Street Pageants and Street Theatre

Long before the first permanent theatre opened in London in 1567, residents of the city were already familiar with theatrical performances.  In contrast to the situation in many provincial towns, where performances of mystery plays took place during religious holidays, London's theatrical pageants were chiefly associated with royal and civic rituals. They were usually allegorical in character, acting out the virtues of good governance in symbolic form, and were often enriched by ornate props and sumptuous costumes.  They were not plays, in the sense of dramatic events with plot lines that gradually unfolded before an audience, but symbolic spectacles that attempted to express the moral and religious values underlying the political order through short speeches, gestures and visual representations.         

By the early seventeenth century the most elaborate public rituals involving theatrical elements were royal weddings, funerals and the formal entries that took place shortly after a new ruler's coronation.  Funerals never included pageants but did invariably include such visual features as feature an effigy of the deceased king carried atop his coffin and a huge procession of mourners in black robes, who carried heraldic banners and other insignia.  Westminster Abbey, where the funeral service was normally held, was also draped in black cloth.  Weddings were naturally more joyous events, which sometimes did include theatrical performances, along with tournaments and other public spectacles, like the fire works displays and mock ship combat on the Thames staged when James I's daughter Elizabeth married the Elector Palatine in 1613.  But it was the royal entry that above all provided an occasion for theatrical pageants.  Its central feature was a massive procession by the court and nobility that began at the Tower of London and proceeded through the City along a prescribed route, past St Paul's Cathedral, down Fleet Street and finally along the Strand to Westminster.  The monarch rode beneath an expensive canopy -- symbolizing of both sanctity and magnificence -- escorted by hundreds of members of his household, royal officials and peers, whose order of march, also prescribed by ancient tradition, represented the great hierarchical community of household servants and tenants-in-chief who served the King.  Even defunct offices and feudal vassals who had long since broken away from the English Crown, like the Duke of Normandy, found their places in these processions, through courtiers appointed as stand-ins for the day.  Members of the court received scarlet cloth with which to make costumes but noblemen and their wives had to spend their own money on especially opulent clothes and jewels that might cost the equivalent of a year's income or more.  The Lord Mayor and Aldermen, wearing their own scarlet ceremonial robes, met the King along his route, presenting him with a gift and the Mayor's mace, to acknowledge the Corporation's homage to royal authority.   The City's gilds mustered in their liveries in stands along one side of the route, each with its own heraldic banner over head, while large crowds gathered on the other side of the street and behind the windows of houses along the streets through which the procession moved.  In the seventeenth century window space was rented out to people who wanted a good view of the magnificent spectacle. Householders draped their best tapestries beneath these windows, to give the street the appearance of a great gallery in a palace.  Clanging churchbells punctuated by artillery salutes and loud shouts of houts of "God save your Majesty" added to the festive atmosphere, as did a supply of free wine, piped through the City's water conduits, added to the festive atmosphere.   

The procession itself therefore enacted hierarchical relationships of power, authority and loyalty connecting the King to his court and nobility and to the civic Corporation.  But in addition, from the the Middle Ages onward, the civic authorities also erected stages along the procession's route, on which allegorical pageants were performed.  After the Reformation these pageants sometimes began to take on a Protestant coloration.  In 1559, for example, actors in one pageant presented Elizabeth with a bible, which she joyfully received and kissed as a sign of her commitment to the Gospel.  For James I's pageant in 1604, London adopted for the first time the Continental European practice of erecting Roman-style triumphal arches as pageant stages.  The pageants themselves also became steeped in classical mythological symbolism and featured longer speeches, written by the professional playwrights Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton. Charles I canceled his coronation entry in 1625 but Charles II's elaborate entry in 1662 gave rise to the first true pageant book in England, written and organized by the humanist scholar John Ogilby.  It featured beautifully engraved plates of the arches and an extensive learned commentary, presenting the entry as an integrated theatrical program steeped in classical symbolism.  It seems unlikely that many spectators would have experienced the event  in that way, however, given the difficulty of seeing and hearing the pageants clearly amidst the noise and confusion of the crowd.  Particularly full descriptions in the diaries of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys capture something of the excitement and confusion of the actual entry as viewed from the perspective of someone in the streets.   

Although royal entries were comparatively rare events, somewhat similar theatrical processional rituals occurred annually, at the inauguration of each new Lord Mayor.  Although the court and nobility did not participate, mayoral processions remained opulent events, with banners, streamers and scores of marchers.  "Search all chronicles, histories, records in what language or letter soever," one author boasted: "there is no subject upon earth received into the place of government with the like state and magnifricence as is the Lord Mayor of the City of London." (1)  In the seventeenth century the incoming mayor's gild normally sponsored pageants similar to those of royal entries, celebrating its own craft traditions and values associated with civic life.  These were often written by professional playwrights and published afterwards, although sadly without illustrations, leaving us with much fuller records of the pageant texts than of the settings in which they took place.

Visits by foreign dignitaries and movements by the King and his court into and out of London might also turn into public spectacles, with processions of coaches rumbling through the City's streets or brightly decorated barges moving along the Thames.  Comparatively rare visits by foreign royalty, like that of Charles I's mother-in-law Marie de' Medici in 1639, also gave rise to royal entries, although usually without pageants.  Not surprisingly, the arrival of Charles II in 1660 touched off a number of public celebrations and rituals, even before his formal entry.  These included the public execution by hanging, drawing and quartering of eleven regicides in the autumn of 1660 and the macabre exhumation and hanging of the corpse of Oliver Cromwell.       

Londoners also enjoyed less spectacular forms of outdoor theatre, such as puppet shows performed during during outdoor fairs.  Ben Jonson included a puppet show in his satiric depiction of Bartholmew Fair (1614), while William Hogarth's engraving of Southwark Fair in the mid-eighteenth century depicts puppets (upper right) along with several other theatrical entertainments, such as a play about the Trojan War. Executions and punishments like the whipping and stocking of people convicted of lesser offenses also had a theatrical dimension, involving small processions watched by scores of spectators, who expressed their sentiments by jeering or encouraging the victims.  Crowd celebrations and protests sometimes also took on quasi-theatrical features. Londoners possessed a repertoire of symbolic acts of celebration and mourning: for example the ringing of church bells in commemoration of anniversaries and deaths and the illumination of bonfires to mark happy or triumphant occasions, such as the birth of an heir to the throne or a military victory.  By using or not using these gestures Londoners made pointed statements about their political views.  When Prince Charles returned from Spain without his Habsburg bride in 1623, crowds spontaneously lit numerous bonfires, even appropriating the contents of passing carts to provide fuel.  A few years later they expressed their disenchantment with Charles by ringing church bells in commemoration of the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession and then ignoring his birthday a few days later. As the unpopular rule of the Army collapsed in early 1660 London crowds again celebrated with bonfires, over which they roasted rumps of animals in derisive tribute to the Rump Parliament. The pope burning processions of the 1670s and Exclusion Crisis continued the association of crowd rituals with fire but added novel elements, especially costly effigies of popes and other Catholics.  Bonfires again played a role during celebrations of the Glorious Revolution, when crowds stripped several Catholic chapels of their combustible furnishings to make fires and the Sacheverell Riots, when dissenting meeting houses suffered a similar fate.  On all these occasions men moving through the streets risked being stopped and asked to buy drink for toasts to the hero of the moment. 

In addition to fully staged plays in the public theatres, which also sometimes had strong political overtones, political and religious views were therefore enacted and displayed through a wide variety of gestures and representational forms that had become familiar parts of urban life.



1.  Thomas Middleton, The Triumph of Truth

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