Bury festivals

From International Robin Hood Bibliography
Locality Bury
Vicinity The Wylde, Bury; 14 km N of Manchester
Coordinate 53.593949, -2.297756
Adm. div. Lancashire
Began ?
Ended After 1776
Events Annual Robin Hood festival with young men dressed as Robin Hood and his men, wildmen etc.

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The Wylde, Bury.
Shaw’s Farm in The Wylde (now The Princes Club), Bury, 1813. Painting by James 'Clock' Shaw (1902) / Bury Art Museum, from BBC – Your Paintings.

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2014-10-16. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2021-01-07.


The crowning sport of the year was [...] that held in commemoration of Robin Hood; though after 1776 this festival declined from the importance it had heretofore held. It was not, as such exhibitions are at present, in connection with a society or order, but solely for the free pleasure of the people, and apparently one of the last, except the rushbearings, of those out-of-door pageants, formerly so much delighted in by the people of England. Twenty, thirty, and sometimes more, if they could obtain accoutrements, of the handsomest and comeliest young men of Bury would be "disguised," as it was always termed, as foresters, woodmen, &c.. [sic] and a smaller number of sylvans, or other wild-looking objects. They were disguised, and some of them were most effectually so, by the strange, uncouth attire in which they were invested, and the frightful "vizards" worn over their faces. Robin Hood's band was made as complete as possible, and many of the actors were from year to year known and distinguished by the names of the persons they represented. Little John was invariably a personage of high importance, both from his high stature,—the most gigantic youth of the neighbourhood being always selected—and the dignity he assumed in marshalling the forces. The habiliments of those who personated "wild men" were the most odd-looking and grotesque that could be conceived. It was not from book learning the idea of their dresses was ever suggested, but [p. 12:] observance in such matters of the traditions regarding them, handed down from father to son from time immemorial. In one part of the "show" the young men were on horseback, and flowers and beautiful blossoming branches were carried in their hands; and the Wylde, which was, more especially, the head-quarters of the "outlaws," was made, by spoils from the woods and the gardens around, to ressemble as near as possible, their greenwood home. These kind of sports faded away before the approach of trades and regular unremitting employment, for they were incompatible with it.[1]

IRHB comments

This is an intriguing account of an 18th century Robin Hood festival from a part of England from which little evidence survives of similar festivals during the late Medieval to early modern period. One would have liked to know how far back this festival tradition went. Barton's "from time immemorial" should not be accepted without any supporting evidence, and it is unfortunate that he does not cite any sources for his account. It is clear from his preface to the book that it was based on information gleaned from local sources, written as well as oral. He acknowledges having made "a few extracts" from "a series of chapters upon the early history of Bury" recently published in Bury Times.[2] Perhaps something can be found there.

Barton also does not tell us what time of the year the Robin Hood festival took place. Some time in May would be a good guess, but Robin Hood celebrations, and May games for that matter, were by no means exclusively connected with that month. The passage on the festival is preceded by accounts of a November 5 bonfire and Oak Apple Day (May 29, Restoration Day) celebrations, so it was evidently an event distinct from these. It does not help us to know that on "one of these occasions the good folks of Bury had to go without their customary supply of home-brewed ale, for, amid the frost of nine weeks' duration, nearly all the ale in the town was frozen in the barrels",[3] for we do not know over which festival this calamity cast its dark shadow. Farrer notes in the VCH (1911) that in Bury "[f]airs are held on 5 March, 3 May, and 18 September. The wakes begin on the Saturday after August Bank Holiday."[4] If we choose to believe the Robin Hood fesival took place in connection with one of these, May 3 would seem the likeliest date.

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