Pageant of Northamptonshire History
Arranged by Northamptonshire Women’s Institutes.
Place: Harlestone House (Harlestone) (Harlestone, Northamptonshire, England)
Number of performances: 4
Harlestone House is the seat of the Spencer family.
5–7 June 1930
5 June and 7 June 1930, AM and PM on both days.
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Drummond, Barbara
- Mistress of Wardrobe: Lady Henley
- Stage Manager: Miss Gladys Hughes
- Banners Designed by: T. Osborne Robinson (artist to the Northampton Repertory Players)
- Conductor: Mr George York
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- Lady Henley
- Countess Spencer
- Miss Holden
- Gladys Hughes
- Mrs Pitter
- Mrs Cox
- Mrs Mawson
- Secretary: Mrs Haynes
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Drummond, Barbara
- Johnson, Ben
The central scene of the pageant revolved around a production of Ben Johnson’s masque play Entertainment at Althorp.
Names of composers
- Purcell, Henry
- Elgar, Edward
Numbers of performers240
- Sale of Tickets, car park: £76. 19s. 4d.
- Ices and lemonades: £5. 10s. 4d.
- Chocolates: £3. 18s. 6d.
- Programmes: £9. 18s. 10d.
- Cloak Room: 5s. 8d.
- Sundries: £1. 0s. 11d.
- TOTAL: £97. 13s. 7d.
- Supply of ices, lemonade: £3. 15s. 3d.
- Of chocolate: £2. 17s. 7d.
- Hire of 500 chairs: 11s. 0d.
- Printing: 7s. 6d.
- Advertising: 0s. 18d.
- Excise stamps: 6d. 0d.
- Secretary’s Expenses: 11s. 0d.
- Tips: 2s. 0d.
- Producer and Author: £30. 0s. 0d.
- Donation to Country Federation: £5. 0s. 0d.
- Donation to WI: £10. 0s. 0d.
- Part Fares, Expenses, and Costume hire of WIs: £17. 14s. 11d.
- TOTAL Expenditure: £97. 2s. 9d.
Object of any funds raised
Northampton Women’s Institutes
The Pageant raised £5 for the WI County Federation and £10 to the National WI.
- Grandstand: No
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 1250
Figure for total audience a rough estimate, and may be an understatement, as over 400 attended for the afternoon performance on 5 June alone.
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Reserved seats: 2s. 4d.
Episode I. The Romans Make the Watling Street, 55BC–426AD
The episode shows the sacrifice of a stag inviting a blessing on the making of the Watling Street. Entrails are carried three times around the waiting spear-armed troops and then strewn with wine and barley meal and burnt upon the altar whilst a priest prays to Apollo.
Episode II. St Werburga, Abbess of Weedom in Saxon Times Banishes the Wild Geese from Northamptonshire, 7th Century AD
(East Haddon and Holdenby WI)
Some peasants are seen complaining of the damage done to their crops by the flocks of wild geese. They determine to go to the Monastery to beg St Werburga to help them by holy spells. The Abbess banishes the geese, amid the rejoicing of all save one peasant girl, who weeps and laments that ‘the Grey Geese are gone.’
Episode III. Thomas Becket and the Council of Northampton, 1164
The episode represents an event in the reign of King Henry II, in the great struggle of the King to make the royal power supreme over the Church and Baronage. A council was summoned at Northampton (1164) at which Bishops and Barons begged Becket to submit, saying his life was in danger. But his courage rose to its full height. Grasping his archiepiscopal cross he entered the royal court, defied the nobles and ‘appealed’ to the Pope. Shouts of ‘Traitor’ followed him as he left. Present in the Council scene at Northampton are Thomas Becket, his cross bearer, the Bishops of Hereford, London, Exeter, Winchester and Chichester, and the Archbishop of York.
Episode IV. A ‘Masque’ at Althorp, 1603
This celebrates the time when Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, visited Sir Robert Spencer at Althorp on her way to be crowned at Westminster. To mark the royal visit, a ‘Masque’ or pastoral play was specially written by Ben Jonson and performed at Althorp on 25 June 1603. The characters in the ‘Masque’ are a Satyr (or wild creature of the woods, half goat, half man), Queen Mab (fairy Queen) with her attendant fairies and elves, and Mr Nobody. There was usually not much ‘story’ in a pastoral play; it consisted mostly of dancing and music and was a very popular entertainment in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Episode V. Episode during the Civil War between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, 1642–1649
This episode features Mr Jones, the 79-year old Vicar of Wellingborough and a vehement royalist; he is taken prisoner by Cromwellian soldiers and marched to Northampton. To speed him up, they set on him a bear of which Lieutenant Grimes had taken possession—‘which had belonged to a barber they had killed’. ‘But the bear ran between Mr Jones’ legs and took him on her back, and, to the astonishment of the men, carried him quietly.’ One of the soldiers rode the bear, which threw him off and then mauled him ‘so that he soon after died of those hurts.’ Mr Jones was later returned to his living, but he continued to preach and was imprisoned again, dying in captivity. The Pageant portrays the scene with the bear.
Episode VI. Boughton Green Fair as it Might Have Been about 1790 to 1800
This has been a famous fair through many centuries. It was the meeting ground of market women, farmers, gipsies, bargees, Welsh drovers, etc. It was so well known that people of fashion would drive down from London to see it. Dancers, mummers, jugglers, cheap-jacks and all sorts would offer their entertainment at this great fair.
Key historical figures mentioned
- Werburh [St Werburh, Werburgh, Werburga] (d. 700x07) abbess
- Becket, Thomas [St Thomas of Canterbury, Thomas of London] (1120?–1170) archbishop of Canterbury
- John the Chanter [Johannes Cantor; nicknamed Planeta] (d. 1191) bishop of Exeter
- Anne [Anna, Anne of Denmark] (1574–1619) queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, consort of James VI and I
- Henry Frederick, prince of Wales (1594–1612)
Choir members of Long Buckby WI. Mr George York conducted the music for the pageant. An orchestra, consisting of Mrs Baillon, Mrs Reid, Mrs Chadwick and Mrs White performed music arranged by Miss Hughes:
- ‘Cornish May Song’.
- ‘Song of the Wester Men’.
- ‘The Sea King’.
- ‘Latin Chant’.
- ‘Irish Lament (soloist Miss Muriel Johnson)’.
- ‘Summer is I’cumen in’.
- ‘Where the Bee Sucks’.
- ‘Drink to Me Only’.
- ‘Pavanne and Fairies’ Dance’ (with orchestra).
- ‘Fairest Isle’ (song by Purcell, words by Lady M. Spencer).
- ‘He Who Would Valiant Be’ (words John Bunyan).
- ‘The Poacher’.
- ‘Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’
- ‘Early One morning’.
Newspaper coverage of pageantThe Times
Northampton Daily Echo
Book of words
- Pageant of Northamptonshire History, Arranged by Women’s Institutes. Northampton, 1930.
Other primary published materials
References in secondary literature
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Copy of programme and photos, Papers of Barbara Drummond, Hampshire Public Record Office.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
Women’s Institute Pageants were highly popular during the 1920s and early 1930s, and county pageants were also greatly successful (see entries for the Pageants of Berkshire 1928, Staffordshire 1928, and Hampshire 1930). The WI already possessed many of the organisational skills which made for successful pageantry, on top of skills in costume-making and catering (there were a number of Women’s Institute tents serving sandwiches, tea, and cakes). The Northampton WI was very well-connected: Harlestone House, on the Althorp Estate, was one of the mansions of the Earls of Spencer.
The pageant featured prominent episodes from Northampton history. Unlike a number of other WI Pageants of the time, there is, aside from the scene with St Werburga, little foregrounding of women’s role in history. An opening scene featuring the Roman occupation of Britain (in this case, building Watling Street) had been a staple beginning for historical pageants since the 1900s. Episode II concerns the Anglo-Saxon princess who became the Patron Saint of Chester, St Werburga. The scene depicted is a rather bizarre event that took place, as legend has it, while banishing geese that had been eating the village of Weedon Bec’s corn. The local church of St Peter and St Paul depicts the story in a stained glass window.2
The third episode covers a famous scene at the Council of Northampton in 1164 (held at Northampton Castle) in which Thomas Becket was asked by both bishops and barons to submit to the overall supremacy of Henry II, who wished to put himself above the power of the church. Beckett’s refusal and flight to France under the protection of Louis VII led to him being labelled a traitor. Becket returned in 1170 and was killed in that year.
The pageant featured many members of the Spencer family in prominent roles, and the central scene revolved around a production of Ben Johnson’s masque play Entertainment at Althorp, performed to Queen Anne of Denmark in 1603. In fact, the Masque was Jonson’s last attempt to win Royal favour, having been largely unsuccessful under Elizabeth I, and his Entertainment at Althorp saw his star rise. Lord Spencer played his ancestor at the Masque,3 and Countess Spencer (Lady Margaret Douglas-Hume, great aunt of Diana Spencer) played Queen Anne. The Northampton Mercury reported that ‘Never can Countess Spencer have looked more beautiful than in the stately costume of blue and white, with a rope of pearls, which she graced on Thursday.’4 Lady Delia Spencer played one of Anne’s attending ladies, while Lady Margaret Spencer played Queen Mab, the fairy queen. Lady Henley of Watford played St Werburga, as well as the old woman at the Broughton fair. The Spencer’s prominent role in the pageant cannot have hurt in terms of publicity, with coverage in the Times and Tatler.
Episode V portrayed a scene during the Civil War. Almost certainly based on John Cole’s The History and Antiquities of Wellingborough (1837), it related how the elderly Royalist preacher, Thomas Jones, was forced to march to Northampton as a prisoner of Parliamentarian forces. Walking too slowly, the soldiers found a bear to set upon him. The bear apparently possessed royalist sentiments, carrying Jones and mauling a Parliamentary soldier to death. (There is no evidence that a real bear was used in the pageant.) Episode VI shows a representation of a fair on Watling Street from the late eighteenth century, complete with dancing, mumming and juggling. Despite meagre profits compared to larger pageants, such as the Northampton Pageant held that year, the 1930 Pageant of Northamptonshire History was a success, donating £10 to local and £5 to the national Women’s Institute. A similar pageant was staged by the Spencers themselves at Althorp in 1932, replaying the Masque.5
The Pageant, though limited in scale, was an effective demonstration of the richness of Northampton’s history. It is a good example of how a Pageant was staged around an original performance of a drama or masque, predating the restaging of Milton’s ‘Comus’ at the Shropshire Historical Pageant on its tercentenary in 1934.
- Barbara Drummond’s notes on programme at Hampshire Public Record Office.
- ‘The Fable of the Geese’, Weedon Bec County Council, accessed 23 October 2015, http://www.weedonbec-village.co.uk/weedon-tales.html.
- ‘John Spencer—8th Earl of Spencer’, Getty Images, accessed 23 October 2015, http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/personalities-aristocracy-pic-1932-7th-earl-spencer-with-news-photo/78962773.
- Northampton Mercury, 6 June 1930, 8.
- Northampton Mercury, 29 July 1932, 9.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Pageant of Northamptonshire History’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1086/