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The customs which survive today appear as colourful playlets or print highland pageants, which have no apparent relevant to anything outside themselves. Each, print highland however, is the physical survival of a once vitally important corporate activity that either expressed the town’s sense of identity, or helped it to govern itself. Beating the bounds, for example – today a light hearted means of print highland passing an hour or so – was once the means of establishing in the minds of an illiterate citizenry the extent of the town’s jurisdiction. The Wareham Court Leet is an excellent example of an entire procedural system which has somehow survived, though all its externals are now directed towards entertainment. Court leets were those means whereby the lord of the manor regulated certain vital aspects of the town’s life, in particular relating to tithes and quality of food-stuffs. Every November the Court Leet continues to meet in the town of Wareham in Dorset. Its only real function is the letting of grazing rights on Wareham Common but thereafter the constable, bailiff, ale-taster and the rest of the Court sit in solemn judgement on the quality of the town’s ale and bread, and the cleanliness of its chimneys, invariably finding all wanting.
The symbolism that pervades the customs formed a vital role in a largely illiterate society. Superficially, the tussle between the Bishop of Norwich and the citizens of King’s Lynn as to whether or not he should be preceded by a horn wand seems puerile – until it is realized that it was a symbol of authority, as potent in itself as the wearing of a crown. The significance of much of the symbolism has today been lost, but the original impetus remains. At High Wycombe, almost entirely swamped in modern development, the incoming and outgoing mayors, and their wives if willing, are solemnly weighed by the Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures. The Beadle then announces the weights, comparing them with the weights registered the previous year. Why? As with all such customs origins are uncertain or distorted. The popular assumption in High Wycombe is that an outgoing mayor who has increased in weight is assumed to have grown fat through sloth. At Ripon, the new mayor has to be ‘hunted in’ to office – much as the Speaker of the House of Commons is expected to show reluctance to take up his onerous task: the Ripon ceremony is doubtless a survival of the custom of penalizing any alderman who declined to accept office. At Abingdon, the inhabitants of one particular locality, Ock Street, have their own private mayor-making ceremony in June. The Mayor of Ock Street is elected by ballot and invested with his own regalia, including the ‘Ock Street horns’. The custom supposedly began in the eighteenth century when, after an ox-roasting in the street, two groups of young men fought for the horns – but the custom bears so close a relationship to the Abbots Bromley Horn dance that its origins must go back centuries earlier.
The Hungerford Hocktide is an elaborate variant of the Wareham Court Leet. The Berkshire town possesses some 200 acres of common land, to which certain citizens have the rights of grazing and fishing. A version of ‘Hocktide’, ‘Tutti-day’, gives a clue to the significance of the day-long custom that has developed, for ‘tutti’ derives from ‘tithe’, the Hocktide ceremony evidently being related to the distribution of valuable rights of tenure. Other rites derived from the Church’s calendar, many of them taking place at or around Easter. The Pancake Bell is rung on Shrove Tuesday at midday at Scarborough to usher in a half-day’s strenuous activity, in which skipping predominates.