The long table in the centre of the hall had about two dozen people round it, each six feet apart, and with perhaps 10 spectators in chairs against the walls. Each participant was masked. At the head of the table, the master of ceremonies leafed through his notes and consulted with a colleague. On the table in front of him was a black box containing a chain of office and a ceremonial horn. In the corner to his left sat an immaculately dressed and hatted figure who clearly had some role to play in what was to unfold. At half past ten the meeting was called to order. As pale April sunshine filtered through the high windows of the hall, the master of ceremonies began to speak.
This was not a company board meeting nor a ceremony to elect a new pope (although it had something of both functions). It was the socially-distanced 2021 Hocktide Court and Court Leet of the Town and Manor of Hungerford and the Liberty of Sanden Fee, which the CEO, Ellie Dickins, had kindly invited me to attend. Usually an annual event (though due to Covid it didn’t take place in 2020), its main business is to formally appoint the new Constable. This year the two events were shortened and conflated and lacked the public theatre and engagement that Hocktide and Tutti Day generally provide. This was – though it wasn’t so described – Hocktide/Leet-lite.
What Hocktide is, and what the Town and Manor was and is, are not easy to summarise. In essence, the event is a reminder of what was once an important – indeed unmissable – occasion when the hard-won or dearly-bought rights and privileges of the town to manage and exploit matters such as markets and fisheries were re-stated, rents collected, issues concerning the property owners resolved and the officers appointed or re-appointed for a further year. Anyone wanting to learn more can do no better than visit this section of the Hungerford Virtual Museum’s website.
At various times, most towns acquired such rights. Medieval kings and their tenants-in-chief (who often had the power to grant rights) were perennially short of cash. Selling privileges was a good way of raising it. The residents were astute enough to realise that what he been given or sold could also be taken away, so it was necessary to re-assert and defend them. In a largely illiterate society, such assertions needed to made regularly, publicly and memorably. As the power and self-confidence of the towns grew, so too did the number and function of the officers, which created a structure that mirrored the organisation of a state or ecclesiastical province. At certain times, mainly just after Easter, major public meetings were held to serve the dual purpose of ensuring the administration of the town’s affairs was efficient and to remind everyone, from locals to any royal or baronial representatives who might be present, that the town’s rights were here to stay. The combination of ceremony and tradition was one even a powerful king would think twice about messing with.
Most towns had such such organisations, courts and ceremonies. Over time, these either fell into disrepair as the immediate need for them became less acute or were subsumed, along with their buildings and property, into the new municipal structures from the late 19th century. This happened everywhere in England – except in Hungerford. Its unique survival is the result of a series of historical accidents that are as hard to summarise as is the nature of the Town and Manor itself. Again, the excellent Hungerford Virtual Museum is the place to start.
Viewed in this light, the ceremonies of the Hocktide Court and Court Leet are less the frivolous and self-serving exercise in nostalgia that they have sometimes been accused of but a vital reminder that if you want anything in life you generally have to fight for it, defend it and ensure your successors have the means to continue to do so. Many criticisms can made of medieval and early-modern municipalities. They were not inclusive, democratic or transparent by modern-day standards but that is not a fair way to judge them. They were certainly a step up from the more distant and more capricious monarchs or barons. They also provided a stable and predictable structure which enabled trade and commerce to thrive. The legacy of this is felt in every town in the country. In Hungerford, it’s still visible. The Town and Manor has evolved considerably (now being more of a land-owning local charity) but it hasn’t forgotten its origins.
At the court, outgoing Constable, Greg Furr, read an extract from the Hungerford Hocktide Court Book from 1583, in the reign of Elizabeth I. “For the mayntenance and better contynuance of the ancient franchises of the same Towne,” the document begins, “there ys and tyme out of mynde alwayes hath bene kept and holden on the Tuysday called Hockenday evry yere one Courte called Hocktide Courte in the Comon Hall there at the howre of eight of the Clock in the fforenone of the same day.” This leaves no one in any doubt we’re dealing with a well-established entity. The town’s right to hold a market was granted in the early 14th century but its main benefactor was John of Gaunt (son of Edward III, and Duke of Lancaster from 1362 to 1399) who confirmed its privileges and whose name, and that of his family, is still commemorated in the town to this day (including in the new development at Lancaster Park, despite the strange assertion by Bewley Homes that the name had been chosen to recall a wartime aviation accident about eight miles away). John of Gaunt would still have been a well-known name in the late 16th century and Shakespeare ran no risk of confusing his audience by mentioning him in the very first line of Richard II, written a decade after the Court Book: “Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster…”
The Court Book stresses the penalties for non-attendance (including forfeiting the right to graze cattle on common land, a more severe penalty then than now). It goes on to list the procedures for electing the officers, the duties each should discharge and the matters over which they had jurisdiction. This is a document written by a self-confident organisation which, by constant repetition, was ensuring the continuance of these arrangements. Some provisions have stood the test of time: item 7 stipulates that “no person ought to be chosen & elected unto the said office of a Constable there before hath borne and executed the office of Bayliffe of the Libertie & Portreve there.” This is followed to this day, with no one appointed to the top job unless they’ve first served time in other roles. Donald Trump, who had never held public office before becoming elected PotUS, would not have thrived under this arrangement.
The Court Book also stressed that the statements should be “openly read and published in the English tonge.” For centuries, official business had been conducted in Norman French or Latin. John of Gaunt’s father Edward III was the first English king to speak it as his mother tongue. Richard III’s parliament of 1484 was the first to insist that all acts be written in English. Almost a century afterwards, it was still felt necessary to assert that this language be used, referencing a fear that – like the Catholic mass, that was then banned – an important ceremony shouldn’t be conducted in a language few would understand. By 16th-century standards, this was an inclusive document.
Most of the rest of the Court was concerned – with some pauses caused by its socially-distanced structure and slightly ad hoc nature – with procedural matters. The aim, as Greg Furr explained afterwards, was to ensure all the crucial, legalistic aspects were conducted correctly: sadly, the public display would would have to be dispensed with for this year. The court did, however, permit itself one wider gesture when the Bellman was summoned from his ringside seat and given the horn. From the hallway and then from the upper gallery he blew several thunderous blasts which sounded, in that confined space, like a mixture of an elephant seal and a fog horn. What the newly-liberated shoppers of Hungerford in the High Street must have thought of it is anyone’s guess. There then followed a more prosaic interlude when a brief summary of the Town and Manor’s finances for 2020 was supplied. The organisation seems in good financial shape. This is welcome for local residents as the costs of maintaining the Common, the Marsh and the Town Hall (recent repairs for which cost about £60,000) are maintained entirely at the Town and Manor’s expense. So too are donations to local charities and community groups.
The new Constable is Peter Joseph who moved to Hungerford in 2001 (having lived in the area for much of his life) and who has been involved in the Town and Manor since 2003, principally with the fisheries. I was partly expecting that the outgoing Constable would ceremonially break his staff of office across his knee. Nothing so dramatic ensued, merely the careful placing of the chain of office around Mr Joseph’s neck. The outgoing Constable is a goldsmith so one assumes he has taken good care of it.
At the very start of the Court, the outgoing Constable pointed out this wouldn’t have been the first time the proceedings of the Town and Manor would have been disrupted by a pandemic. The organisation existed in an incipient form during the Black Death of the late 1340s (by an irony, John of Gaunt’s acquisition of the vast Lancastrian estates was partly a result of an aristocratic plague death) and the disease, or variants of it, recurred regularly, notably throughout the rest of the 14th century and in the 17th. Many adaptations must have had to have been made.
At the very end there was a moment that reminded us, yet again, of the adaptations that had been necessary this time. The outgoing Constable picked up his notes for the last time. “All the remains for me to do now,” he said, “is…is…is to find the right page in this document…ah – the court is adjourned.”
It will re-convene about a year from now, hopefully with the full public theatricality which acts as a reminder of past compulsory involvement. Both ideas can be appreciated at the same time. After all, if our ancestors hadn’t been through the latter we might not be able to enjoy the former. Their work helped improve the lives of generations they would never live to see. Given the challenges the world now faces, this might be the most useful thought to take away from Hungerford’s Hocktide Court. Oyez, oyez!
• For more on what the Town and Manor is (and isn’t), see this post.
The photograph (by Ellie Dickins) shows outgoing Constable Greg Furr and the new Constable, Peter Joseph.