Chester’s Midsummer Watch is one of Britain’s oldest festivals – a tradition reflecting 500 years of the city’s history. We depend upon the continued support and involvement of local people to keep this exciting Parade alive, as a major mid-summer spectacle.
In Medieval and Tudor times, Chester’s magnificent Midsummer Watch Parade was renowned throughout the country. First held during the mayoralty of Richard Goodman in 1498, it was organised by the City Guilds and took place in the years when the famous Chester Mystery Plays (external link) were not performed. The outstanding features of the show were the Giants – enormous structures made of buckram and pasteboard and carried by two or more men. Giants were a common feature of Tudor pageantry in England and Europe, but Chester was unique in that the city paraded a whole family of Giants – the Father, the Mother and two Daughters. There were also fantastic giant Beasts including the Unicorn, the Elephant, the Camel and the Dragon. Originally the Dragon was beaten by six naked boys, but this practice was banned in the late 16th century.
The Giants were accompanied by hobby horses, musicians, guildsmen, fools, children in costume – angels, goblins and green men. There were enormous moving floats called the “Mounts”; the most famous, the Merchants Mount, was in the form of a ship – a reminder that in those days, Chester was an important port. The whole procession was headed by a small boy, chosen each year, and the “Ancient” city drum. The Midsummer Watch Parade survived much longer than the now world-famous Mystery Plays, which were banned in 1575 and not revived until recent times. In 1599, Mayor Henry Hardware prohibited the Parade and ordered the Giants to be broken up. However, so popular was the show that it was revived the next year and continued until the 1670s.
The Midsummer Watch Giants
A Brief History by Dave Roberts the Chester Giant Master The Catalyst for the Return
One day in 1987, when I lived near the canal basin in Chester, I saw some people dismantling a giant in South View Road. I asked them about it and they told me they were from Huddersfield and that their giant was called Nathandrial. One of the party, Lee Gilbert had recently completed her dissertation on the subject of “Medieval Dancing Giants”. This included a quote from the Morris History of Chester about the Chester “family of giants” and the other effigies that made up the Chester Midsummer Show or Watch.
I decided to conduct further research into the subject and I discovered that the records show that Henry Hardware, a Puritan Mayor of Chester had everything broken up because the Midsummer Watch was an ungodly gathering that encouraged people to have a good time and behave badly. His successor as mayor had everything rebuilt and the record of the expenses is all that we have.
There is no contemporary description of the giants or the original parade but everything that was spent was recorded in detail. There was also a letter to local business people asking them for contributions to “equalise the cost”. (Harlean manuscript from the British Museum) The only reason that we know the sex of the members of the family of giants is because it is recorded that a woman gave three old sheets to make hoods for the wife of the giant and their two daughters.
The city of Salisbury boasts a single giant, it can be seen in the museum there, the head is original but the body has been remade. Sadly the body has been shortened to fit the space which makes him look squat. The design is different from the giants that continue to be made abroad in that it is a cone shape rather than a tall four-legged structure.
The Chester Pageant in 1910 included “Medieval Revels” and giants and other structures were built for this event, the photographs of the giants appear to show that their bodies were based on a cone shape. Image from the Chester Image Bank (external link)
Re-building and Re-Birth
In 1988 I decided to try to build a giant using the technology that was available during the 17th century. The need to pass through the archway into the Abbey Green, which was part of the route in the medieval period, determined how high the male giant could be. The list of materials and payments for work done recorded in the Guild records gave some clues as to how the giants may have been constructed. A blacksmith was paid to make four hoops and the heads were made of pasteboard and trimmed with buckram. I decided that it was reasonable to assume that the shoulders could be based on a coracle frame as there were coracles on the river Dee at the time. Further research –Extracts from The Book of Days A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities 1863.
This first giant was taken for a walk through the streets of Chester at midsummer 1989. A second giant was made at Lache Junior School, a unicorn at Lache Adventure Playground and a Dragon at NACRO New Careers Training in 1990. The parade at midsummer that year was the first for over 300 years.
The following year another female giant was made at Lache Junior School, this had an Elizabethan shape with a narrow waist, and was included in the parade that year but it proved to be weak in the middle and a new cone shaped body was made in time for the next year.
In 1992 Lache Adventure Playground rebuilt the unicorn which was damaged and Blacon Adventure Playground built an elephant and castle. The first giant appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at this time.
In 1993 a camel was built at Blacon Adventure Playground after a workshop with two schools at Chester Zoo using a real camel as a model. The Giant was part of an International Festival of Historic Interpretation in Bradford during the year. The groups that worked on building the giants also joined in the parade each year. A child beating a drum led the parade and each group carried a placard to identify itself.
In 1994 Adrian Sumner funded improvements to the structures and a new elephant and castle was built at Blacon prior to joining a Christmas event that became the Winter Watch.
In 1995 two new giants were made and one which was damaged beyond repair was scrapped. Leisure Services funded the building of a pike, a ship and a range of costumes. The original intention was to recreate the Midsummer Watch in its entirety by 1998 to mark the 500th anniversary. It is now firmly re-established with ongoing support from The Council.
The Midsummer Watch Parade
Pageantry on such a grand scale, for the entertainment of the citizens of the city, was unique in Chester and must have been the most exciting event in people’s lives at that time.
The beating of the great drum would announce the coming of the structures, followed by hobby horses, Morris dancers and musicians of every kind.
Each structure was preceded by a child on horseback, dressed in the finest clothes and followed by each of the Guilds in turn, the members walked in the costumes that they would wear in the performance of Mystery Plays written specifically for each Guild and representing in some way the trade or craft practised by the members of the Guild.
Ancient records stored in the British Library, describe how sixteen tenants of the city were bound to watch the city for three nights each year, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day because these were the days when festivals were going on and disorder could threaten the peace.
The Midsummer Show and the Watch that was intended to control the revellers became merged as they both became the responsibility and financial burden of the Guilds.
The Guild records show that these duties were taken seriously and every item of spending that contributed to the spectacular pageant was meticulously recorded, every contribution and date was noted, which is why we know that the earliest record of these events was the year 1498 and that the show continued, with occasional disruption, until the 1660’s when it seemed Puritanism triumphed.
There were other similar pageant structures elsewhere but there was nothing to compare with the lost spectacular that was the Chester Midsummer Show. The tradition of building giants abroad has survived into the present day and examples can be found in Spain, Belgium and Mexico.
The Parade Developments
The Parade introduced more new characters, the Elephant was re-built, standing over 13ft complete with castle and cupid firing arrows, a new Camel also joined the parade. The popular Dragon was joined by a swarm of small dragons, we also had small Unicorns.
The Parade saw the family of Giants back in the country after their first ever trip outside the UK (they joined the Mulberry Street Players in Sens, France in April taking part in the Foire Regionale de Sens.) New characters included a ‘hobby horse’ baby dragon, a small lifeboat and a 3 metre Blue Coat Boy.
The Parade added a giant Raven to the cast of characters, in recognition of the birds that nested in Chester’s Town Hall in 1996, the first time these huge birds had nested on a building in England since the 15th century, ensuring their place in ornithological history.
The ravens have nested on Chester Cathedral since 1997 raising 4-5 young every year (the famous ravens at the Tower of London are bred in captivity, have their wings clipped and cannot be classed as wild). Ravens have an established place in world folklore from Norse mythology, German and Native American.
New characters included the Tree of Life and Noah’s Ark plus Pike men, a new dragon and a replacement Hellmouth. For the first time the parade coincided with the return of the Chester Mystery Plays.
We welcomed a new dragon and St George to the parade
This year saw the addition of a white stag, Tattenhall Park Primary School brought a group of pirates to the parade and for the first time St Werburgh was invited to join the parade from Chester Cathedral’s West door. The parade also welcomed Gavin amd Irene, Dee 106.3 radio DJ’s who led the Angels and Fiery monsters. This parade was the last to be designed by Mary Lewery who had worked on the parade for 10 years.
The Parade was dedicated to St Werburgh and was the finale for the St Werburgh festival. A new Black Dragon was born this year, with smoke billowing from its nose.
The parade welcomed Romans and gauls, a new ‘hobby horse’ dragon a re-built Camel. The parade welcomed the largest number of schools and battled through rain (Saturday) and high winds (Sunday). The finale was dropped due to the lack of space on the Town Hall Square.
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first giants being built. The Parade welcomed over 20 guest giants including Nathandrial. The New Luce, a huge articulated fish was built, Hellmouth was re-built and more schools than previous parades joined in. The Raven was rebuilt with articulated wings, arms were replaced for the Large Angel, a new head and antlers for the Stag and for the first time we had a school class of elephant
Probably the largest crowds the parade has seen so far with an estimated 150,000 people in Chester this weekend. Joined by 50 guest giants, international Town Criers (in the city for an international competition) and Chester’s Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress aboard a new Chariot pulled by Roman soldiers. A new Raven, Unicorn and Tree of Life plus the re-furbished Chester Giants. The parade also welcomed new suns and hobby horses. The parade was featured on Granada evening news, footage was seen on television channels in the USA, Germany and the Netherlands.
The Midsummer Watch Parade joined the Chestival Programme for the second year. With busking, Vaudeville performances and a mini version of the Mystery Plays all happening on the same day the city of Chester was positively buzzing. Rain in the morning cleared leaving both days dry. The highlight of the parade was the pirate dance finale and entry of the Dragon, Saturday saw the Dragon slain by the Pirate, Sunday he was slain by the Dragon needing help from two small pirates to see off the creature.
Large Green Men joined the parade that continues to grow from year to year and struggles to fit on the Town Hall Square for the finale that saw the Pirate slain by the dragon who in turn was no match for the young pirates who defeated him. Sunday the parade had an extra dimension when two Capoeira dancers joined the front of the parade with spectacular flips and kicks.
The parades were joined by new giant characters from Carlisle following workshops with Russell. Further collaborations for the Winter Watch and the 2014 tour.
New character Cernunnos arrived as the Stag Lord, commissioned by Chester Festival of Trees. The other new character was Balaam’s Ass, a great hit with the children. We fitted a camera to the Elephant this year so you can see what he (and the Cupid) saw in this year’s video.