Helmsley Festival Pageant

Other names

  • Helmsley Festival Play

Pageant type

Jump to Summary


Place: Helmsley Castle (Helmsley) (Helmsley, Yorkshire, North Riding, England)

Year: 1951

Indoors/outdoors: Outdoors

Number of performances: 3


6–11 August 1951

[The pageant was scheduled to take place at 7.30 pm on Monday 6th, Wednesday 8th and Saturday 11th August 1951. In the event, heavy rain disrupted the schedule and it had its first performance on Tuesday 7th August instead (Yorkshire Evening Post, 8 August 1951, 6). Rain also interfered with preparations: a dress rehearsal due to be held on Friday 3rd also had to be cut short because of the inclement weather (Yorkshire Evening Post, 4 August 1951, 10).]

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Director of Production [Pageant Master]: Speaight, Robert
  • Co-Producer:  Gordon Mercer
  • Co-Producer: Mary Grant
  • Property Master: W. Robinson
  • Master of the Horse: C.A. Barker
  • Electrician: W. Bates


Robert Speaight (1904–76) was a well-known, professional actor. He was in overall charge of the production and acted as narrator: see entry for Speaight in Phyllis Hartnoll and Peter Found (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Theatre (Oxford, 2003).

Names of executive committee or equivalent

Festival Committee

  • Chairman: Mr H. Thompson [see 'The Last Shoe', Yorkshire Evening Post 27 July 1951, 10]

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

  • Read, Herbert


The acclaimed art historian and poet Sir Herbert Read (1893–1968) wrote the script. Read was born and raised in Yorkshire and maintained his association with the county, returning to live there in the 1950s (See note on Read at University of Leeds, Special Collections accessed 24 February 2017 at: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/collection/1520).

Names of composers

  • Rennick, Austin

Dom. Austin Rennick composed original music for the pageant. He was born Edward Rennick but became a monk in 1930 taking the religious name of Austin; he was a teacher and director of music at Ampleforth College.

Numbers of performers


The cast included men, women and children. Most of the scenes included horses and dogs were used for the hunting scenes.

Financial information


Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

Festival of Britain

Audience information

  • Grandstand: Yes
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


Photographic evidence shows a grandstand; it was stated in the local press that 2000 people turned up for the rained-off performance on Monday 6 August. (See Helmsley Archives photograph entitled 'The Spectators brave the rain' ref: HA02695; available at: http://www.helmsleyarchive.org.uk/displayimage.php?album=24&pid=949#top_display_media. See also the transcription of an article from the Malton Gazette, 10 August 1951, available at: http://www.helmsleyarchive.org.uk/info/HA02695.pdf.) 

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest

Ticket prices have not been recovered; although this pageant was advertised repeatedly, the advertisements do not include details about the cost of tickets (e.g. advertisement in Yorkshire Post, 20 June 1951, 6).

Associated events

An exhibition of church plate and vestments was held in the parish church of All Saints; the press reported that this 'attracted a surprisingly large number of visitors' (see 'Pageant Revived after 54 Years', Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1951, 3). 

Pageant outline


The pageant master Robert Speaight delivered an introductory prologue. [Unless otherwise stated, all quotation and summary text in the synopses of episodes is from The Festival of Britain: Souvenir Programme of the Helmsley Festival Play (no page numbers or publication details).]

Scene 1. Helmsley1122 A.D. Morning.

The pageant programme gives the following description of the scene:

The Hunters are preparing for the chase, and the castle inhabitants are assembling to see them off. The Lady Adeline tells of a dream she has had in which her son was thrown from his horse and killed. She pleads with him not to hunt today. He laughs at her fears and rides away with the hunters.

In addition to the Lady Adeline (played by Sally Tetley), the cast includes the characters of Sir Walter Espec (Frederick W. Cook), their son Walter (Anthony Barker), a jester, huntsmen, attendants, servants and peasants.

Scene 2. Later the Same Day.

In this scene, Sir Walter and Lady Adeline receive the news that Adeline's dream has come true when messengers arrive bearing the bad news. The corpse of young Walter is brought on carried by monks; the hunting party are with them. Espec then 'vows to build a holy house at Kirkham on the spot where Walter was thrown'.

Scene 3. Helmsley1132 A.D.

In this scene a 'tourney is taking place, when five Cistercian monks appear on the scene, and ask for land to build an abbey'. Sir Walter Espec receives William (played by Bernard Lewis) who is the leader of the monks and agrees leave to build at Rievaulx. A cast of attendants, men-at-arms and servants also take part in the scene.

Scene 4. Helmsley1138 A.D.

The pageant programme states the following summary of this scene's drama:

Troops are assembling to meet the Scots, who are approaching Northallerton. Espec rallies the men, and the Bishop of Orkney blesses the Standard, bearing the sacred banners of St. John of Beverley, St. Wilfred of Ripon and St. Peter of York. The men march off to battle leaving the womenfolk praying.

John H. Hodson played the Bishop and the cast included knights, soldiers and servants.

Scene 5. A few days later.

This scene features William of Rievaulx, monks, servants and peasants. All 'are anxiously awaiting news of the great battle' when a messenger arrives 'and tells of the great victory at Northallerton'. Celebrations follow and 'preparations are made for a feast'.

Scene 6. Helmsley1151 A.D.

The scene opens with a procession of monks arriving 'to receive the aged Espec into their brotherhood'. Ailred, Abbot of Rievaulx (played by Ernest W. Williams) leads the procession and his friend Godric (David R. Tetley) sings a hymn of praise. The drama continues with the removal of Espec's armour and his clothing in 'the white habit of a Cistercian monk'. At the conclusion of the scene, the procession prepares to return to Rievaulx while the monks sing Te Deum. Among the cast is Espec's heir, Peter de Roos (played by Albert Law).

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Espec, Walter (d. 1147x58) baron and justice
  • Ailred [Ælred, Æthelred] of Rievaulx (1110–1167) religious writer and abbot of Rievaulx

Musical production

Music was live: this was specially composed and arranged by Austin Rennick. The orchestra consisted of brass instruments and drums, and was made up of bandsmen from Scarborough ('Helmsley Festival Play in Castle Setting', Yorkshire Post, 4 August 1951, 6). There was also singing of the following songs, which had lyrics by Herbert Read:

  • A 'Victory Song' (scene 5)
  • Lyke Wake Dirge (scene 2); [Read made his 'own recension' of this from various versions of the traditional ballad']
  • A 'Labourer's Song (scene 3) [an adaptation made by Read of a 'fifteenth century description of blacksmiths in an original manuscript held at the British Library]
  • 'Canticle of St Bernard' (scene not specified) [stated by read to be based on 'a text of St Bernard's].

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Manchester Guardian
Malton Gazette
Yorkshire Post
Yorkshire Evening Post

Book of words

The Helmsley Festival Play: text by Herbert Read. Np., 1951.

Other primary published materials

  • The Festival of Britain: Souvenir Programme of the Helmsley Festival Play. No publication details.

References in secondary literature


Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Several copies of the book of words are held in the Brotherton Collection within special collections at the University of Leeds' library, classmark: BC Read D2119.
  • Digital images of the pageant programme and of a collection of black and white photographs are available to view online at Helmsley digital archives: http://www.helmsleyarchive.org.uk/displayimage.php?album=24&pid=905#top_display_media

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Monasticum Anglicanum.
  • Migne, Jaques-Paul. Patrologia Latina.
  • Howlett, Richard. Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen Henry II and Richard I. London, 1886. At 179–99.
  • Powicke, Sir Maurice (ed), Walteri Danielis: Vita Ailredi Abbatis Rievall: The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx by Walter Daniel. London, 1950.

The scriptwriter Herbert Read briefly refers to these texts in an introduction he wrote for the pageant programme. The legend of the death of Sir Walter Espec's son, which is the subject of scenes 1 and 2, is stated by Read to come from Monasticum Anglicanum. This is otherwise known as The History of the Ancient Abbies, and other Monasteries, Hospitals, Cathedral and Collegiate Churches in England and Wales, with divers French, Irish, and Scotch Monasteries formerly relating to England. It was originally published in three volumes under the joint authorship of Roger Dodsworth and Sir William Dugdale in London, between 1655 and 1673; it has had numerous subsequent imprints. The precise imprint used is not mentioned in Read's introduction. The scenes covering the Battle of the Standard are said by Read to be 'based directly' on Howlett's Chronicles, and on Jaques-Paul Migne's Patrologia Latina, first published between 1844 and 1855. Again, the specific imprint is not detailed but the section of the text used is referred to by the numerical title 'cxcv'. Read describes incidents from the life of Ailred included in the pageant as being based upon the work of medieval historian Sir Maurice Powlick. 


In the days before the pageant at Helmsley Castle opened press commentary noted that there was hardly a person in the eponymous town, which in 1951 had a population of around 1300, who had not 'done their bit' for the event. This included the labour of one farmer's wife in making 64 pairs of shoes, and another woman who designed over one hundred individual dresses which 'a corps of townswomen' gathered together to sew.1 In true pageant tradition, the setting for what was called the ‘Helmsley Festival Play’ was the place’s own ruined castle, set above the town on the edge of the North York Moors. This was said to provide an 'enchanting' landscape that had the backdrop of the town's church spire 'visible just above the trees'.2 In the twelfth century, the castle had belonged to the subject of the drama, Sir Walter Espec, a prominent magnate and one of the key figures in the Battle of the Standard. Herbert Read (later Sir Herbert Read), who at the time was a very well-known poet and commentator on art, wrote the play. Read was qualified for this task as he had been raised in the area, and although at the height of his career he had moved away from Yorkshire, he had returned to live there in his mature years.

Herbert Read built on something of a local tradition, for at the end of the nineteenth century its vicar Charles Gray had organised pageants in 1897 and 1898, on the same theme of the life of Walter Espec. These performances were interesting precursors to the genre of modern historical pageantry established in 1905 by Louis Napoleon Parker. However, although Read acknowledged that he had been inspired by the theme of these local precedents, he stated that his own script was an entirely new dramatization of Espec’s life story.3 Moreover, he was at pains to stress that his work was based upon historical record. The action of the 1951 Festival Play is set between 1122 and 1151, and tells the story of Sir Walter and the founding of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx, whose ruins stand two miles outside Helmsley. One large exception to Read's bid for authenticity, however, was the drama of scenes 1 and 2. This presented the legend of the death of Espec's son (also called Walter), which Read acknowledged probably had no basis in fact. Nonetheless, since the story had been repeated within a much-used antiquarian text, it was judged a legitimate tale to include in the pageant.   

In the legend recounted, young Walter's mother—the Lady Adeline—has a dream in which her son is killed by falling from a horse. The play therefore begins with the mother recounting this nightmare and begging her son not to go hunting that day. With the insouciance and confidence of youth, Walter pays no heed to his mother's concerns, and so meets his death in the manner predicted within the dream. Scene 2 shows Sir Walter and Lady Adeline receiving the terrible news, after which Sir Walter vows he will build 'A holy house upon that spot / Where Walter fell.' The hunt had taken place over the countryside of Scawton Moor, Sproxton, Hovingham, and Terrington, but Walter had fallen at Kirkham, and thus this tragedy explained the origins of the priory built there by the grief-stricken father.

Scene 3 then moves forward ten years and depicts a tournament, in the course of which five Cistercian monks arrive to request that Walter give them land for an abbey. He agrees, and the monks then ask for the help of skilled workers to accomplish the construction of the abbey at Rievaulx. Photographic evidence of the dramatic activity within this scene shows performers demonstrating the various trades of the local area.4 The next scene shows Sir Walter rallying local men to fight the Scots, who had reached Northallerton. The scene is again set at the castle, where Sir Walter addresses the assembled soldiers with a rousing speech before they leave to fight the Battle of the Standard. Indeed, throughout the pageant Sir Walter had the only speaking part; a narrator delivered all other parts of the narrative. The Shakespearean actor Robert Speaight, who also acted as pageant master, undertook this task; the talented Speaight delivered his narration live from amid the castle ruins. The following scene then picks up the story when news of victory reaches Helmsley; the success of Sir Walter and his men at Northallerton is greeted by the townspeople with a victory song in which plans for a celebratory feast are outlined. The pageant concluded with a scene depicting Espec in old age when he is received into the community at Rievaulx Abbey, having ceremonially taken off his armour and been clothed in the white habit of a Cistercian monk.           

According to Charlotte Tupman, the Helmsley pageant 'brought together the people of the town, including the three main religious communities (Church of England, Catholic and Methodist), in joyful recognition of the fact that the Second World War was over and there was much for the town to celebrate'.5 As Tupman rightly points out, the community certainly did come together, its members approaching the pageant with a great deal of enthusiasm. This was helped along by what appears to have been an atmosphere of high excitement for the Festival of Britain in the county of Yorkshire during the summer of 1951, which held pageants at Bedale, Hawes, Yarm, and Hunmanby, though none in larger towns. Yet the Festival spirit at Helmsley appears to have been more locally-inspired than bidden from a far-off metropolis. An article in the Yorkshire Post claimed that:

By the end of this Festival of Britain year not more than a fraction of Yorkshire Dales-folk will have seen the official home of the festival on the South Bank of the Thames. But the Festival spirit has been abroad. Even our villages and small hamlets seem to have felt something of its influence, and there has been no lack of opportunity for personal cooperation in Festival events. But it is perhaps in the many local plays, tableaux and pageants¾of which there has been no dearth in the county¾that the Northerner's sturdy independence has been most manifest; and in these we have witnessed the countryman's reasonable pride in his national and local history.6

In the city of York, the famous cycle of Mystery Plays was resurrected that summer and played in the grounds of the ancient abbey of St Mary's, and Helmsley was one of many smaller places in Yorkshire that held pageants: however, it seems likely that amid all this cultural activity, the performance at Helmsley particularly shone. This was doubtless due to a combination of high quality professional support, originality in the scripting and music, an impressive setting, and the commitment of a local community wherein there was an existing passion for amateur drama. Moreover, photographic evidence amply displays the care also taken over costumes and props. There was even continuity with the town's own pageant tradition: Ernest Williams, who in 1897 had played the part of young Walter Espec when he was only 16 years old, performed in the role of Ailred, the first abbot of Rievaulx, in 1951.  

One newspaper report stated that the 'passing stranger might be forgiven if he did not credit this part of North Yorkshire with any overmastering preoccupation with the arts... the passing stranger, as is so often his lot, would be mistaken'.7 While details of audience numbers and financial outcomes have unfortunately proved unrecoverable, it does seem likely that this pageant obtained, at the very least, a respectable audience. That great bane of pageantry, the pluvial downpour, affected both the dress rehearsal and the first official performance, which had to be postponed; but there is no reason to believe the weather in any way deterred spectators, or proved a drag on the success of the remaining performances. A photograph of one audience shows umbrellas aplenty, but a grandstand that is nevertheless crowded.8 In this part of Yorkshire at any rate, people were not put off by a little rain!


1. ^ 'The Last Shoe', Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 July 1951, 10.
2. ^ 'Helmsley Festival Play in Castle Setting', Yorkshire Post, 4 August 1951, 6.
3. ^ Herbert Read, 'Introduction', Festival of Britain: Souvenir Programme of the Helmsley Festival Play.
4. ^ See Helmsley Archives photograph entitled ' The Townsfolk demonstrate local trades', ref: HA05605 available online at: http://www.helmsleyarchive.org.uk/displayimage.php?album=24&pid=930#top_display_media
5. ^ See  Charlotte Tupman, 'Helmsley Festival Play, 1951'; this is one of the featured pageants on the Redress of the Past website and contains further details about the pageant; accessed 27 February 1951 at http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/featured-pageants/helmsley-festival-play-1951/
6. ^ 'Helmsley Festival Play in Castle Setting', Yorkshire Post, 4 August 1951, 6.
7. ^ 'Pageant Revived after 54 Years', Manchester Guardian, 7 August 1951, 3.
8. ^ Helmsley Archives photograph entitled ' The Spectators brave the rain' ref: HA02695 available online at: http://www.helmsleyarchive.org.uk/displayimage.php?album=24&pid=949#top_display_media

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Helmsley Festival Pageant’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1503/