The pageant gardens at Sherborne
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Sherborne was a quiet and seemingly quite ordinary town and unremarkable to onlookers. However, its illustrious history was brought to light and celebrated in 1905 and has been remembered ever since.
Unbeknown to many, apart from fans of ‘The Last Kingdom’, Sherborne was the capital of the Kingdom of Wessex and King Alfred’s brothers Ethelbert and Ethelbald are buried in the Abbey, it’s home to a spectacular sixteenth century Tudor mansion built by Sir Walter Raleigh (now known as Sherborne Castle) and has the quixotic ruins of a twelfth century castle. Indeed, the town’s history is richer still and it was founded back in 705 AD by the Bishop of Aldhem and when Canon Mayo of Longburton informed the Church Council in 1904 that the 1200th anniversary of this significant occasion was approaching, it was decided that a local ecclesiastical celebration was in order.
One year later, most of Britain knew Sherborne, and towns and cities were clamoring to put on their own pageant…
Old Sherborne School master, Louis Napoleon Parker, who had become a renowned playwright in London jumped at the chance to tell the towns history. He drew inspiration from Shakespeare, Wagner, Schiller’s William Tell and Oberammergau and after some discussion about ‘only’ including 600 performers he upped the cast to 900. Parker was keen that the pageant was a classless operation. From laborer, to merchant to squire, all were involved, united by celebrating their town’s history and people assembled from across the country and further to see the spectacle.
The pageant was held in the ruins of the aforementioned castle, with eleven distinctive episodes, beginning with the coming of Ealdhelm in 705 through to a visit of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1593. Other parts included Viking invasions and battles in 845 and the nuisance of the Benedictine Order on drunk monks in 998, to the foundation of the castle itself and the receiving of the school charter in 1550. Local history was unified with the history of England and the event let Sherborne’s role be remembered in the shaping of the nation.
Over some days, thirty thousand people came to watch what The Western Gazette described as a ‘gorgeous and unparalleled spectacle!’
The present Pageant Gardens in the town are situated close to the railway and opposite Digby House. This two acre garden, with bandstand, was designed in 1905 by F.W. Mayer for Veitch and Son of Exeter. The land was donated by Colonel F. Wingfield Digby in memory of his father. The money raised at the ‘Mother of All Pageants’, a grand £1872 (over £200,000 today) contributed towards the landscaping.
Well worth a visit on a sunny afternoon and ideal for quiet contemplation this lovely garden is an oasis of calm.
(Reference: The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905-2016)