by Frank E Earp
As many of my readers will now know, I’m not just an ‘armchair folklorist’ observing and writing about folk customs and traditions from an academic’s desk. Over the years I have participated in and actively help organise many different calendar customs. I must admit that this has not always been the case. It was my interest in folklore and customs – and lack of sporting exercise, – which, in my early 30’s, prompted me into joining a Morris side (team). Since that time I’ve danced the Morris, acted in Plough Plays and St. George Plays, carried a Hooden Horse and generally participated in many Calendar Customs and other traditions. My little booklet ‘May Day in Nottinghamshire’ – first published in 1992, – inspired the erection of a new English Maypole in the village of Linby and the revival of Maypole Dancing at Clifton. Working with the Sherwood Forest Trust, I’ve help organise events at Edwinstowe and Wellow.
Like Morris Dancing itself, many of the customs and traditions I have had the privilege to take part in have been modern revivals of their more ancient form. Some have been ‘one off’ events organised for a special occasion, whilst others have been a genuine attempt revive and continue an ancient tradition in modern times. One such a revival I have been happy to have taken a small part in has been the ‘Gate to Southwell’. This modern version of an ancient Whitsuntide procession to Nottinghamshire’s ‘Mother Church’, first began in 1981 and has continued for the last 33 years. It is fair to say that the ‘Gate’, – as it is affectingly known, – has become a custom in its own right. I have used the past tense in reference to the Gate, due to the fact that Saturday 8th June 2014 witnessed the last performance of the event.
The word ‘gate’ when used in this context is derived from the middle English/Old Norse ‘gata’ and simply means road or way; Thus The Gate to Southwell = The Road, or Way to Southwell. The Gate as a customwas founded as both a religious and civic event and is linked to Nottingham’s ‘Mother Church’, Southwell Minster. Supposedly founded by Paulinus, (Archbishop of York), there has been a Christian church on the site at Southwell since around 627. In 1108 work began on replacing the old Saxon church with a new Norman edifice along-side which was to be a Bishop’s Palace.
One year later, in 1109, Thomas Beverley, (Thomas II or Thomas the younger) was appointed as the new Archbishop of York. One of his first acts as Archbishop was to order that all parishes within his diocese of Nottinghamshire contribute a portion of their annual income towards the building cost of the new church at Southwell. This became known as the Southwell pence and in order that the money arrived safely and on time the priest and churchwardens of each parish were instructed to deliver it to Southwell in person. Records show that the contribution from Nottingham’s St Mary’s Church amounted to 13s 4p, whilst that of the village of Stanton, (Stanton on the Wolds, west of Mansfield), was 1p. This may not seem much, but when we think that the medieval penny had a current value of around £20, the total of the two contributions amounts to £256. When we allow for the fact of inflation, in today’s terms, this would be a considerable sum. It was also arranged that after delivering their Pentecostal offering, the priest would attend a Synod to keep them informed and updated of Church events.
On Whit Monday, – the day decided upon for the offering, – the great and the good of Nottinghamshire assembled in the in front of Nottingham’s old Guild Hall by the Weekday Cross market. The assembly included the Mayor and Aldermen of the town, parish priests and church wardens and many other ordinary townsfolk and villagers, egger to make a pilgrimage to their new cathedral. This would not have been a solemn crowed that had gathered in the market place. Joy would have come from the knowledge that the county was getting its own cathedral and the fact that those responsible no longer had the burden of delivering their church revenue to York Minster, which had previously been the case. From the Guild Hall the procession first set off towards Sneinton and thence following the line of the Trent to Southwell. It is very likely that many more country folk joined in enroot as the procession past through villages along the way.
The Church of Saint Mary of Southwell was largely completed by the year 1250. The annual Gate and Synod continued with the Pentecostal offerings going to York and its Archbishop. In 1171 a ‘Papal Bull’ of Alexander III, finally broke Nottinghamshire with the See of York by declaring that St. Mary’s be; “….be free from Episcopal jurisdiction, and that they might institute fit vicars in them without any contradiction, as the said Archbishops and Chapters of York….”. The same Bull granted new licence to continue the Whit Monday procession and Synod, only now the Southwell Pence went direct to the Church in Nottinghamshire. The Gate continued unabated for the next 600 years until 1770 when the Synod was abolished by the then Archbishop of York, John Sharp. It is likely that contributions from Nottinghamshire parishes continued to be paid into to the Church’s coffers but without the Synod there was no longer a reason to deliver it in person.
It was Saturday 7th June 2014, and just as ‘Little John’, – the bell of the Council House clock, – announced the fact that it was 8.30 am, I found myself entering Old Market Square. Along with my youngest son Joseph, – also a fellow Morris dancer, – I was about to join the small crowd gathering in the square for the Gate to Southwell. This was not the first time that I had taken part in the annual procession to Southwell, but it was about to be the last for any of us.
Tradition or Revival?: I was acutely aware of the fact that what I was about to take part in was technically, a revival of an ancient custom. I also reflected on the fact that it had been exactly 33 years since the first time I had joined what was to become this long-running annual event. How many times does an action or event have to be repeated for it to become a tradition, – a custom in its own right? I do not know the answer to this question, but after being repeated 34 times, the Gate must be considered as a true folk custom. It is not hard to imagine some future folklorist or historian waxing lyrical when writing about this ‘wondrous’ event.
Changed or not?: It is a sad fact that I am unable to remember exactly how many times I have made the annual pilgrimage to Southwell, but I guess that it must be at least 20 times. I must admit that I needed to trawl through the photos of the official archives of the Gate to arrive at this ‘guesstimate’. Doing so brought back many happy memories and the realisation that the atmosphere, character and routine of the event has not changed. The photos, from first to last show people, – both participant and spectators, – enjoying themselves. This must surely be the mark of a true custom and tradition and the reason it keeps going. Although it was necessity that began the first Gate to Southwell in the 12th century, it was enjoyment which saw it continue for close-on 600 years. Although the various scenes and activities in the photos did not change, the aging faces of friends and acquaintances showed the passage of the years. Mine was no exception. The first time that I walked across the square to join the Gate I could not possible have imagined that I would be doing the same thing 33 years later with my youngest son, – a grown man, – walking by my side.
The Morris and the Gate: Every year, before the procession sets-off, it has become customary for the participants to be presented with a simple ‘button badge’ as a memento of the event. One man, Bob Hine, – a member of the Dolphin Morris Men, – has a full set of these badges. And why shouldn’t he? Bob is the creator instigator of the modern Gate to Southwell. In 1980 Bob was busy searching through historic records to try to find the earliest reference to Morris dancing in Nottinghamshire. Among his many source materials were the records for the Borough of Nottingham containing the chamberlain accounts for the year 1530. Here Bob was to find what he was looking for.
The Nottingham borough accounts of 1530 provided Bob Hine with the earliest known documentary evidence of Morris dancing in the county. Under the accounts for money paid by the Mayor and Council towards the cost of ‘The Gate to Southwell’ was the following:
Morris dancers coats; ‘Item payde to Edward Balle for ij yards and a d. [2½ yds] bocram that made the moryn‘s [morris dancers] cote xd. 10d’ – Item payde to Myles Askwyk for making the sam‘ cott [same coat] ijd. 2d.’
Bells and adornments; – ‘Item payde for x. byles [10 bells] to Sponer xd. 10/-’ – ‘Item payde to Robard Fychar for byles [bells] and for assadowne [thin Brass, tinsel] at Couentrie iiijs. Ijd. 4/2d.’
Morris Dancers refreshments (ale); ‘Item payd for alle [ale] that ye danssers dranke at Addam Elton‘s iijd. 3d’ – ‘Item payde to Cotygh wife for halle (ale) that the denssars drawnch [dancers drank] at all tyms‘ xiiijd. 14d.’
Transport (nowadays we use buses); ‘Item payde to Robard Harreson for ij (2) horses yat ye danssars had viijd. 13d 8.’
Further research showed that the Council also paid for the Morris dancer’s shoes at a cost of 6d a pair. It would seem that the dancers and others on the 1530 Gate enjoyed themselves as much as any of their modern successors. The accounts show that along with the items for the dancers, the Council paid for ale pots, plates, cup and sauces, food and drink and other sundry items even including a women to do the washing up.
Reading these accounts as a modern Morris dancer and participant in the Gate, the references to these Tudor Morris Men, although somewhat scant, reveal a lot of information. Nothing seems to have changed; we still enjoy copious amounts of ale, wear bells on our ankles, dress in bright colours and need transport between dance spots.
Archbishop Wolsey: Please with his discovery, Bob was immediately posed with two questions; Why were Morris dancers taking part in what was seemingly a religious event, and why had the Council paid out such a large amount of money to sponsor them?The answer to both questions lay in the fact that in the year 1530, Archbishop Cardinal Thomas Wolsey had chosen to retreat to the Bishops Palace at Southwell to escape from his ever growing conflict with Henry VIII. It would certainly have been Wolsey who would have received the Southwell Pence that Whit Monday. The Council where out to impress the second most important man in the country. No one could have known it, but at that time, Wolsey was only months away from his grisly death on the scaffold.
The Gate after 1530: Bob was intrigued with his findings. Not only had he discovered the earliest reference to Morris Dancing in the County but a spectacular and special event in which the Morris played its part. From Bob’s research we discover that the annual Whit Monday procession may have ceased during the troubled times of the Reformation. The next reference to the Gate in the Borough accounts does not occur until the year 1558. Once again the accounts show the presence of the Morris dancers. Perhaps they had been there all-along entertaining the crowds and making the journey more plesent?
1558; ‘Item (5/-) paid to William Parker of Sneynton for caryng stuff to Southwell on Whytson Monday.’
Sporadic entireties in the records show that the Gate continued in one form or other until the original Synod was abolished by the Archbishop of York around 1770. However, although the excuse for a formal procession had now gone, the Southwell pence continued to be delivered to Southwell around Whit Monday with some sense of occasion, well into the reign of Queen Victoria.
In 1980 Bob Hine, a member of the Dolphin Morris Men, whilst trawling the archives for the earliest records of Morris Dancing in Nottinghamshire discovered the Gate to Southwell. Nottingham’s annual Whitson Tide procession to Southwell was an ancient custom lying dormant, just waiting for revival. Like so many moments in history, the revival was the result of a set of coincidences which came together at a single point. Had it not been for the fact that the infamous Cardinal Wolsey was present in Southwell to receive the Pentecostal offering in 1530; the town council would probably not have spent a huge amount of money on Morris Men to enhance the event. It was also Wolsey who played a prominent role in the following tumultuous years for both State and Church which indirectly led to the absences of records of the Gate in the Borough accounts until 1558.
The Gate 1981: There is an old saying; ‘You can’t keep a good idea down!’ The combination of Morris Dancing and an event in which it played such an important role was too much to ignore. Following much planning, – as a part of a charity fundraising event, – the first ‘revived’ Gate to Southwell took-place on the 6th June 1981. After a dance display and speech from the then Lord Mayor, the procession set-off for Southwell Minster at just after nine in the morning. The procession was led by a newly created banner, a processional cross on loan from a local church and Bob Hine carrying the Southwell Pence; – several poaches containing old coins to the value of the original contributions made by the parish churches of those participating. Two Morris ‘sides’, Dolphin Morris Men and The Foresters Morris were in the van. I was one of the Foresters. Behind the dancers came a small number of sponsored walkers, some in Tudor or medieval costume.
It was the intention of our side at least, to dance and walk the whole 20 + miles to the Minster. Along the way we perform dance displays, first at Sneinton and then at various villages along the route. I remember that we were scheduled to arrive at the Minster for the ceremonial hand-over of the Southwell Pence at 6 pm. However, we arrived at Easthorpe on the edge of Southwell just after 5 p.m. This meant an impromptu visit to a nearby pub for a sit-down and liquid refreshment. When the time came for us to assemble on the road outside and to dance the last few hundred yards to the door of the Minster, I found myself hardly able to rise from my chair, – my muscles had ceased up and my legs felt like lead.
The Gate 2014: The 34th Gate to Southwell took-place on the 7th June 2014. Unlike the 1981 Gate, this event received national coverage by the media, – even getting a mention on B.B.C. Radio Wales, so I supposes that’s international coverage. Why were the press and other media so keen to cover this local custom after 33 other chances of doing so? The answer lies not so much in the fact that this was the last time this long running event was to take place, but in the perceived reason for its demise!
I began this series of articles on the Gate by saying that nothing but the passage of time had changed from first to last. But time, as they say, changes everything. All around us the City of Nottingham had changed and so had the route or way to our final destination, – the original meaning of the word Gate. That first year we danced out of the Square all the way to Sneinton, an escort of Police Offices kindly holding up traffic at appropriate road junctions. Trams now ‘clanged’ their way along past the Square and their passage is uninterruptable even by a procession of dancing Morris Men. We were relegated to walking the pedestrian pavements, – but these too were blocked by their own heavy traffic. That first year, around 30 or more dancers and musicians from just two Morris sides ‘Winstered,’ – (Winster being a Derbyshire processional dance), – out of the Square. In 2014 a much depleted Foresters, – around 7 or 8 men led the dancers behind the Southwell Pence. New ‘health and safety’ regulations dictated that 15 of the Dolphin men, – regaled in bright orange reflective vests, – act as marshals. Regulations also dictated that certain roads along the route, – including those around the Minster, – be closed to traffic. The organisers of the Gate had to pay for the marshals and road closures. It was this modern ‘health and safety night-mare and ‘red tape’ that the media ceased upon, declaring it to be the reason for the death of the Gate. However, – and here is a scoop for the Topper, – the real reason is less prosaic. Bob Hine and the other organisers of the Gate felt that the event had ‘run its course’ and that it should end as it had begun on a high of exuberance rather than being crushed to death by modern life. This article too has ran its course and space dictates that it ends here. I hope the reader has enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed taking part in the Gate.
To see more of the final Gate to Southwell check out our videos taken on the day.
Gate to Southwell 2014- Speech in Market Square:
Gate to Southwell 2014- Speech at Sneinton:
Dolphin Morris dance there first dance at the last Gate to Southwell:
Gate to Southwell 2014- Final Speech at Southwell Minster: