A Four Nations Approach to Historical Pageantry

A Four Nations Approach to Historical Pageantry

This week, Dr Tom Hulme (King’s College London) shows that a four nations approach to the history of pageantry can throw fresh light on how British identity was negotiated in the early 20th century.

Historical pageants, in the form that most people who lived in the twentieth-century would have understood, emerged in 1905. Their format was remarkably consistent: a chronological series of historical episodes; a narrative that usually began with the Roman occupation of Britain, and ended before the eighteenth century, often with Queen Elizabeth I; casts of hundreds or thousands of voluntary amateur performers; and participation from all sections of society.[1] Louis Napoleon Parker, a composer and theatre impresario, staged the first pageant in Sherborne, Dorset, to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the town’s founding by St Aldhelm. Seen by 30,000 people, the event was incredibly successful and kicked off a ‘pageant craze’ in England.

Before 1914, ‘pageant fever’, as the press called it, was mostly concentrated in southern rural counties, such as Dorset, Somerset, Hertfordshire, and Suffolk. In these first years, pageants were seen as being a distinctively English theatrical form. They borrowed a lot of style and content from Shakespeare; built on the revival of English traditions such as the Morris and maypole; and relied heavily on promoting the utopian ‘Merrie England’ myth of the Elizabethan period. It is not surprising that, for the most part, historians have consequently thought about pageants and their historical identity in an English context.[2] But, since 2013, the Redress of the Past project has both complicated and enriched our understanding of historical pageantry, by exploring how pageants spread to Wales and Scotland as well. Historical pageants were very popular in these countries, but have hitherto been understudied. Comparing them with English pageants, while still understanding pageantry as a larger movement, adds to our understanding of a four nations approach.

Pageants in Wales and Scotland drew on the English roots of the format, but adapted them in light of their own national histories. At the same time, they added to a larger sense of Britishness; one that encompassed a shared understanding of progress and identity. Take, for example, the National Pageant of Wales in 1909, which was performed 25 times by a cast of 5000 in Cardiff to crowds totalling almost 200,000.[3] It can only be understood in relation to the English origins of pageantry, yet also the wider meanings and questions of British identity. It was produced by George P Hawtrey, an English actor, director, producer and manager. He often told the press that the pageant would show the history of the Welsh in order to inspire the current generation to live up to their forebears. Hawtrey was proficient in the rhetoric of Welsh national identity, but he never equalled the passion shown by the author of the pageant, Captain Arthur Owen Vaughan (who went by his self-given bardic name of Owen Rhoscomyl). Rhoscomyl was a renowned adventurer, soldier, and historian – aggressive and decisive, and fiercely imperialist. He promised that the pageant would be a great stimulus to Welsh nationalism.

Despite an obvious concentration on episodes Welsh history, the pageant was still criticised from some quarters for being too Anglo-centric – especially from those in the North of the principality, who needled the stereotype of an ‘unWelsh’ South. But, ignoring these criticisms, the story of Wales and England and the Empire was shown as being intertwined, or even as one – a shared history and future. Rhoscomyl understood this, and wanted to elevate Welsh history by showing how his countrymen had, throughout history, been warriors – a spirit that had enabled them to contribute to the creation and expansion of the British empire in the present. Episodes tried to show how, despite losing in war, the spirit of the Welsh was indestructible – with the implication being that it was on the Welsh that the power of Britain still relied. Welsh resistance and liberation, as epitomised by episodes featuring the mythical King Arthur, or the rebel leader Owain Glywndwr, had failed, but the spirit lived on in every true Welshman.

The National Pageant of Wales was not unique. The Pageant of Ayrshire in 1934 provides another quick example. This large event was subtitled, ‘The Story of Scotland’s Struggle for Independence’, but the organisers were not trying to sever ties with the UK. Instead, the Pageant of Ayrshire attempted to portray a story that supported Scotland’s position as an equal partner within the United Kingdom, while preserving Scottish cultural identity (read more about the Pageant of Ayshire on our website).

Taking account of a four nations (or at least a three nations!) perspective when writing the history of historical pageantry thus helps historians to place these often seemingly individual events within a larger context than their own local or even national contexts. At the same time, a four nations approach does not obscure pageantry’s English origins, but provides a focal point from which to understand the malleability of the theatrical form, and the negotiation of British identity more generally.

[1] For a historiographical analysis of the emergence of historical pageantry, Mark Freeman, ‘“Splendid display; pompous spectacle”: historical pageants in twentieth-century Britain’, Social History, xxxviii (2013), 423-55.

[2] Ayako Yoshino, Pageant Fever: Local History and Consumerism in Edwardian England (Tokyo, 2011); Paul Readman, ‘The place of the past in English culture’, Past and Present, clxxxvi (2005), 147-99.

[3] For an account of the pageant, see Hywel Teifi Edwards, The National Pageant of Wales (Llandysul, 2009).

Dr Tom Hulme was awarded a PhD from the Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, in 2013. Since then he has been a research associate on the Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905-2015.

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