The Axbridge Pageant

Pageant type

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Place: Town centre, Axbridge (Axbridge) (Axbridge, Somerset, England)

Year: 1967

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 1


Partly processional, the Pageant went through the centre of the town and finished on the steps of the St John the Baptist Church.

Saturday 16 September 1967, 3.00pm—one-and-a-quarter hours long.

Dress rehearsal on the 10 September 1967.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Drama Director [Pageant Master]: Gibson, Jocelynn
  • Historical Adviser: Mrs Hilda Lovell

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Pageant Committee:

  • Chairman: Mr Stanley Marshall
  • Secretary: Miss Chris Cowap
  • Lt. Col. Peter Bartholemew
  • Mr Marcel Berckmans
  • Mrs Marcel Berckmans
  • Mr Fred Callow
  • Mr Leslie Martin
  • Drama Director: Miss Jocelynn Gibson
  • Mrs Marjorie Radford
  • Mr Laurie Wallis

Drama Committee:

  • Miss Chris Cowap
  • Mr Marcel Berckmans
  • Mrs Marcel Berckmans
  • Miss Jocelynn Gibson
  • Mrs Marjorie Radford

Dance Committee

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

  • Cowap, Chris


Script author: Miss Chris Cowap

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


Men, women, children. Horses.

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

Collection for Winford Hospital hydrotherapy pool and Bristol Hospital kidney machine.

Linked occasion

To celebrate the recent opening of the A371 Axbridge bypass.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: 3000


‘Over 3000 poured into the town for the performance.’2

Several hundred spectators turned up for a dress rehearsal on 10 September 1967.3

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

It appears that the pageant was free, though a collection for charitable purposes was held.

Associated events

Grand Pageant Dance at the Town Hall on the evening of the pageant.

Pageant outline


In lieu of a proper book of words, the synopsis is taken verbatim from ‘Highlights from the History of an Ancient Royal Borough Presented by the People of Axbridge and District’ (Axbridge, 1967;  Somerset Heritage Centre, PAM 89).

Scene I. The Roman Conquerors, 55 AD (Axbridge Youth Club)

In 43 AD the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain. Within six years his troops were shipping lead from Charterhouse-on-Mendip. The conquered Britons were forced to labour in the mines, whence it was taken to Rackley and on by barge to Uphill to swell the wealth of the Roman Empire.

Scene II. King and Saint, 943 AD (Rotary)

Dunstan, a Benedictine monk, was for a time in high favour with King Edmund. Then jealous courtiers influenced the King to dismiss Dunstan from court. Three days later Edmund, having narrowly escaped death while hunting in Cheddar Gorge, vowed, in gratitude to God, to recall Dunstan. King and monk met, an old chronicle says, in Axbridge, and Edmund made Dunstan Abbot of Glastonbury.

Scene III. King John Hunting, c. 1207 AD (Mendip Round Table)

King John, as everybody knows, ‘was not a good man,’ but no King has worked harder at the business of government. Like many of our Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet kings, he relaxed by hunting in the Royal Forest of Mendip. Our fine old ‘King John’s Hunting Lodge’ is actually Tudor, but may be on the site of a building used by King John.

Scene IV. Elizabethan Charter, 1599 AD (Axbridge Town Trust)

Many monarchs have conferred charters on the Royal Borough of Axbridge, giving special rights to its citizens. That of Henry III (1229) is in our Museum. In 1599 Elizabeth I granted the charter under which, basically, Axbridge was governed until 1883. Members of the present-day Town Trust are the administrative descendants of the Mayor and other officers designated in the Elizabethan charter.

Scene V. A Queen’s Visit, 1644 AD (Axbridge Ladies’ Evening Out)

During the Civil War opinion in Axbridge was sharply divided between Cavalier and Roundhead. We know from our Church Records that in 1644 twelve shillings were paid to ‘Richard Stroude for beere for the Ringers at the cominge of the Queene to Axbridge.’ Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s French wife, was probably on her way to Exeter to join the king.

Scene VI. Sedgemoor, 1685 AD (‘Red Lion’ Group)

In 1685 Charles II was succeeded by his Roman Catholic brother, James II. Charles’ illegitimate but Protestant son, the Duke of Monmouth, claimed the throne and raised rebellion in the West Country. Seven Axbridge men went to fight for Monmouth, but scythes and pitchforks were no match for guns, and at Sedgemoor Monmouth was routed. Five of the Axbridge men were brutally executed.

Scene VII. The Hiring Fair, Mid-18th Century (Axbridge Women’s Institute, British Legion and Girl Guides)

In the days before Labour Exchanges, a Hiring Fair was held annually in Axbridge Square. Here prospective workers and employers would meet, each worker identified by a symbol of his trade. When a worker was hired, his new master gave him a ‘fasten-penny’ to show that he was bound from Michaelmas to Michaelmas.

Scene VIII. Hannah More’s Picnic, 1891 AD (Brownies, Parents, and Brothers)

In the late 18th century there was great ignorance and poverty in the Mendip region. Hannah More, a well-to-do and cultured lady, was so shocked by conditions that she set up schools in several parishes, including Axbridge, where she found the drunken Rector a grave stumbling-block. In 1791 she and her helpers gave a great ‘Feast’ on Callow Hill for children of the area.

Scene IX. The Iron Horse, 1869 AD (Axbridge Ladies’ Guild)

For untold ages Axbridge folk relied on foot and horse for transportation, but just under a century ago the railway reached the town. At the same time strawberry-growing was developing, and crops could now be quickly marketed. The woman-folk were also happy, no doubt, to go shopping in Wells and Bristol.

Scene X. Horseless Carriage [courtesy of Cheddar Motor Museum], 1900-1930 AD (Axbridge Mothers’ Union)

When cars first appeared, little did anyone foresee the problems of the motor age, or that the car would oust the train. In 1963 our century-old railway died. Through our ancient street the traffic roared, or inextricably jammed. Then, in 1967, we won our By-pass, and once again we can stroll in our lovely old town.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Edmund I (920/21–946) king of England
  • Dunstan [St Dunstan] (d. 988) archbishop of Canterbury
  • John (1167–1216) king of England, and lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
  • Henrietta Maria [Princess Henrietta Maria of France] (1609–1669) queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, consort of Charles I
  • More, Hannah (1745–1833) writer and philanthropist

Musical production


Newspaper coverage of pageant

Cheddar Valley Gazette

Book of words


Other primary published materials

  • ‘Highlights from the History of an Ancient Royal Borough Presented by the People of Axbridge and District’, Axbridge, 1967. Somerset Heritage Centre. PAM 89.

References in secondary literature

  • Mottram, Harry. ‘The Axbridge Pageant’. Somerset Magazine 10, August 2000, 28-29.

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

  • Dedicated pageant website. Accessed 8 September 2015,
  • Photos on Flickr. Accessed 8 September 2015,
  • ‘Highlights from the History of an Ancient Royal Borough Presented by the People of Axbridge and District’. Somerset Heritage Centre. PAM 89.

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • 15th Century Axbridge Chronicle.


The Axbridge Pageant of 1967 was a small local event, staged to celebrate the opening of the A371 Axbridge Bypass. Despite a fairly general lack of historical pageantry in the 1960s, it inspired a love for this type of performance in the town, with follow-up pageants held in 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010. At the time of writing, a pageant for 2020 is already being planned. As a relatively late yet exceedingly popular imagining of traditional historical pageantry, its significance lies primarily in its challenge to our notions of pageant decline in the twentieth century.

Before the construction of the bypass, which used the route of a recently closed railway, Axbridge had become a ‘bottleneck for traffic’ with its ‘narrow single-lane streets and medieval square’ struggling to cope with the increasing number of vehicles driving through the town on the Cross to Wells road. The A371 solved this problem and led to ‘a sort of euphoria’ in the town, as residents could now ‘cross their road, clean their windows without fear that the whole job would need redoing the next day’ and, most importantly, be reassured that ‘the fumes and noise were a thing of the past.’5 Beyond this, it was also argued that the uncertainty regarding a bypass for over thirty years had held up the economic development of the place, remarks at a council meeting also suggesting that the town needed more tourists.6 The town clerk, Ernest Thorne, after talking to two local women—Chris Cowap and Jocelynn Gibson—suggested that a historical pageant detailing Axbridge’s ‘long and distinguished history’ would be a good way to commemorate the occasion, the press suggesting that it might also ‘get the town moving.’7 Gibson, who had experience as an actor and director, produced the pageant, and Cowap wrote the script, advised by local historian Hilda Lovell, who was presumably at this time undertaking her research on Axbridge, Somerset: History of a Domesday Borough with Special Reference to the Development of Local Government in the period 1086–1688, awarded as an MPhil four years later.8

Despite its relative lateness in the historical pageantry movement, the themes and production were remarkably similar to Louis Napoleon Parker’s original Edwardian vision. The costumes were mostly made by the town’s women, in contrast to many post-war pageants, and all of the amateur actors were drawn from the locality.9 It was even free, one of Parker’s original stipulations that had been quickly forgotten—even by the man himself.10 In terms of its narrative it also shared a lot in common with the Edwardian pageants. It began, as many had done, with the invasion of the Romans. Throughout there were scenes depicting local events connected to nationally important people, most prominently the activities of regal and ecclesiastical figures in the town and vicinity, such as King John, King Edmund, Abbot Dunstan, and Henrietta Maria. The role the town and its inhabitants played in nationally important events, such as the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion, also featured. The narrative, of course, paid particular attention to the local, portraying the development of the administration and economic growth of the town, with scenes of the bestowal of charters, as well as hiring fairs and the coming of the railway. It ended, interestingly, with the coming of the motor-car; this allowed the town to celebrate the overcoming of its former obstacle. As the programme noted:

When cars first appeared, little did anyone foresee the problems of the motor age, or that the car would oust the train. In 1963 our century-old railway died. Through our ancient street the traffic roared, or inextricably jammed. Then, in 1967, we won our By-pass, and once again we can stroll in our lovely old town.11

Probably the pageant’s biggest point of departure from its Edwardian origins was its non-static nature; the action was mostly processional, going through the town’s streets and ending in a finale on the steps of the church. Despite this, however, there was a 3000-word script, so it appears likely that there was at least some dialogue. In the main, however, the action was narrated by Guy Thomas, a local television celebrity, and Adrian Carins, an actor and the Assistant Principal of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.12 Overall, however, and in contrast to the many evolutions that the movement had seen in format, the Axbridge Pageant was undeniably ‘traditional’.

In the month before the performance a local columnist for the Cheddar Valley Gazette declared the pageant as an example of ‘the old spirit that was once such a feature of country life, where everyone joined to do something together’—something that ‘many people’ had been quick to say was over.13 Heightening this aspect was the specific production of the pageant, with each episode being given to a local association—such as the Axbridge Youth Club, the Mendip Round Table, the Axbridge Town Trust and the Axbridge Women’s Institute.14 Given that Axbridge was small town of around only 1000 people, the pageant’s 175 performers and approximately 100 helpers meant that over a quarter of the inhabitants had a hand in the production.15 Since more than 3000 watched the pageant, it is likely that the large majority of the town either took part in or saw it. The pageant was thus, as the Cheddar Valley Gazette claimed, ‘a whole town really putting all its effort into making the event a success’, utilising a network of local associations and a shared local history.16

After the dress rehearsal, for which around 300 spectators showed up, excitement in the town grew; the Gazette declared that ‘the real thing should be about the most colourful and impressive spectacle to have been seen in the town for many years.’17 A full spread, including the front page, in the edition following the pageant confirmed the newspaper’s hopes, as it announced ‘one of the most impressive events ever to have been seen in the quaint and picturesque little community.’18 The director, Gibson, announced that she was ‘amazed that so many inexperienced people could put on such a smart show with so little rehearsal’, while Cowap, the script author, declared: ‘Axbridge did itself proud, especially when you consider its size. Everyone pulled together and it was a marvellous thing to be involved in. The people taking part absolutely surpassed themselves.’19 With a tripling of the town’s population for the day and intense local enthusiasm, it was, then, a significant success.

The Axbridge Pageant is thus vital in helping us to understand the many developments in the historical pageantry movement, and also in refining the interpretation that historical pageants necessarily declined throughout the twentieth century. Axbridge, after all, did not seem to have a pageantry tradition before 1967; yet, since that date, the pageant has become very important to the town’s image, growing in strength and popularity with each staging. It is indicative of the lasting memory of pageantry as a unique form, yet also its suitability for different purposes, that a ‘Historical Pageant seemed a natural choice’ to celebrate something as modern as a new bypass road.20 It mobilised the entire community behind a common cause, presenting a shared history as important to the most recent development in the town’s economic and social progress.


  1. ^ ‘Pageant Tempo Doubles Time’, Cheddar Valley Gazette, 1 September 1967, 1.
  2. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, Cheddar Valley Gazette, 22 September 1967, 1.
  3. ^ ‘Pageant Rehearsal ‘Success’’, Cheddar Valley Gazette, 15 September 1967, 1.
  4. ^ ‘Highlights from the History of an Ancient Royal Borough Presented by the People of Axbridge and District’, Somerset Heritage Centre. PAM 89.
  5. ^ Harry Mottram, ‘The Axbridge Pageant’, Somerset Magazine 10, August 2000, 28.
  6. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, The Cheddar Valley Gazette, 22 September 1967, 1.
  7. ^ Mottram, ‘The Axbridge Pageant’, 28; ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, 1.
  8. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, 1; Hilda Lovell, Axbridge, Somerset: History of a Domesday Borough with Special Reference to the Development of Local Government (MPhil Thesis, University of London, 1971). See [no author listed],‘Research in Urban History’, Urban History 2 (1975): 154 for a brief overview of Lovell’s thesis.
  9. ^ ‘Harking Back to the Good Old Days’, Cheddar Valley Gazette, 18 August 1967, 12.
  10. ^ Cecil P. Goodden, The Story of the Sherborne Pageant (Sherborne, 1906), 11.
  11. ^ ‘Highlights from the History of an Ancient Royal Borough Presented by the People of Axbridge and District’ (Axbridge, 1967), Somerset Heritage Centre. PAM 89.
  12. ^ ‘Pageant Tempo Doubles Time’, Cheddar Valley Gazette, 1 September 1967, 1.
  13. ^ ‘Harking Back to the Good Old Days’, 12.
  14. ^ ‘Highlights from the History of an Ancient Royal Borough’.
  15. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, 1; GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Axbridge CP/AP through time | Population Statistics | Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time, accessed 3 June 2014,
  16. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, 1.
  17. ^ ‘Pageant Rehearsal “Success”’, Cheddar Valley Gazette, 15 September 1967, 1.
  18. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, 1.
  19. ^ Ibid., 1.
  20. ^ ‘Pageantry in Axbridge Town’, 1.

How to cite this entry

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