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In the pageant the bull is represented by a symbolic bull’s head Pic: BenFowler

Less than 2 years to go to the Axbridge Pageant 2022: more from the programme for the community play – in this article we witness the brutality of bull baiting – and the abhorrence that many felt to those who practiced it in an early example of class war

We claim to be a nation of animal lovers and often turn our distain for barbaric sports such as bull fighting in Spain. And yet not so many generations ago the baiting and killing of many animals and birds were common forms of sport.

Many residents were disgusted by bull bating, leading to them lobbying for its end

Bear baiting, cock fighting and bull baiting continued through into the 19th century – fuelled by a thirst for blood and fun – and by the gambling that often accompanied these activities. In Axbridge, the autumn bull run held around Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night probably harked back to long lost traditions of Celtic Britain.

Children would re-enact the bull run as it was an exciting if bloody event

By the 1820s the more enlightened and the authorities had grown tired of the annual riotous ritual of setting dogs onto a tethered bull. It wasn’t just the cruelty involved – it was the drunken and riotous behaviour it attracted. In this scene we see a ritualistic representation of the event as the town’s burgesses clamp down on the archaic activity and all it represents. In 1835, parliament passed a law outlawing the practice.

Bull bating was sometimes marked by violent disorder

These are accounts of the time:
Be it known that on this day November fifth, that the corporation and the mayor of this town do ban the proposed baiting of a bull as a vial and despicable cruelty. And that any persons involved in such behaviour will be severely dealt with. By order of the Constable of Axbridge.

In 1835, the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in Parliament that outlawed “Blood Sport” in the United Kingdom ended bull baiting – but critics pointed out that blood sports of the upper classed like stag hunting continued

The bull will be baited outside the Crown Inn at eleven of the clock, when the corporation are at prayer, and then chased down St Mary’s Street to the Square and the George Inn by dogs and men with sticks, and thence whipped up the High Street along West Street to Outings Batch where it shall be tethered by anchor for sport. A crown for the best leading dog and half a crown for the second best. Scarcely had the Mayor H Symons and corporation entered the church when the rabble in defiance of the authorities baited the animal through the streets and then the batch beyond the precincts of the jurisdiction of the county magistrates.

Bailiffs on the left bull baiters to the right and disgusted residents above – a perfect set piece in the colourful pageant. Pic: Chris Loughlin

Here the rabble continued to enjoy their sport with some dogs with broken legs, the bull losing an eye, and the men using their staves to break the falls of the dogs when tossed by the bull.
Be it known that John Stoward this day in the year of our Lord 1822 is convicted of wantonly and wilfully committing cruelty to a bull within the borough, and having been apprehended by the constables acting for the majesty’s justices of the peace and tried in the court will be fined five guineas and spend one night in the lock-up. God save the King.

The town’s bailiffs were used to quell any trouble – in the days before the establishment of the police

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David Parkin played the Rev Gould in 2010

Axbridge Pageant: More from the programme of August’s no show due to Covid-19 – in this article we meet the fighting Reverend Gould and his nemesis the Christian evangelist Hannah More

This is an extract from the programme written by Harry Mottram for the Axbridge Pageant due we hope in 2021. It was originally due to be performed this August but has been put back 12 months due to Covid-19 with even a question mark over that date due to the ongoing problems of social distancingThe pageant is directed by John Bailey.

At the end of the 18th century the entire country was in need of reform. There was no national health service, state education, police force or transport system.

Diane Lukins played Hannah More in 2010

However the agricultural and industrial revolutions were transforming society. The population was growing, workers were on the move, and in the pre-socialist era Christian Evangelism was providing answers to a growing thirst for education. Except in Axbridge – where the vicar and the gentry were still living a pre-Georgian neo-feudal world where ordinary people were there to serve the social elite.

Enter Hannah More with her messages of enlightened living inspired by the New Testament. Hard work, good housekeeping, education and new found economic independence for families are what she was offering – and the establishment were horrified. What? Common people being offered a way out of their squalor and ignorance? The scene was set for one of the most famous confrontations in the town’s history.

Peter Harding was the rev Gould boxing opponent

The Rev Gould was a land owner, employer of child labour and was staunchly against reform. He was also a member of the council and was already under investigation for financial and ecclesiastical irregularities. The Bishop of Bath and Wells dispatched clerics to investigate his activities and in a remarkable turn of events each one died on the way to Axbridge.
However he hadn’t counted on the fervency and inner belief of Hannah and her sister Mary who were on a mission to bring education to the women and children of the towns of Somerset.

They were to open schools across the county and open the way to the enlightenment of the 19th century when social reform took hold. In one of the pageant’s set pieces Hannah takes on Rev Gould in a war of words in which good wins out over evil and Axbridge turned a page in its social history. In the scene Hannah leads the children up onto the hills for a giant picnic and to celebrate a reformed and enlightened Christianity.

Do join in with their rendition of the hymn Rock of Ages.

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All could never sin erase,
Thou must save, and thou alone.

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

The pageant with a cast of 300 is now scheduled to take place from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19. Please note due to the ongoing pandemic the date may have to be altered again.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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Axbridge Pageant: More from the programme of August’s no show due to Covid-19 – in this article Queen Henrietta Maria called in to raise cash for the King in the Civil Wars

This is an extract from the programme written by Harry Mottram for the Axbridge Pageant due we hope in 2021. It was originally due to be performed this August but has been put back 12 months due to Covid-19 with even a question mark over that date due to the ongoing problems of social distancingThe pageant is directed by John Bailey.

Breaking 17th century news: “By Royal Proclamation I King Charles this day of 1642 who by the grace of God, King of ENGLAND, SCOTLAND, FRANCE and IRELAND, Defender of the Faith, beseech support from my loving Subjects to rally to our Godly cause and defeat those most rebellious and diverse lords and Members of the Commons and their treasonous leader Cromwel.”

Yes – Civil War had broken out and Axbridge did its best to stay out of the fighting. Except for a punch up outside King John’s Hunting Lodge and the visit of Queen Henrietta Maria.

It was a Royal charm offensive – with one motive being to raise cash for her husband’s collapsing military campaign. So which side did Axbridge take? It seems they put an each way bet on the outcome giving money to both sides.
The bells of St John’s Church were rung out for her as her party made their way through the town. Not everyone greeted her with good grace. For many she was on the wrong side of history as the Queen who wanted to take England back to the days of the divine right of kings and the Roman Catholic church while for others she was the wife of the legitimate head of state and deserved respect.

Chronicled at the time was a visit by the Cavaliers from their camp at Brent Knoll to recruit young men into their ranks.

An argument broke out between them by King John’s Hunting Lodge and a fight took place with the Cavaliers beating a retreat back up the High Street.
The Civil Wars continued in Ireland and later after the Restoration and the return of the King more trouble was to follow as the men of Axbridge decided to join a rebellion led by the Duke of Monmouth.

The pageant with a cast of 300 is now scheduled to take place from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19. Please note due to the ongoing pandemic the date may have to be altered again.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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Charters gave the town a new status as a business centre with added rights

AXBRIDGE PAGEANT: More from the programme of August’s no show due to Covid-19 – the town receives new Elizabethan charters giving power, status and also trading standards to a wool based economy

King Edward 1 (1239-1307) the monarch who conquered the Welsh, fought the Scots and expelled the Jews from England at the point of a sword murdering many in the process (and not a politically correct head of state) awarded the town a second charter as he set about reforming the archaic laws to boost trade and bring about the beginning of the end of serfdom.

Major news such as the charters were brought by horse back

Two centuries later the Tudor heads of state Queens Mary I (1516-1558) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603) granted further rights to the town. Although the town no longer has 32 burgesses or even a guild hall – there are many reminders of those days in the shape of this market square, the office of mayor on the town council, the various timbered buildings still standing such as The Old Angel and the community having the status of a town.

Axbridge women knew how to dress in the 16th century

The Tudor age saw the Christian schism of the Reformation leading to the banishment of the Catholic clergy and the establishment of the Church of England. Later the church was whitewashed inside and the colourful wall paintings were covered and the statues of the Virgin Mary and all the Saints were taken down as the new broom of Protestantism swept away the old practices and even the priest was chased from his sacristy (now a broom cupboard in the church).

Wool had created a new middle class in Tudor England

Queen Mary and her Spanish husband Philip granted the Charter of Incorporation – empowering Axbridge to continue as a free corporate borough, with its Mayor, burgesses, and constables.

Young and old bring the pageant to life

Chronicler: “Whereas our borough of Axbridge in our County of Somersetshire is an ancient borough, always having within it thirty-two men called Burgesses from time to time elected, nominated and appointed out of the more discreet and honest men… there may and shall be fourteen of the elder and principal and better and more honest of them who shall be called the Aldermen.”

In a religiously devout Tudor country female hair was often covered as a sign of modesty

Some of these new positions were held by John Whiting; Mayor and Clerk of the Market, John Bythesea; First Aldermen, Richard Fulle; and Burgesses: William Broyde, Senior; William Broyde, Junior; Walter Durban; John Borne; Thomas Hall; Jasper Wrentmore; William, Jones the bread taster, Christopher Wilmott, the leather warden, and Christopher Sadler, the ale taster.

The charters were of great pride to the residents – and still are as Axbridge is still proudly a town

The Mayor read out the good news concluding : “It shall be lawful for the Common Council of the borough to hold and keep yearly for ever, two markets in every week, and four fairs to be holden there yearly. Witness Ourself at Westminster, the twenty-third day of February in the fort-first year of our reign. God save the Queen.”

The silver maces are symbols of status for the town

Later King James’s Charter also granted Axbridge the right to two silver maces which meant the town could police the market and combat crime and in particular West Street then outside the town’s boudary. The charter brought the dodgy end of town under the council’s control with the Chronicler announcing: “We are credibly informed that in the street called West Street, many riots, routs, unlawful assemblies, contentions and offences are committed by diverse disorderly persons.”

All the King’s men: action had to be taken over the rioting residents of West Street who at the time lay outside the town boundary

Don’t tell anyone but West Street continues to be a fairly lively part of town although we are unaware of anyone from there being placed in the stocks recently.

Hats off for the Pageant. Let’s hope it returns soon

The pageant with a cast of 300 is now scheduled to take place from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19. Please note due to the ongoing pandemic the date may have to be altered again.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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The year is 1210 and feudalism comes to an end as the town receives its first charter

AXBRIDGE PAGEANT: When people in Axbridge (or ‘Alse Bruge’) spoke Norman French and the town was given its first charter by ‘Good’ King John – who also freed the serfs – hurray!

This is an extract from the programme for the Axbridge Pageant due we hope in 2021 written by Harry Mottram. It was originally due to be performed this month but has been put back 12 months due to Covid-19 with even a question mark over that date due to the ongoing problems of social distancing. The pageant is directed by John Bailey.

Saxon Axbridge with its mint, its fortifications and its struggles with Danes has seen the arrival of the Norman French in 1066. At first there was little change but the old social system was replaced by feudalism and over the next two centuries the town changed from Axanbrycg in Middle English to a settlement of the Middle Ages called Alse Bruge.

A medieval hunting party has been a fixture in the pageant since the 1970s with hounds and horse creating a colourful scene in the Square

We move on to the year 1210 and by now Axbridge was beginning to look like a town. A river flowed across this Square and still does – now hidden beneath the road – emerging from beside the church and flowing down past the Co-op and on down to the Levels. A bridge crossed the river while there were fish ponds where the Bank House now stands, with the town forming around the High Street when newcomers appeared speaking a strange new language: Norman French.

Chronicler: “À l’automne dix-six après la récolte, des nouvelles des Normands qui avaient vaincu le roi Harold et n’étaient pas maîtres de nos terres.”

Er… 1066 and the Normans are the new masters of Axbridge or Alse Bruge as it was called in the Domesday Book.

King John granted the town the right to hold markets and a form of self government

Let us quickly peel away the years of Norman rule to 1210 and Good King John. Robin Hood and the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest may have thought of him a derf villain (bad rogue), but here in Axbridge he’s a hero as he confirmed on the town a charter to hold a market – setting it free from Cheddar and in 1279 a second charter freed the serfs – hurray!

Axbridge grew into a prosperous trading centre, with new buildings, industries and workshops, its own Member of Parliament, a market complete with shambles and thirty-two burgesses – town officials. And it all began with those royal hunting trips.

Whole families take part in this scene as can be seen here with the Hughes’ of West Street

King John’s Hunting Lodge, a fine medieval house that is now the town’s museum. Built as a merchant’s house and shop in around 1460, the property has been a pub, a café, a saddlery and even a music shop over the centuries. We’d dearly love to say that King John stayed the night there and the event was commemorated with the effigy of the hunting-mad monarch poking out from the gables. Alas he had been dead for 250 years when the leaning timber house was built.

The role of King John is one of the star parts in the pageant – although there is no evidence he actually he actually visited Axbridge – but the pageant is a play with some artistic licence

King John’s charters ended the shackles of feudalism and establish a market and a form of self-government. Wool became one of the town’s biggest products with a guild established by the merchants to regulate the golden fleeces of the Mendip sheep farms that brought wealth to the town.
Good King John for putting the town on the map.

The pageant with a cast of 300 is now scheduled to take place from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19. Please note due to the ongoing pandemic the date may have to be altered again.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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A mint, a Burh and the founding of Saxon ‘Axanbrycg’ to resist the Danes

This is an extract from the programme for the Axbridge Pageant due we hope in 2021 written by Harry Mottram. It was originally due to be performed this month but has been put back 12 months due to Covid-19 with even a question mark over that date due to the ongoing problems of social distancing.

And so to the creation of the town in the early 9th century by Anglo Saxons as a fortified settlement or Burh to resist the Danes who got as close as Tarnock a few miles away.

Axanbrycg’s name (as it was known) is thought to have been coined as a bridge over a river – possibly the one that flows under the Square rather than the River Axe in the marshes below the town.
Where the first town was located is open to conjecture but just off the Square is the generally accepted thinking. Axanbrycg was important with its own mint makiing silver coins and as a base for King Alfred’s campaigns against the Danish army.

To this we have our next scene in which the Saxon army battles it our in a home win against the invaders. Just think, if the Danes had won then we’d have become Scandinavians and Danish would have been the language of Australia and Canada – and we’d have exported Ikea stores to the world.
Back to Saxon Axbridge. Cue the Danish army and the battle (as recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle) of The Raven. Nobody is quite sure where the brutal struggle took place, so in this version we considerthat Axbridge is the most likely site for the Dark Age dust up.

Let the Chronicler take up the story: “M’æst winterstund onufan lang twelfta, wægn fyrdtruma tô−foran sê lendan.”
Or in our modern tongue: “In the year CE 878 about mid-winter after Twelfth Night, the Danish Army rode out over the land of the West Saxons and drove many people into the sea and of the rest most part they rode down and subdued their will.
“But King Alfred with a little band uneasily sort the woods and fastnesses of the moor with the war flag they called The Raven.
“In the seventh week after Easter, the King and his little force fought all the Danish army and put them to flight riding after them up to their fortress.
“There the Danes gave him hostages with many oaths, that they would go out of his kingdom. They told him also, that their king would receive baptism.”

In 927AD England finally emerged as a nation under King Æthelstan and despite variuous bust ups between the rulers was an Anglo Saxon domain until 1066 when a new lot of invaders arrived.

The Saxon sequence was directed by Diane Lukins who wishes it to be known that no Danes were harmed in the making of this scene. All other scenes are directed by John Bailey, the artistic director.

The pageant with a cast of 300 is now scheduled to take place from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19. Please note due to the ongoing pandemic the date may have to be altered again.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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A funeral for a Roman-British farmer opens the Axbridge Pageant

Before Axbridge began with Celts and a funeral for a very dead Romano-British farmer

This is an extract from the programme for the Axbridge Pageant due we hope in 2021 written by Harry Mottram. It was originally due to be performed this month but has been put back 12 months due to Covid-19.

Axbridge is first recorded in the early 10th century in the Burgal Hideage of Saxon Britain and we know coins were minted here in 977 CE. But what was here before that? Well with a little imagination we start the pageant in the mists of Roman Britain when Axbridge contained a farm, perhaps a hamlet and a graveyard. And before that the area was the hunting grounds of Celts who had replaced earlier inhabitants who lived in the area since the end of the Ice Age.

In the past pageants the Romans were sadistic slave drivers beating the residents with whips

Roman pottery and ditches have been discovered and a Romano British body neatly buried near the school in Old Church Road. We conjure up a new opening scene depicting the moment when Roman tradition met Celtic mysticism.
In previous pageants the Romans were depicted as slave drivers – whipping the down-trodden Celts as they carried the lead from the Mendips off to the cities of Roman. Whether it was the images of Roman domination as depicted in the 1959 movie Ben Hur directed by William Wyler, and starring Charlton Heston that inspired Chris Cowap’s script or the chance of some sado-macochistic drama at the start of the pageant we can only speculate.
Instead, (together with some words from Virgil) we have a funereal start to our pageant to mark the first (if very dead) resident of the town.

A spectacular opening to the pageant with words from Virgil – reminding us that Axbridge residents have spoken various languages in their history including Latin

This and the Saxon sequence that follows are directed by Diane Lukins who wishes it to be known that no Romans were harmed in the making of this scene.

The pageant with a cast of 300 runs from Saturday to Monday August 28-30th, 2021 – having been put back a year due to Covid-19.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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Back in the day: the pageant was free to watch in the 1960s

The Axbridge Pageant 2020 has been postponed for a year due to the Coronavirus crisis. Here are features about the event written in the build up – now put off for a year: Why the Axbridge Pageant bonds the whole community

Axbridge in Somerset is a town of some 2,500 souls and is confined to a narrow strip of land betwixt the Mendips and The Levels. It means for centuries the town’s social life is concentrated in the Square with little room for urban sprawl. The Square, the town’s condensed geography and its long history dating to its Saxon origins are all factors in why the pageant held every ten years works.

There are football teams, book groups, the carnival and the Sports and Social but only the pageant encompasses the whole community with all parts of society. Young, old, working class, land owners and the newly arrived – it brings everyone together for a mixture of reasons. One is that there is a part for everyone. Tractor drivers, horse riders, marshals, costumiers, actors, musicians are all needed. The football team being a ready-made unit form up as soldiers in the Monmouth Rebellion while the British Legion revels in portraying the Home Guard in World War Two. The school supplies the evacuees and so on. And there’s a precedent with community groups taking part in the annual carnival where clubs and societies are used to parading through the streets.

Another factor is the Square – already mentioned. It’s the focus of many of the town’s events from the carnival, the fun fair, the hunt, Father Christmas, street parties for Royal weddings and the monthly market. Then there are several long standing families who have connections going back generations – and by taking part in the pageants over the years there’s a certain pride that they may have been children in the first ones and their own children then take part in later ones. And we must mention the bonding of the community through the tragic air disaster in Switzerland in 1973. The crash killed a large number of women from the town who had set out on a special shopping trip to Basel. With so many families without a mother the town pulled together to support the bereaved dads and children left behind. Part of that pulling together continues with the likes of the Sports and Social, the church community and other groups who help to form the core of the pageant.

And other factors include a near universal pride in the community’s imagined or real history, plus of course key individuals coming together to direct, write, produce and stage the pageant.

It all began in 1967 when the bypass took heavy traffic away from the town and to celebrate two residents with a background in theatre (perhaps looking to their own pasts) suggested a pageant. The first one now looks quite archaic with a procession of Romans and Tudors and Kings and Queens acting out dramatized sections of Francis A Knight’s 1915 book The Heart of Mendip. It purported to show in 15 scenes the history of the town but inevitably was in places quite inaccurate. In a way that didn’t matter as it was the taking part that seemed to be the main thing.

So it was simply good fortune and luck which delivered the pageant to the town. In 1970 it was updated with further ones in 1980 and 1990. In 2000 the original committee and people behind the pageant were retiring or leaving so John Bailey took up the task of reshaping what had by then become an established script with clubs and societies like the Crown Inn or the parish church laying claim to various scenes. That aspect was a strength and a weakness as some in the town were not keen on the updating of the pageant to include the 20th century. Working with Harry Mottram as script writer John Bailey updated the script in 2010 and again this year to at least make the scenes more accurately reflect the past and to increase the role of real characters from all our yesterdays and to present a people’s history – rather than a simple procession of Kings and Queens.

For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/axbridge-pageant-2020/news/

Follow the Pageant on Twitter and Facebook

For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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