A Shaftesbury Medieval Celebration Is Revived

An ancient Shaftesbury tradition has been reinstated. But the Byzant procession has been updated, to make it more relevant to today’s residents.

On Sunday 13th May, approximately 50 locals walked from The Commons down to Enmore Green, up to Castle Hill and back into the town centre. The group was following the historic route of the Byzant procession.

Our audio report was recorded during the walk.

Shaftesbury sits high on a promontory of Greensand and the town has no running water of its own. Springs were found at the foot of the hill, which was in a different manor. Shaftesbury had to reimburse Enmore Green for sharing its water supply. The ancient payment ceremony included a procession and a party for townspeople.

“Everybody had to dance down the hill for an hour before making the payment,” Janet Swiss explained. It was Janet who suggested re-starting this very old tradition.

“1364 is the first time this was documented but we think it is older than that,” said Elaine Barratt, Chair of Gold Hill Museum. “It was held on a Sunday until 1662 when it changed to the Monday before Ascension Day.

Janet Swiss

The event stopped in the nineteenth century because it was costing too much money,” Elaine added.

Janet explained that the payment was, “a gallon of beer, a calf’s head, seven silver pennies, leather gloves and two penny loaves.” That doesn’t seem too costly! Apparently, it was the partying afterwards that was the problem. “The town council had to pay for the lunch and dinner and yards and yards of ribbon,” Janet offered.

There’s uncertainty over the origin of the name of the ceremonial staff. The gold-coloured Byzant is decorated with feathers, flowers and silver and gold coins.

“It could named because the initial payment was a gold coin or ‘bezant’,” said Janet. Another of Janet’s theories is that the Byzant resembles a broom and the French word is similar.

Shaftesbury Mayor Piers Brown carried a replica Byzant at the head of the procession. “It’s about going back to where our community has come from,” said Piers. “Even today we don’t have a water supply in the town, our water comes from the hill under Compton Abbas Airfield. This reminds the town of what life used to be like.”

The revellers set off, accompanied by medieval music and a rhythmic drumbeat provided by musicians from Steps In Time. Many of the walkers wore medieval costume.

Shaftesbury Town Councillor John Lewer decided to back the reinstament of the Byzant event when he was Mayor last year. John dressed up for the occasion. “I was expecting to be myself as Mayor but I miscalculated the date of the event and the end of the municipal year. This outfit was provide by Gladrads of Semley,” John said.

The walkers stopped on seven occasions, representing each of the coins traditionally offered. Reverend Mary Ridgewell blessed the crowd with water and reflected on a different aspect of local life at each pause. On Tout Hill, near Byzant Court, Mary blessed the business community and workers, “whose daily job it is to bring commerce to and from our little town and to give it life”.

Mary felt the most significant stop was outside the War Memorial. “I am aware that our community is built on the sacrifice of others. We have welcomed in Syrian families who have come from unimaginable recent disaster and war. It warmed my heart to say we represent so many parts of the world which are built on the courage of others,” Mary explained.

Councillor Brown said it was “fantastic” that the turnout had exceeded expectations, and Janet Swiss expressed delight at such a successful re-launch. The 2018 event had not finished before organisers started suggesting how to improve the next Byzant procession.

“I’m hoping we can enact more of the action, rather than just processing around the places associated with it. That’s up to the new Mayor,” suggested John Lewer, adding, “It’s been a good outcome.”

So how would you make the 2019 Byzant event even better? We’d love to read your thoughts, email us at Hello@thisisalfred.com.