’.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Æthelstan [Athelstan] (893/4–939) king of England
- John (1167–1216) king of England, and lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
- Lisle [Insula], Sir Brian de (d. 1234) soldier and administrator
Musical productionOrchestra: violins, viola, cello, piano.
- W. Byrd. ‘Non nobis Domine’ (between Act 2 and Act 3).
- Purcell (Act 4).
Newspaper coverage of pageantThe Dorset Daily Echo
Dorset County Chronicle
Book of words
- Ashburnham, Ethel. Sydling Pageant 1925. Dorchester, 1925.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
- Phillips, Sheila. Sydling St. Nicholas: Glimpses of its History. Sydling, 1993.
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Dorset History Centre has two copies of the Book of Words.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
The Sydling Pageant in 1925 commemorated the 1000 year anniversary of King Athelstan’s founding of Milton Abbey when, in thanksgiving for military victory, he presented the Abbey with 30 hides of land in Sydelinch, and so beginning the history of the village.2 The pageant was repeated twice a month later on August 20th due to the ‘enormous success’ of the original performance and the ‘numerous requests’ for another chance to see the event.3 Unfortunately however, owing to the poor weather, ‘the attendance was not so large as would otherwise [have] been the case.’4
In the special sermon before the pageant the emphasis was on a conservative notion of the past. While acknowledging that progress was ‘God’s will’, the Bishop expressed concern that ‘it was harder to remember God in this generation than it was a thousand years ago.’ Drawing attention to modern modes of transit, and of changes in home and intellectual life, he saw that ‘As a consequence of this progress there had grown up a certain self-confidence, and in the effort to subdue the earth man was apt to think little of God and much of himself.’ The pageant, so the Bishop thought, could correct this modern tendency toward individuality, since it ‘constituted, and stimulated, corporate being, and was a contribution to the solution of the problem of village life’ while also encouraging, through scenes of religious importance, the debt they owed to their maker.5
In the pageant itself it seems that the pageant-master, Ashburnham, had more fun with the idea that Sydling was a stereotypical small village—almost parodying the historical pageant form. Beginning, as one might have expected, with the statement that ‘far from the world, amidst the Dorset downs… the village slumbers on, unseen, Untouched by changes in the outer world’ she quickly and humorously corrected this misty eyed notion by countering ‘(Of course we’ve got some motor cars, Two carriers’ vans, one wireless set, Two posts, a band, a football team, And now this pageant, which you won’t forget!).’ Rather than confirming the essential conservatism of village life, the very staging of a pageant was recognition of its ability to be influenced by modern trends. The amusing gossip of the two country women in the ninth episode, talking of the Great Exhibition in London and, indirectly, industrialisation, showed this too. Furthermore, while a small insular village, the pageant made sure to relate Sydling to larger events and people, like King Athelstan, the Magna Carta and King John, the Civil War, and the Great War.
Within this story there was still plenty of opportunity for fun—with the appearance of a bear; drunken men singing songs; and the local nobility colluding with smugglers. Following the joviality of the first nine episodes, however, the sombre tone of the finale, where the village vicar acknowledged Sydling’s men’s response to the call of the nation in 1914, was a clear departure. The Dorset County Chronicle described it as ‘beautiful in the extreme’, the words of the poem ‘taking the spectator back to the outbreak of the Great War.’6 As the last bugle sounded from atop the church in the neighbouring field, the crowd, according to the Western Gazette, rose and bowed their heads.7 In a small community such as Sydling, the reference to the 13 men of Sydling who died in the War must have had a sincere emotional effect; there was no jingoism, only solemn remembrance.
At this time, and indeed still, Sydling had a population of about four hundred.8 It was thus a small event, with only 60 performers. Almost certainly due to this the pageant failed to register in the national press. The local and regional press, however, gave high praise for the event. The Dorset County Chronicle praised Ashburnham’s ‘skill in mingling history with romance’ and the ‘high literary attainments’ of the pageant, while describing the ‘brave display of flags and bunting, with great religious fervour, and with glowing pageantry.’9 The Dorset Echo too heaped praise, describing it as ‘apparent that, even to the little ones, every one participating thoroughly well knew his or her part’ and stating that ‘the frequent applause was spontaneous and very hearty.’10
While only a very small event in pageantry terms, the Sydling Pageant is nonetheless interesting. It straddled the boundaries of humour and solemnity, choosing to end on a very sombre note; it showed that a place did not need to be big to present itself as important in the national life—though without overplaying its own influence. Ashburnham, for her part, must have enjoyed her role as pageant master; she went on to produce the Pageant of Dorset at Dorchester four years later.
- .‘Dorset Village Pageant’, Dorset Daily Echo and Weymouth Dispatch, 22 July 1925, 3.
- ‘Dorset Village Life’, Dorset Daily Echo, 22 July 1925, 3.
- ‘Sydling St. Nicholas Pageant’, Western Gazette, 14 August 1925, 3.
- ‘Sydling’, Western Gazette, 28 August 1925, 5.
- ‘Dorset Village Pageant’, Dorset Daily Echo and Weymouth Dispatch, 22 July 1925, 3; ‘Sydling’, Dorset County Chronicle, 23 July 1925, 8.
- ‘Sydling’, Dorset County Chronicle, 23 July 1925, 8.
- ‘Sydling’s 1000th Anniversary’, Western Gazette, 24 July 1925, 7.
- Ibid., 7.
- ‘Sydling’, Dorset County Chronicle, 23 July 1925, 8.
- ‘Dorset Village Pageant’, 3.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Sydling Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1346/