Extract from the Wakefield and West Riding Herald, 28th August 1886, Page 6 - with thanks to Peter Bearon.
The preservation of ancient traditions which have shown themselves to be of value is a part of the Primrose creed, so I propose this week to turn my back upon politics, strictly considered as such, and tell you something about a festival in which I have some part, and concerning which I have for the last fortnight learnt much that is highly interesting. Ripon is one of the oldest cities in the kingdom, tradition asserting that it received its first Charter from King Alfred, a thousand years ago. This much is no doubt familiar to you, so with a simple reference to the fact that the millenary festival is now at its height, I will refer to some circumstances in connection with it which are not very generally known. The one thing that struck me most on my recent visit to Ripon was the ancient custom of blowing the wakeman's horn at the market cross. I was sitting one evening with the master of the Revels (Mr. D'Arcy Ferris), discussing certain details of the play which I have written for outdoor performance at Fountains Abbey on the 27th and 28th of this month, when I heard a sound very much like a distant fog horn at sea. "Nine o'clock," said my companion "and there's the jolly old wakeman blowing his jolly old horn. Let us go and look at him." We went, and saw one of the most Conservative sights that ever greeted mortal eye. It was like stepping in front of an old picture. Darkness had come over the town, and the fine market square was almost desolate. The cross rose dimly [sic] into the air, its outlines made sharper by the lights of the street lamps, and there at its foot, seated on the wide ridge at the base of the cross, was a venerable citizen. His figure was bent under the weight of years, and he rested the large curved horn on his knees while he put the mouth piece to his lips and blew his third blast - not rapidly, not as if he was in a hurry to get the task over - but with leisurely deliberateness in full keeping with the duty. He looked like a Rip Van Winkle of a wakeman - he might indeed have been the identical original who over six centuries ago stood or sat there and blew three blasts on his horn that the whole town might know the watchman was at his post, and they might sleep in security. Of course the uses of this quaint custom have vanished many, many years since. There is no utility in the horn now, it is as obsolete as the man who blows it and he looks out of date, or as your true Radical would say. But there is something higher than mere utility in the custom. As this decrepit man sat there, performing a function which had a significant commentary in the presence, on the opposite pavement, of a policeman, I saw the whole civic history of the city pass before me in a panoramic flash. The days of St. Wilfrid, barbarous but brave; the slow growth of civilisation; the raids by the Scots; the long struggle for power by the Northmen and Southerners, and the establishment of this custom of blowing the wakeman's horn which survives in solitary antiquity among the wonders of steam, the penny press, and electricity. There is another ancient institution still lingering in the neighbourhood of Ripon, to which attention has been directed by the prominence given to the festival. This is the ancient Yorkshire sword dance, the only place at which it is yet practised, as far as is known, being the village of Kirby [sic] Malzeard, situate about six miles from the city in a north-westerly direction. Someone appears to have suggested that the sword dance would be a worthy feature to include in the revels at Fountains Abbey, and I had the pleasure of accompanying the master of the Revels, and the genial Town Clerk (Mr. M. Kirkley), to the afore-mentioned village last Saturday evening, for the purpose of witnes-ing [sic] the sword dance. I may say at once we were highly pleased with the spectacle, as will be the thousands who attend the revels at the end of this week in the splendid grounds of the Abbey. The sword dance, which now lingers in this primitive spot, "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife," is no doubt a relic of times even more remote than those in which blowing the wakeman's horn was instituted At any rate it must be as old. In witnessing it now one cannot but think that it had its origin in the days when wars and raids were common. The young men would then be called together, even in small villages and trained to the use of arms, and the sword was the principal weapon at close quarters when Ripon was in its infancy. A good incentive to skill in the use of the sword would be added to the institution of the dance, which calls for agility, quickness of eye and hand, as well as strength of muscle. But to describe what we saw. Entering the village, we drove to an old inn, and ascended to a small upper room, where already were assembled a number of the peasant lads who take part in the sword dance. They had for captain an agile old man, and were all provided with swords of an ancient pattern, without hand guards. The room was just such a one as would have be selected for secret practice in times of internal warfare, and but for modern costumes the scene might easily have been supposed to have been laid several hundred years ago, and the actors sturdy Saxons, as indeed some of them were. A clear floor space, whitewashed walls and ceiling, with candles of the "mutton fat" type burning feebly in tin sconces against the wall, an old Yorkshireman stolidly instructing his little band, and doing it with an earnestness that could have scarcely been a jot stronger if he had really expected Bruce and his army on the morrow, and was anxious to get his men thoroughly grounded in the use of their arms - all this was impressive and interesting to a degree. But the performance itself - that was, to say the least of it, extraordinary. It began with a chant, no doubt handed down for scores of generations from father to son, set to words certainly as old, the captain marched his band round the room. The burden of his song was scriptural. He spoke, or rather sang in the person of Samson, relating some of that champion's deeds of valour and how he was ultimately vanquished. In the course of his chant the captain introduced each of his men as having had a part in Samson's downfall. This shows that the origin of the performance was to incite the young warriors taking part in it to deeds of valour equal or superior to those of the scriptural hero. Beginning now with a little fencing, dancing to a simple two-four measure the while, and by degrees waxing more furious, the performers went through a dazzling exhibition of agility and skill. They clashed the blades from the front, under the arms, under the legs: jumped over swords one at a time and two at a time; they raced under an arbour of swords, struggled, fought, and finally interlaced the swords in the a form of a triangle which one of the combatants carried triumphantly round by the handle of his own sword, and then flung violently to the floor where they remained fast locked. Through all this the strange dance was kept up. It was truly an unique sight, and one I shall not readily forget.