The Rotten Ridiculous Robe

Portrait of the Reverend Peter Smart, by Wenceslaus Hollar, via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of the Reverend Peter Smart, by Wenceslaus Hollar, via Wikimedia Commons.

We’re counting down an ‘advent’ calendar of highlights from the exhibition Plays, Processions and Parchment: Discovering Festive Traditions in the North East of England, which launches on 19th April. This exhibition celebrates some of the forgotten folk traditions, religious rituals, performance history, and plays from the region.

Don your robes at number eight of our countdown. Many of the North East’s traditional customs and celebrations derived from Catholicism, and so came to an end with the Protestant Reformation. However, North Easterners seem to have persisted in enjoying some festivities long after time was officially called. Some things never change, perhaps! 

As late as the 1630s Protestants such as the Reverend Peter Smart were grumbling that the people of Durham were still participating in some of the earlier traditions. He mentions “an old, rotten ridiculous robe used by the boys and wenches of Durham above 40 yeares in theyr sports and May-games.”

Far from being a mouldy costume, this was actually a clerical vestment that belonged to Durham Cathedral, which had been used as a traditional part of worship since the fifteenth century. Its embroidered images and decoration were anathema to Protestant tastes such as those of Peter Smart. You will find images of one as part of the exhibition. You can also discover how centuries of North East customs and plays were brought to an end by the time of the English Civil War.

Plays, Processions and Parchment runs from 19th April to 22nd May in the Chapel of Nine Altars, Durham Cathedral. Entry is free. Visit the website for more details, and to see the accompanying programme of weekly talks. The exhibition is curated by Records of Early English Drama North East


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