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Monday, 6 May 2013

Rogation Monday: The Custom and Tradition of the Shaftesbury Byzant Ceremony

Prior to 1830, at an agreed date May usually the Monday before Ascension Day, Shaftesbury would hold their annual Byzant Ceremony.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury
The ceremony came about due to the fact that Shaftesbury's geographical location was on a hill and that it did not have a water supply to call its own. To solve this problem was to siphon off some of that supplied by the Enmore Green wells at nearby Motcombe.

However, a contract between the village of Motcombe for the use of their wells, had to be met every year, by means of the Byzant (also known as Bezant) ceremony. The word 'byzant' seems to derive from the old coin of the same name and not from Byzantine as in 'fiendishly complicated', which might seem more appropriate. In the past, Kings would often present a bezant at religious festivals or when taking Mass, and the coins were often replaced with a symbolic gift, still retaining the name 'byzant'.

The Shaftesbury Byzant Ceremony would process from the town headed by an official carrying a decorated calf's head with a purse of money in its mouth. Next in line came a man carrying the gilded Byzant or Prize Besom itself an ornate mace, decorated with jewels, ribbons, flowers and peacocks' feathers. The mayor and his team were next, with the townsfolk bringing up the rear.

The Shaftesbury ByzantThey danced and sang their way to Enmore Green, where they presented gave Motcombe's bailiff

The head and purse, the Byzant, some bread, a gallon of ale, and a pair of laced gloves was presented to the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, who owned the land of Enmore Green and the Spring.

The Lord then handed back the Byzant, its function in the ceremony being purely symbolic, and the Shaftesbury towns-folk began their long journey back home, leaving Motcombe's a merrymakers to carry on with the singing and dancing.

Without this annual ritual Motcombe could refuse the use of its water to the town.  The ceremony continued for at least four hundred years, although it is recorded that in the early years of the 19th century the Mayor of Shaftesbury refused to comply with the custom, whereupon the people of Enmore Green filled up the wells. The custom finally lapsed in May 1830 by the consent of Lord Grosvenor (created Marquess of Westminster 1831), the then Lord of the Manor. Minutes of the meeting dated 3rd May 1830 state, "the Corporation resolved to approach Lord Grosvenor to dispense with the ceremony," and a vote of thanks was proposed and passed to "the late Mayor William Swyer for his exertions in discontinuing the annual ceremony of the Bysant, by which a considerable sum will be saved to the Corporation".

The last Byzant mace, came into the possession of Lady Theodora Guest, daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Westminster, and after her death in 1924, her daughter. Miss Augusta Guest presented it to the Town Council. It is now permanently on display in the Shaftesbury Town Museum.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about Shaftesbury Byzant Ceremony:

"Shaftesbury.
The Bezant. — The very interesting ceremony of the "bezant" or "prize-besom", by which the inhabitants of Shaftesbury formerly obtained their supply of water for the town from wells at Enmore in the adjoining parish of Motcombe, is almost a matter of historic interest.

The earliest account of it that I can find is in a small book that I once possessed, A Compleat History of Dorsetshire, c. 1716. This account I contributed to the Folk-lore column of the Dorset County Chronicle, about 1883, and it was as follows :—

"This town, being seated upon a high Hill, is destitute of Water, which how it is supplied with, according to custom, is not unworthy our Observation. There are a quarter of a Mile from the Town three or four large wells in the Parish of Melcomb within the liberty of Gillingham, a Manor belonging to Edward Nicholas, Esq., from which this Town has been supplied Time out of mind, being brought on Horses Backs, or upon the Head in Pails, at a certain Price ; but the Town is obliged to make this Acknowledgment to the Lord of the Manor for their Water. The Mayor and Burgesses of Shaftesbury the Monday before Holy Thursday, dress up a Prize-Besom, as they call it (somewhat like a May Garland in Form) with Gold and Peacocks Feathers, and carry it to a broad Green half a mile below the Hill in the parish of Melcomb and present it to the Lord of the Manor as an Acknowledgment for his Water, together with a raw Calves-Head, and a pair of Gloves, which his Steward receives distributing at the same time among the People twelve Penny-Loaves and three dozen of Beer. This ceremony being over, the Prize-Besom (which is usually worth 1,500£, being adorned with Plate and Jewels borrowed of the neighbouring gentry) is restored to the Mayor and brought back again to the Town by one of the Officers with great solemnity."
I there asked for information as to when this custom had been abandoned. By a correspondent I was referred to Chambers's Book of Days, vol. i, p. 585, for fuller information, and I was told that " the festival has ceased in 1830 ", water being then supplied by a new artesian well in the town itself.
 

He went on to say that :
"The curious trophy formally presented to the lord of the Manor in return for the water supply was called a ' bizant'— your correspondent's authority makes natives call it a ' prize-besom '. A frame four feet high was covered with ribbons, flowers, peacocks' feathers, jewellery, and gold and silver coins, from which last the name was taken, a ' bizant' being an ancient gold coin, and the amount, probably, of the original water-tax."
At the same time I had received a direct reply from a friend, resident at Shaftesbury, which confirmed Chambers's account of the discontinuance of the custom. My friend had ascertained from one of the "oldest inhabitants " of the place that the custom had been abolished by the late Marquess of Westminster, when he purchased the Motcombe (or Melcombe) Estate about 1830. Probably in this year on the Monday before Whit-Monday (that is the Rogation Monday of Chambers) was the last instance of this custom having been carried out.

He also added (which Chambers does not) that on the Tuesday and during the week after the custom, a fair was held in Enmore-green, a hamlet of Motcombe, in which the wells were situate, and, further, that the people filled up the wells with rubbish, being disgusted that the custom was abolished. In conclusion, he said that Shaftesbury, which was then supplied with water from a deep well sunk by the late lord about thirty years previously, was famous for three things, viz. more strong beer than water; the churchyard higher than the church; more rogues than honest men.


Another friend has supplied an alternative to this last: "More whores than married women."


In 1907 Shaftesbury followed the custom of so many other towns about that time by holding an "Historic Pageant ",(These Pageants were first set on foot by the excellent one given at Sherborne Castle a few years previously under the superintendence of Mr. Louis Parker) and amongst the tableaux that were given illustrating the ancient history of the town was that of the " Bezant ".


The Dorset County Chronicle of 18th April of that year gave the following account of it:

"The last episode was the Byzant ceremony, which was observed towards the end of the eighteenth century. 
" It represented the Mayor and Corporation going down to Enmore Green and making presents of bread, ale, a calf's head, and gloves to the Lord of the Manor for allowing the inhabitants to draw water from the wells of Enmore Green. The Mayor (Dr. Harris) and several aldermen and councillors marched on to the stage preceded by the mace-bearers and Byzant, where they were received by the Lord of the Manor. The custom of handing over the bread etc. was duly observed, and a document setting forth the reasons for the observance was read by the Mayor, after which he declared that dancing should be the order of the day. The Mayor, aldermen, and councillors then led off the dance. This was an excellent representation and was highly successful."
In its issue for the 9th May following the same paper contained a statement that
"Lady Theodora Guest of In wood House, Henstridge, has presented the town of Shaftesbury with the old ' Byezant' which was used in one of the representations at the recent display of historical tableaux. In a letter to the Mayor, read at Wednesday's council meeting, the donor said that she felt it was an interesting relic of the past, and that, as such, it ought to be preserved in the town to which its history belonged. The Corporation have decided to keep the relic in a cabinet in the Mayor's parlour."
Hutchins also (iii, 44) gives a very good account of this custom, to which I would refer my readers. Also to Lady Theodora Grosvenor's Motcombe : Past and Present (1873), pp. 51-3. See also Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, vol. ii, p. 235, and iii, p. 297 (where an excellent representation of the " Bezant " is given) and Notes and Queries, Ser xi, iii, 170."
 Sir Frederick Treves in his Highways and Byways of Dorset' quotes the following record from 1518, however the custom described must have been of very ancient origin:
"That hit is the custome in the tethinge of Motcombe, usu lonqo, time out of remembrance and mynde, that the Soundhey next after Holy Roode day in May, every yeare, every parish within the borough of Shaston shall come down that same day into Enmore Greene, at one of the clocke at afternoon, with their mynstralls and myrth of game; and, in the same greene of Enmore, from one of the clocke til too of the ciocke, by the space of one hole hower, theire they shall daunce: and the meyer of Shaston shall see the quene's bayliffe have a penny loffe, a gallon of ale, and a calves' head, with a payer of gloves, to see the order of the daunce that day: and if the daunce fay Ie that day and that the queue's bayliffe have not his duty, then the said bayliffe and his men shall stop the water of the wells of Enmore from the borough of Shaston".
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days May 2nd 1864, details the custom of the Byzant Ceremony.
"The Bezant
On Monday in Rogation week was held, in the town of Shaftesbury or Shaston, in Dorsetshire, a festival called the Bezant, a festival so ancient, that no authentic record of its origin exists.

The Borough of Shaftesbury stands upon the brow of a lofty hill, having an extensive view over the vale of Blackmore. Until lately, from its situation, it was so deficient in water, that its inhabitants were indebted for a supply of this necessary article of life to the little hamlet of Enmore Green, which lies in the valley below. From two or three wells or tanks, situate in the village, the water with which the town was provided was carried up the then precipitous road, on the backs of horses and donkeys, and sold from door to door.

The Bezant was an acknowledgment on the part of the Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough, to the Lord of the Manor of Mitcomhe, of which Enmore Green forms a part, for the permission to use this privilege; no charter, or deed, however, exists among their archives, as to the commencement of the custom, neither are 'there any records of interest connected with its observance, beyond the details of the expenses incurred from year to year.


On the morning of Rogation Monday, the Mayor and Aldermen accompanied by a lord and lady, appointed for the occasion, and by their mace-bearers carrying the Bezant, went in procession to Enmore Green. The lord and lady performed at intervals, as they passed along, a traditional kind of dance, to the sound of violins. The steward of the manor meeting them at the green, the mayor offered for his acceptance, as the representative of his lord,—The Bezant,—a calf's head, uncooked,—a gallon of ale, and two pennyloaves, with a pair of gloves edged with gold lace, and gave permission to use the wells, as of old, for another year. The steward, having accepted the gifts, retaining all for his own use, except the Bezant, which he graciously gave back, accorded the privilege, and the ceremony ended. The procession returned as it came, and the day, which was one of universal enjoyment to all classes of the population, was brought to a conclusion, according to the hospitable fashion of our country, in a dinner given by the Corporation to their friends.
The Shaftesbury Byzant
The Bezant, which gave its name to the festival, is somewhat difficult to describe. It consisted of a sort of trophy, constructed of ribbons, flowers, and peacock' s feathers, fastened to a frame, about four feet high, round which were hung jewels, coins, medals, and other matters of more or less value, lent for the purpose by persons interested in the matter, and many traditions prevailed of the exceeding value to which, in earlier times, it sometimes reached, and of the active part which persons of the highest rank in the neighbourhood took in its annual celebration.

Latterly, however, the festival sadly degenerated, and in the year 1830, the Town and the Manor passing into the hands of the same proprietor, it ceased altogether, and is now one of those many ancient observances, not without their interest to the antiquary, which are numbered with the past. If this had not happened, however, the necessity for it no longer exists. The ancient Borough is no longer indebted to the lord of the manor for its water, for, through the liberality of the Marquis of Westminster, its present owner, the town is bountifully supplied with the purest water, from an artesian well sunk at his expense.
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