History at the palace: Linda Haywood takes a look back at the Bishopthorpe pageants

DURING the early 20th century, the production of historical pageants became very popular throughout the country.

In 1909, the City of York presented its first pageant in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey.

The Bishopthorpe vicar, Rev Pennyman, tried in vain to encourage parishioners to join in. The response was less than enthusiastic. "Bishopthorpe did not take the pageant very seriously,” he later wrote. "It preferred to hold itself aloof.”

Several years later, however, the villagers girded their loins and thought that producing their own play about the history of Bishopthorpe was a much better idea. The play, it was later re-named pageant, was repeated seven times throughout the century, with the kind of community response Rev Pennyman would have been proud of.

The first play was devised in 1928 by another Bishopthorpe vicar, Canon F L Perkins and produced by Rev J A Hughes of the York Community Players. Archbishop William Temple agreed to the play being staged in the palace grounds and so set a precedent for all future productions. When the play came under the patronage of the King’s daughter, Princess Mary, and her husband Viscount Lascelles, members of Yorkshire’s elite queued to add their names to the list of patrons.

The aim of the project was twofold: first, to portray, as accurately as possible, events that took place in Bishopthorpe and mainly at the palace. Secondly, to raise funds for special needs of the village communities.

The scenes ranged through the centuries, from Roman soldiers encamped at Acaster Malbis to Princess Victoria’s visit to York in 1835 when she stayed as the guest of Archbishop Harcourt at Bishopthorpe Palace.

The play met with considerable success and, in 1930, was repeated and enlarged to include a new dynamic scene in which an angry mob from York tried to storm the palace. They carried a straw effigy of Archbishop Harcourt who, they felt, had let them down in the House of Lords by voting against the 1832 Electoral Reform Bill.

At that same production, the York photographer, A Elizabeth Hill, aka ‘Madame Beryl’, was given permission to photograph the scenes. She presented an album of prints to Archbishop Temple which has been kept at the palace ever since. We are grateful to Archbishop Cottrell for allowing us to scan the photographs.

The play was not revived until 1954 and changed its title to the Bishopthorpe Pageant. In that year, the financial target of £300 for the church fabric was helped by a plague of midges. To offset the nuisance, attendants were on duty selling cartons of insect repellent at 6d (2 ½ p) a time. There were plenty of customers!

In 1954, two new scenes were added by local residents, William Cobb and Carol Woollcombe. One of those scenes was, perhaps, the most poignant episode in the history of the village. It took place on June 8, 1405, when Archbishop Richard le Scrope was tried in the presence of King Henry IV in the Palace banqueting hall.

Scrope owed his preferment to Richard II and took part in a general rising following Richard’s murder in Pontefract Castle. Henry brought the archbishop back to Bishopthorpe where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He rode to his execution near Clementhorpe, saddleless, facing the tail end of a ‘sorry’ horse.

Each pageant came in for plaudits and praise from the press. It was impressive in 1956, and the writer enjoyed the high points such as galloping messengers riding up the drive; the “delightful solo acts by one bewildered spaniel and one extremely composed goose.” However, it also had “choirboys flitting among the undergrowth, under and over-speaking, some stumbled lines, restless horses and overlong intervals.”

Reviewing the Scrope scene in the 1970 Pageant, The Evening Press, found just one fault: Archbishop Scrope, played by Rev J McMullen, was led to his execution wearing a wrist watch!

In 1970, Carol Woollcombe remembered that, during the Storming of the Palace, the rioters were joined by a “vociferous new recruit one night.” Apparently Archbishop Coggan had returned from a confirmation and was trying to get back into the palace so he pulled his hat over his eyes, turned up his collar, and ran with the mob. Carol continued: “He shouted ‘Burn out the Archbishop’ as fiercely as the rest of us.”

It took the millennium to set the people of Bishopthorpe thinking of a new production. The planning started well before 2000 and a lottery grant was successfully applied for. The basic old play of 1928 provided the main outline but, as with the other pageants, scenes were re-written and added to, this time the Home Guard of the Second World War made an appearance.

It must be left to one of the participants to share his memory of that last pageant: “The five days of the show were amazing. The weather was sunny until dusk, the animals behaved, the children enjoyed themselves as did the sell-out crowds of families and friends. During the interval, collecting my bottle of Pageant Ale in the beer tent, the Archbishop [Hope] apologised for standing in my way at the bar – not at all I said, it’s your place after all!”

Read more memories of the 2000 Pageant here: www.bishopthorpe.net/bishnet/news/2020/07/24/remember-the-2000-pageant/

A display of Bishopthorpe Pageant photographs is currently on show at Bishopthorpe Library until November 6. More Pageant material can be seen at the Bishopthorpe Community Archive, Village Hall, Main Street, Bishopthorpe, on Mondays, 2.30pm to 5pm.

Linda Haywood is the co-chair of Bishopthorpe Local History Group and archivist, Bishopthorpe Community Archived