Pageant week got underway on Sunday 1 July with a special service at St. Mary’s Collegiate Church, preached by the Bishop of Bristol. Special services were also held in other parish churches in the town. This was in line with Parker’s ideas about pageants; he was always very insistent that pageant week celebrations should commence with special church services. And indeed, the religious content of the Warwick Pageant is striking, perhaps affording evidence that claims of the secularisation of early twentieth-century British society have been exaggerated. The antiquity of Christian belief in Warwick is hammered home in the early parts of the pageant. Episode I shows Caractacus saving a child from pagan sacrifice, and then later returning to Britain to preach the word of God; episode II has the legendary British king Gwar [Gwdyr] found a church at Warwick. This is followed by the godly Ethelfleda’s conversion of captured Danes, and two episodes featuring the return of Warwick heroes from the Crusades, one of whom (Roger de Newburgh [Beaumont]) demonstrates his faith by founding a hospital in honour of the Templars, and establishing St. Mary’s as a collegiate church.
The presentation of patriotism
Aside from its religious content, another notable feature of the pageant – common to many early pageants – was the avoidance of any coverage of the English Civil War. This reflected the organizers’ sensitivity that doing so would undermine the patriotic and community-buttressing agenda of the event. For a similar reason, perhaps, the Reformation was also ignored. Indeed, with the exception of the long-distant Wars of the Roses (handled via Shakespeare), which unlike the Reformation did not map onto any very serious contemporary divisions, events suggestive of disharmony are not present in the pageant at all.
Local history and tradition
Local history and tradition loomed large in the pageant episodes. The legend of Guy of Warwick and his slaying of the terrifying Dun Cow was too dramatic a story to leave out, and proved particularly popular. Special attention was given to the construction of the monster’s head. After Guy had told how he had severed it from the Dun Cow’s body in mortal combat, the thing was wheeled into the arena on a special trolley, its eyes still rolling and its nostrils breathing smoke.
Real-life town benefactors and notables such as Thomas Oken and John Fisher were also celebrated, of course, as well as the Earls of Warwick and their families. Present-day notables were honoured too: it is significant that the final episode, set in 1694, features an appearance by a member of the Greville family, who would hold the title to the Earldom of Warwick after its fourth creation in 1759. But throughout the pageant, the original intention that local history be fused to the larger narratives of the English national past is everywhere apparent; through means of its pageant, Warwick, a small provincial town by 1906, sought to assert its importance to the national life of the past (Parker called the place ‘the Clapham Junction of English history’). This is shown not least by the prominence of British kings and queens, and also through the presence of William Shakespeare and Warwick the Kingmaker. One highlight was the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I in a magnificent state coach.
This article was originally published on the website The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905-2016, a major Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project examining historical pageants in twentieth-century Britain. Stories of many other pageants around the country can be found on this website.