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Church curiosities: Ceremonial of a different sort

21 May 2021

In a new book, David Castleton explores the enduring popularity of some quirky traditions


Clowns and entertainers at the annual service of remembrance in honour of Joseph Grimaldi, at All Saints’, Haggerston, in east London, photographed in 2019

Clowns and entertainers at the annual service of remembrance in honour of Joseph Grimaldi, at All Saints’, Haggerston, in east London, photograp...

IN A number of churches and cathedrals lurk artefacts that are — or have been — the focal points of unusual ceremonies and pageants. Some of these folkloric customs have died out, and we know about them only from the pens of antiquarians or local historians; others are still in vigorous health today, or have been revived.

An unusual London service is held at All Saints’, Haggerston, on the first Sunday in February. In the Clowns’ Service, members of that profession line the pews in full costume and make-up in homage to the legendary Georgian-era clown Joseph Grimaldi.

The clowns usually put on a show for the public after the service in the church hall. The Clowns’ Service used to take place at Holy Trinity, Dalston, and this church still contains a small clowning museum.

As well as photos, costumes, and props, the museum hosts the Clown Egg Registry. As no two clowns are allowed to have the same make-up, each clown must paint their unique pattern of make-up on to an egg, and the Registry is where these eggs are then deposited.

Perhaps the oddest ceremony linked to a London church is the beating the bounds ritual of All Hallows’-by-the-Tower.

Beating the bounds is a tradition carried out every few years, in which members of a church’s congregation walk around their parish boundaries and beat various landmarks with sticks, thereby making the borders of the parish clear in the popular mind and protecting them from encroachments by rival jurisdictions.

All Hallows’ is, however, faced with the problem that its boundaries extend over part of the Thames. An interesting solution has been developed that enables the parish to assert its watery frontiers.

Two boats — carrying the Lord Mayor of London, fur-clad beadles, liveried guild members, clergy, and journalists — set out on to the river.

These boats also carry pupils from St Dunstan’s College, a school formerly in the City of London but now located in Catford. At a certain point in the ceremony, a clergyman grasps the smallest boy aboard by the ankles and dangles him upside-down over the Thames.

The boy — armed with a bamboo stick — thrashes the water, forcefully reaffirming All Hallows’ dominion over that section of the river.

Although somewhat comical, such a ritual would have once been of enormous importance, as the Thames was England’s greatest thoroughfare of trade.

London’s Customs and Excise service, an institution in which Geoffrey Chaucer — author of The Canterbury Tales — worked as a bureaucrat was based in the parish of All Hallows’.


ANOTHER ceremony featuring an upside-down boy takes place on Rogation Monday in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. Clergy, choirboys, the town crier, and representatives of the Wilkes Trust parade along the high street from All Saints’ to the Wilkes Almshouses.

These almshouses were set up thanks to the generosity of the Wilkes family: the first ones were built by Edward Wilkes in the 17th century to honour his father, John. When the procession arrives outside the almshouses, a hymn is sung, a prayer is recited, and an extract from John Wilkes’s will is read out.

AlamyThe horn dance in Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire  

During this reading, one of the choirboys has to stand on his head. No one is sure of the reason for this requirement, but in recent decades a cushion has at least been provided for the inverted boy.

The ceremony’s participants later enjoy buns and ginger beer back at All Saints’. “Evidence” of a custom involving a choirboy can be seen in Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral contains what is widely thought to be a “boy bishop” statue.

In the Middle Ages, a tradition was common in England in which a boy — usually a cathedral chorister — was chosen to imitate a bishop. The boy bishop would be installed on 6 December — the feast of St Nicholas, the patron saint of children — and would step down on 28 December, Holy Innocents Day.

Although the specifics of the custom varied from place to place, the boy — sporting full bishop’s robes, along with a mitre and crozier, and attended by his friends dressed as priests — would make a tour of the city, bestowing blessings on the populace.

During his reign, the boy bishop would preach sermons and perform all the ceremonies and duties of a real bishop, apart from the mass, and he and his friends would take charge of the cathedral. The adult clergymen sometimes joined in this “role-reversal” by masquerading as choristers and altar boys. The boy-bishop custom, although controversial for its apparent mockery of the clergy, was popular, and it was not stamped out until the reign of Elizabeth I.

At Salisbury Cathedral, the tradition has been partially revived. In a service held on the Sunday closest to 6 December, a “boy bishop” preaches a sermon that he’s written himself, leads prayers, blesses the congregants, and even receives the collection.

Salisbury’s “boy bishop statue” adorns a tombstone in the nave. Popular legend claims — probably due to the tomb’s small size — that it marks the grave of a boy bishop who died in office. The monument may, however, indicate where the heart of the cathedral’s founder — the very-much-grown-up Bishop Richard Poore — is interred.


REMNANTS of a different custom that reflected notions of youth and innocence are displayed in several British churches. Maidens’ garlands — crown-shaped objects consisting of paper flowers, ribbons, and rosettes attached to a wooden frame — often featured in the funeral ceremonies of (usually female) virgins. The garlands were either carried before funeral processions or placed upon the virgins’ coffins.

Some garlands were decorated with white gloves — a symbol of purity — and these gloves were sometimes inscribed with poems or the names of the departed. After the funeral service, the garlands were hung up in the church, where they would stay, unless someone provided evidence that the deceased wasn’t as “unsullied” as had been assumed.

Maidens’ garlands were a common feature of funerals in the early modern period, and Shakespeare refers to the tradition in Hamlet when writing about Ophelia’s death: “She is allow’d her virgin crants, Her maiden strewments.”

Besides signifying purity, the garlands may have been a “substitute” for the flowers of a bride at a wedding. Although the garlands have now vanished from most churches, a substantial collection can still be seen in St Mary the Virgin, Abbotts Ann, Hampshire, while Holy Trinity, Minsterley, Shropshire, has seven.

The oldest-known surviving maiden’s garland — from 1680 — is in St Mary’s, Beverley, Yorkshire. An extremely late example from 1995 can be found in Holy Trinity, Ashford-in-the-Water, Derbyshire.

Some unusual artefacts are kept in St Nicholas’s, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire: six sets of reindeer antlers. These antlers are used in a peculiar custom — the Abbots Bromley horn dance — which takes place annually on Wakes Monday, in September. The heavy horns — three pairs of which are black, and three white — are borne on the shoulders of six male dancers who are accompanied by, among others, an accordionist, Maid Marian (who is a man dressed as a woman), a fool, and a hobby horse.

The day begins with a service of blessing in St Nicholas’s before the dance starts on the village green. The dancers then progress through the rural parts of the parish before re-entering the village and making a circuit of the houses and pubs. Probably owing the horns’ weight, the dance itself is quite simple, the dancers performing in a double column, sometimes following a serpentine pattern, with some clashing of the horns.

As the event draws to an end, the horns are brought back to the church, where an evening service is held. The first written record of the custom is from 1686, although it’s likely the dance dates back earlier. The horns have been radiocarbon-dated to about 1065, a time by which reindeer were almost certainly extinct in Britain, indicating that the horns were brought over from Scandinavia.

Various theories have been suggested for the dance’s origins: that it was imported by the Vikings, that it’s a remnant of pagan Anglo-Saxon culture, that it’s an echo of devotions to a Celtic horned god, or that it was an affirmation of the villagers’ hunting rights.

Although there is little direct evidence that the dance pre-dates the High Middle Ages, it’s possible the current antlers replaced sets of more ancient horns. With the exception of Wakes Monday, the antlers are displayed on a wall in St Nicholas’s throughout the year.


This is an edited extract from Church Curiosities: Strange objects and bizarre legends by David Castleton (Shire Publications, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78442-444-2).

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