The History of Hocktide in Hungerford

Hocktide in Hungerford is a remarkable and unique survival. It is a two-week long festival just after Easter, the most well-known day of which is Tutti Day on the second Tuesday after Easter Monday.

Although the origin of the name ‘Hocktide’ is open to debate, the origins of Hocktide itself almost certainly lie in the activities of the shire reeves (later sheriffs)  The office of shire reeve dates back to pre-Conquest times and was one of several  aspects of Anglo-Saxon administration which the Norman and Plantagenet kings were happy to retain and adapt. One of the problems they faced, which became clearer over time, was that the stewards and bailiffs who acted as administrative officers for the nobles often became very powerful local figures (as did the nobles themselves). This tended to threaten the king’s rights and undermine their centralising aspirations.

The shire reeve was an important counterbalance to this feudal and sometimes disloyal authority. He acted as the king’s representative, holding courts, collecting rents and other dues owed to the crown and generally looking after the royal interests in the shires. The kings made great efforts not to allow the office to become hereditary so as to retain control of the appointments. The shire reeve, though rarely popular (as the Robin Hood stories amply demonstrate) was  a figure of considerable local consequence and was for many centuries vital to the organisation of an increasingly centralised country .

The shire reeves would hold regular courts, known as Tourns, which by the mid-13th century had become well-established throughout England. The most important of these were held around the times of the quarter days (roughly co-inciding with the solstices and equinoxes) when rents were traditionally due. Providing one was a freeholder, medieval justice was very inclusive: indeed, attendance at these courts was compulsory for landholders. The social structure ultimately depended on the landowners in each Hundred (an administrative division of a county, Berkshire having about 20) being collectively answerable for the actions of their peers. One of the tasks at each Tourn was thus to establish which freeholders had died, which had reached the age of majority for such matters (12) and – less commonly in this socially static age – which had arrived or left the area since the last count.

For hundreds of years, these activities were conducted as regularly as the seasons in every part of the country. Today, the tradition actively survives in only one place – Hungerford.

Over time, regular events and ceremonies tend to lead to permanently established organisations to administer them. Bodies like Hungerford’s Town and Manor developed all over the country in order to preserve and administer the various rights and privileges (as well as the obligations) conferred by various grants from kings and nobles. These were often made in times of financial hardship and, when circumstances changed, efforts were sometimes made to rescind them: these rights also needed to be asserted and defended.

Many towns would be associated with particular powerful families and it was advantageous to the town to keep these relationships harmonious. In Hungerford’s case, the most famous such landowner was John of Gaunt – the Duke of Lancaster, the third son of Edward III and the father of Henry IV – whose many grants in the late 14th century, including fishery rights, have resulted in his name still being well known in the town today.

However, the relationship between the Town and Manor, the Duchy of Lancaster. other local interests and the increasingly centralising ambitions of the government became progressively less easy and simple (see the link below to the article on the history of the Town and Manor). This was a pattern repeated elsewhere. Particularly from the 19th century, when the structure of local councils with wide-ranging powers was formalised, the duties, responsibilities and privileges of these ancient organisations became subsumed into these new bodies.

For various reasons, which the article linked to below also discusses, this did not happen in Hungerford. Instead, its assets and duties were consolidated into a charitable body, an formalisation which took place in 1908. The Town and Manor was thus established as a significant landowner but one governed by charity law. It is quite distinct from the Hungerford Town Council. In some ways, the two organisations operate parallel jurisdictions, one based on a raft of medieval and early-modern precedents, the other on present-day municipal arrangements. Although the Town and Manor’s main functions are very practical, its jurisdictional powers have become largely ceremonial.

They have not, however, disappeared. Every now and then, and particularly in the two weeks after Easter, they are plainly visible, if at times seeming as mysterious as the protocols in the House of Commons. These two organisations may seem to have few similarities but there is a common thread running through both. Their ceremonies are useful reminders of times when rights and liberties were hard won and in need of protection and expansion; when people were answerable to and responsible for their peers; and when communities would periodically and publicly assemble to to resolve disputes, pay their dues and generally manage their affairs according to time-honoured and widely understood traditions, precedents and common law. This continuity provided, in those uncertain times, one of the main bulwarks against anarchy. In a largely illiterate society they needed to be conducted with a good deal of visible and audible ceremony. Every spring in Hungerford, this visible and audible ceremony survives. Oyez, oyez!

For more information on the history of Hocktide and the Town and Manor you can do no better than clicking on the  links which will take you the appropriate parts of the Hungerford Virtual Museum. The above section was written by Penny Post and any errors of fact or interpretation are its responsibility. The following section draws heavily on information supplied by the Town and Manor and Hungerford Virtual Museum.  Most of the photographs were taken by Tony Bartlett.

The video above, narrated by Johnny Morris, was made about the 1991 Hocktide. It is a nostalgic documentary but there are many familiar faces and nothing much has changed in the past three decades.

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