Appendix 7

The York Historic Pageant – the Roman Bits

The 1909 Pageant was a dramatisation of York’s history in seven episodes from 800 BC to AD 1644. With a cast of 2,500, the truly epic production involved 800 costume designs by forty different artists. Some 2,000 tracings were made and coloured – all based on information supplied by such authorities as the British Museum, Magdalen College, Oxford and Ampleforth College; the chorus comprised 220 singers; numerous horses also took to the stage. Total receipts over the seven performances were £14,439 18s 9d; profit was £762 9s 7d, which went to charities.

In their early days, the world-famous Mystery Plays had been bowdlerised (with scenes involving the Virgin Mary cut) and then completely suppressed in 1569; it was not until 1909 when this pageant, a spectacular revival of sorts, Mystery Plays-lite, took place, performed in and around the Museum Gardens. It included chapters from the history of York, including, of course, the Roman period, and a parade of the banners of the York Guilds through the streets, accompanying a wagon representing the Nativity. Later that year, a selection of six plays was performed as a fundraising venture for St Olave’s Church. The Pageant was never intended as a religious ceremony although it inevitably included religious episodes: these are inextricably wound up in any ‘dramatic representation of the evolution of the old northern capital of Britain.’ The conversion of Constantine is naturally in there.

The author was Louis Napoleon Parker, the father of modern historical pageantry; he had decided to bring the curtain down on his career as a pageant master in 1909 with his swansong as a director of this large-scale pageant at York.

Parker was at pains to show that York had an illustrious history reaching back into the mists of time; a city contemporary with Jerusalem no less and more ancient even than ancient Rome. Accordingly, his Episode I begins not with imperial Roman York but with a legend that a band of wandering Trojans had in fact founded York after their own city, Troy, had been comprehensively sacked by Agamemnon’s perfidious Greeks. Parker was thus able to trace the English bloodline back beyond the Romans. He had little time for the Romans though: ‘the Romans by his way of thinking had attempted to displace a culture that was assertively British and proud of it.’ The Romans inevitably make their appearance, but Parker ends the episode not with anything remotely like the grandeur that was Rome but with the nascent rise of Christianity in the shape of the emperor Constantine.

Here is a summary of Episode II which covers the Roman period; it is abridged, with permission, from

Episode II: Altera Roma

Scene I. AD 53

The scene ‘deals with the treachery of Queen Cartismandua [Cartimandua], the betrayal of Caradoc [Caratacus], and the compact between Cartismandua and the Roman – Ostorius Scapula.’ It begins with Cartismandua seated on the throne; she receives homage from several princes but Venusius refuses to bow to her. The queen attempts to persuade the attendant crowds that they must throw in their lot with Rome, but Venusius calls for war and the crowds support him. Boduoc takes the queen’s side; a fight takes place between him and Venusius in which the latter triumphs, thus strengthening his cause. Caradoc then arrives exhausted from battle with the Romans; he is greeted cordially by the queen ... . The Romans then appear led by Scapula. The queen allows Caradoc to be taken prisoner by the Romans; Caradoc wakes to find himself in shackles. A druid priest – Abaris – challenges the queen but she does not yield. Venusius threatens to overthrow her and declare himself overlord; but Cartismandua counters this by stating she will take his sisters (Aska and Ailaedia) as hostages. Abaris detains Venusius stating that he must stay his wrath meantime.

Scene II. AD 78–89

The Britons discuss the imminent arrival of Agricola and the IXth Legion; they flee to their altar as the Romans appear. The Romans are weary from battle and decide to set camp at the village; Agricola orders his officer Amicus to barter with the natives for food. Amicus returns and states the natives are friendly. Agricola asks to speak with their representative. Bran comes forward and Agricola asks the name of their village: Bran states that it has no name. Agricola insists on knowing ... . Agricola takes advice and determines the place will henceforth be called Eboracum. The natives accept this reluctantly.

Scene III. AD 117–120

Members of the IXth Legion bemoan being stationed in Britain; they are homesick for Rome. The VIth Legion arrives. The leaders of the VIth are surprised by the primitive camp which has no baths. A trumpet sounds and Adrianus [Hadrian] enters accompanied by soldiers, nobles and ladies. The ‘natives’ stare on the scene with awe. Adrianus orders the building of forts, great walls and towers – including ‘A tower facing many ways, that whencever the barbarians come, you may hurl arrows at them’ [the Multangular Tower]. He calls for priests and orders that altars are built to the Roman gods, but also to Egyptian and Persian deities. He enquires about local gods and is told there are many; further altars are ordered. Adrianus goes on to dictate that comforts such as baths and a theatre must be provided. Adrianus and his men depart leaving the court behind. One member of the IXth orders the Britons to begin building and refers to them as slaves. The Britons are angry and the Roman ladies become afraid. The ladies are then persuaded to perform a Roman dance; this closes the scene.

Scene IV. AD 206

The emperor Septimius Severus arrives leaning on Papinianus; his sons Geta and Caracalla follow. Septimius states he wishes to make progress with the history of his life that he has been writing, but ill health impedes this. He comments on his sons stating, ‘Geta is gentle ... . But Caracalla is a wolf!’ Septimius begins to write as Papinianus retires. Geta then leaves to watch some games in which the soldiers are engaged, and is greeted heartily by all. Caracalla remains with his father and is resentful that the soldiers hold Geta in such affection; he is eager to be emperor. Caracalla steals up behind his father and makes to strike him with his sword, but Septimius is alert to this move and grabs his wrist. Caracalla tries to make light of his actions but his father calls for Papinianus and tells him that his son has tried to kill him. Septimius, distressed, takes out a phial of poison but is prevented from swallowing its contents by Papinianus. He then announces that he will travel on to the north and leave government in the hands of his sons. The soldiers show favouritism towards Geta and Caracalla’s jealousy is given full vent when he attempts to destroy a statue of his brother. Septimius returns and it is announced that he is dying; Geta runs to be with his father who bids him perform the last rites (to close his eyes and place a coin in his mouth) before he dies. Geta does this and prepares for his father’s funeral, but Caracalla and his allies leave immediately for Rome. The scene ends with the funeral procession.

Scene V. AD 294

Women are chatting excitedly at the riverside; they are first to see the arrival of Carausius by ship. They call out ‘Woe! Woe! The Pirate!’ Britons and Romans respond and rush to arms but are easily overpowered by Carausius and his men, including his associate Alectus. Carausius declares that ‘Rome grows weak. She is tottering to her fall. Wherefore here and now, I seize the sovereignty.’ Carausius is hailed as emperor. Alectus demands his reward and is dismissed contemptuously by Carausius. Alectus responds by stabbing Carausius and declaring himself emperor. A messenger enters stating that Constantius Chlorus is on his way. Alectus and the soldiers depart. The Britons discuss the situation; it is of no interest to them who rules from Rome. A messenger returns from the battle stating that both Alectus and Constantius Chlorus are dead. The new ruler is Constantius’ son – Constantinus – whose mother [Helena] was a Briton. The Britons are surprised and happy that they will now be ruled by one of their own kind. The scene ends with the arrival of Constantinus.

Scene VI. AD 306

Constantinus enters in pomp, accompanied by a large company of attendants including senators and magistrates, nobles, ladies, dancers, and also some captives in chains. The procession approaches an altar where priests wait. Constantinus calls for thanks to be given for the recent victory; a ‘Hymn to Apollo’ is sung. Then a ‘lowly and humble’ procession approaches; in this are the bishop Eborius and two attendants—they chant the 23rd Psalm. A Roman priest calls for the Christians to be slain but Constantinus forbids this and asks to hear more about the ‘God of Love’ from Eborius. All then exit. A chorus is sung which rejoices in the arrival of Christianity to Britain.

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