Records of Early English Drama: Civic London 1558-1642

The Midsummer Watch- an old tradition, revived

The Civic London team are on a break from the archives at the moment, owing to the COVID-19 outbreak. In the mean time, here’s some nuggets from our research in Livery Company archives about the Midsummer Watch, one of London’s oldest civic celebrations and a precursor to today’s Lord Mayor’s Show.

In fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century London, the central public festival of the year was the Midsummer Watch. The long daylight hours of late June were a time when the civic government feared disorder, and the Watch was originally a show of the city’s policing force with armed men marching in the streets. This evolved into an annual festival of street pageantry which reached its spectacular peak in the 1530s. While in London it was superseded by the Lord Mayor’s Show, the city of Chester kept its Watch until 1670, a tradition revived in the 1980s which you can see a photo of below.

Pageants from a modern Midsummer Watch held in the city of Chester. Photo credit: Calendar Customs.

The London Midsummer Watch was cancelled by Henry VIII in 1539 and revived, without pageantry, around a decade later. Our research project starts in 1558, well after the heyday of the Watch, but there were several stagings of the event in the late sixteenth century of which we can find evidence in the records.

In 1567, 1568 and 1571 the Brewers’ Company kept meticulous records of their expenses for the Watch which give an insight into the form the revived celebration took:

Charges Laid out on midsomer even the 23 date of July 1568

Paid for ix strawe hattes at vd the pece —- iiij s. ij d.
Paid for Lace to tye them —- v d.
Paid for xxvij stone of Lightes at vj d. the stone —- xiij s. vj d.
Paid to ix men vj of them cressettes bearers and 3 bag bearers at x d. paid the pece —- vij s. vj d.
Paid to goodman Lee for goinge With them that nyght to ouer see them —- xij d.
Paid for cariedge of the cressettes to master Rustes howse and bringinge them home —- iiij d.

Item Allowed them also to drinke that nyght amonge them all —- ij s.
Paid for viij newe staves for our cressettes and paintinge of them at viij d. the pece —- v s. iiij d.
Paid for ix badges of our Armes —- x d.
Paid for mendinge of our Cressettes —- xij d.
geven to the yeomanry for goinge to presse our Cressett bearers and other charges —- iij s. iiij d.

Brewer’s Company Court Minutes 1563-68. LMA, CLC/L/BF/B/001/MS05445/003, f 146v

These expenses show us that the Brewers, one of the City’s larger companies, were represented by 9 men to march in the Watch. All the men wore straw hats, tied with lace (perhaps like the one depicted below) and carried badges of the Company arms. 3 men were bag-bearers, although there is no indication of what might have been carried in their bags. 6 of the marchers were ‘cresset bearers’: cressets were a kind of torch and in fact the greatest expense was on 27 stone of these lights. The visual impact of all the London Companies’ cresset bearers marching through the streets must have been impressive, rather like the modern Bonfire Night procession in Lewes, Sussex depicted in the photo at the top of this blog. In 1571, the Brewers’ accounts show a payment ‘to the yeomanry and the bedell for theire paines beinge with them all nyghte’, suggesting the Watch continued for a long time and also that much of the organisation was left to the Company’s younger members (yeomanry) unlike the older and more senior livery who took a prominent role in the Lord Mayor’s Show.

A man wearing a straw hat, from a print titled ‘The Dentist’ by Balthazar van den Bos, c. 1528-80. Rijksmuseum.

It is interesting that in 1571, the Brewers actually spent similar sums on the ceremonial aspects of Lord Mayor’s Day (£1 19 s. 8 d.) and the Midsummer Watch (£1 17 s. 11 d.). What was different was that even by the 1550s the Lord Mayor’s Day had become a focus for the whole Company to celebrate, rather than just for them to sponsor a show in the streets and on the river. The Brewers spent a whopping £5 on a feast for the Company on the Lord Mayor’s Show day from at least 1558, while the provision of beer and bread was limited to the marchers at the Midsummer Watch. This is in keeping with a wider shift amongst the Livery Companies towards greater expenditure on socialising in their halls and in City taverns: feasts became more frequent in the later sixteenth century and started to be more exclusive, with some companies admitting only the senior livery to their Lord Mayor’s Day celebrations.

The Watch was held again in 1583, and expenses from the Armourers & Brasiers’ Company accounts suggest it was a very similar affair- they employed 12 marchers wearing straw hats, with 6 carrying canvas bags and 2 carrying cressets. This was the last outing of a medieval tradition, of which the most flamboyant aspects had already been transferred to the Lord Mayor’s Show.

Header image: Torchlit procession at the Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations. Photo © Lauren Keith / Lonely Planet.

3 thoughts on “The Midsummer Watch- an old tradition, revived

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