Pageant of English Literature, 1911

Pageant type

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Place: The Assembly Room in the Oxford Town Hall (Oxford) (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England)

Year: 1911

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 10


23–27 October 1911

23, 24, 25, 26, 27 October 1911 at 3pm and 8pm.

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Pageant Master: Swann, Emma
  • Arranged by: Emma Swann and Eva Whitmarsh
  • Morris Dancing: Miss Daking
  • Stage Manager: Mr Geoffrey Alington
  • Introducer: T.H. Warren, Master of Magdalen College and Professor of Poetry

Names of executive committee or equivalent


Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Warren, T. Herbert
  • Poynter, Miss
  • Plowman, Miss
  • Coulson, Miss
  • Furniss, Mrs Sanderson
  • Oman, Charles
  • Swann, Emma
  • Alington, Geoffrey


  • Episode I: T. Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen and Professor of Poetry
  • Episode II: Miss Poynter and Miss Plowman
  • Episode III: Miss Coulson
  • Episode IV: Arranged by Mrs Sanderson Furniss
  • Episode V: Professor Oman, FSA
  • Episode VI: Miss Poynter and Miss Swann
  • Episode VII: Miss Poynter
  • Episode VIII: Arranged by Geoffrey Alington
  • Episode IX: Arranged by Professor Oman, FSA
  • Episode X: Miss Poynter
  • Introductions to Episodes by Emma Swann

Names of composers


Numbers of performers


30 men, 48 women

Financial information

Object of any funds raised


Linked occasion

In connection with the Home Industries Exhibition, which ran in the Town Hall concurrently. The exhibition covered the cotton industry, the Staffordshire coal and iron industries, Fleetwood fisheries, Cheshire, shipbuilding.

Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a


This was in the Oxford assembly rooms, with raised seating at the back of the hall.

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


  • Reserved seats: 4s. and 3s.
  • Unreserved seats: 2s. and 1s.
  • Reduced tickets for schools and parties by arrangement.

Associated events

In connection with the Home Industries Exhibition, held in Oxford Town Hall.

Pageant outline

Part I

Episode I. Caedmon’s Ode

This is the story of Caedmon, our first English poet. Caedmon was a lay brother at Whitby, who was invited to sing with pagan friends with a harp. Refusing to sing, except for honouring God, Caedmon slept and was told by God in a dream to sing and write poetry. His Abbess Hilda gave him permission to write ‘songs and verses so winsome to hear that his teachers themselves wrote and learned from his mouth.’ The episode mainly features T. Herbert Warren’s poem retelling the events in the style of Caedmon: e.g., ‘Me Caedmon the herdman/Me my feres friendly/For feasting forward/To the board bade/Harp thou in hand have!’

Episode II. Alfred the Great

Alfred was the first of our kings who greatly encouraged the study of literature. He invited learned men to his Court, founded schools, and inspired scholars by his own example. This is an account of his mother, Osberga, promising a beautifully illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript to whichever of her sons was first able to read it. The elder sons are too ‘much addicted to the pleasures of the chase to spend their time in learning’ but Alfred studies hard and claims the prize. A wise woman predicts Alfred shall be the greatest among his siblings.

Episode III. The Bayeux Tapestry

The programme notes read: ‘There are only three female figures in the Tapestry’ who all wear Anglo-Saxon, not Norman, dress. Queen Matilda (wife of William the Conqueror, who may or may not be the tapestries’ commissioner) remarks to her maids in front of Bishop Odo on the Tapestry as their contribution to history: ‘Women, as writers, are unknown, methinks, as yet./But we, even we, my maids and I,/Have written history upon this cloth’.1 A song is sung by the Minstrel ‘Taillefer’, recounting his famous performance of the ‘Song of Roland’ at the Battle of Hastings, as well as the event itself.

Episode IV. Richard I Returning from the Crusades

There is no script in this performance. Blondel’s Song performed in French: ‘Las! si j’avais pouvoir d’oublier’ [actually by Thibaut de Champagne].

Episode V. Chaucer

A fictionalised scene from the Canterbury Tales, set at the Tabard Inn, Southwark. The host goes through and scoffs at various pieces of luggage. Chaucer enters and the host accounts for the characters: ‘A reeve, whose talk is all of sheep and hogs; a good old parson from the Silly South; a shipman from the port of Dartemouth; a buxom widow from the town of Bath; an Oxford scholar, lean as any lath [etc]’. The characters argue amongst each other as Chaucer asks them why they chose to visit Canterbury. The starving Oxford scholar admits his ‘pilgrimage is just a holiday’. The Parson instructs them that ‘Life is a pilgrimage, therefore perpend/How ye may face that pilgrimage’s end’.

Finale. God Save the King

God Save the King, version taken from the comedy Ralph Roister Doister, c. 1553.

The Lord preserve our most noble king of renown
And his virtues reward with the heavenly crown.
The Lord strengthen his most Excellent Majesty
Long to reign over us, in all prosperity.
That his godly proceedings the faith to defend
He may establish, and maintain to the end.
God grant him as he doth the Gospel to protect
Learning and virtue to advance, and vice to correct.
God grant his loving subjects, both the mind and the grace
His most godly proceedings worthily to embrace.
His Highness’ most worthy Counsellors God prosper
With honour and love, of all men to minister.
God grant the nobility him to serve and love
With all the commonality, as doth them behove.’

Part II

Episode I. William Caxton

This depicts Caxton and many of the authors whose books he printed, such as Thomas Mallory. An ageing Caxton is harangued by ladies who suggest that printing is a black art. A gentleman defends him: ‘He doth but pick other men’s brains to use in this great invention of printing, which many say will turn the world upside down before it is done away with’. However, he bemoans the loss of scribes and the advent of popular literacy: ‘We shall have all men learning to read what they buy, and what that will bring to England, I ask you all to say! [Loud and derisive laughter.]’ Mallory defends Caxton’s endeavour as a noble device. There was a replica of Caxton’s press on display at the Home Industries’ Exhibition.

Episode II. Princess Elizabeth Listening to Roger Ascham, 1555

Princess Elizabeth being instructed by Roger Ascham, whilst imprisoned by Mary I at Woodstock. The synopsis sees Ascham’s instructions as key to her later patronage of literature. A milkmaid sings a song wrongly attributed to Donne (it is actually ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’ by Christopher Marlowe). The imprisoned Elizabeth is upset on hearing the song at being imprisoned. Ascham encourages her: ‘Has not the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle, of Sophocles and Demosthenes, taught you better to bear present ills with patience, and hope for better days?’. Ascham reads a poem by Elizabeth craving her freedom.

Episode III. Shakespeare’s Tempest, 1610

An extended scene from The Tempest [Act 4, Scene 1], performed as a play within a play, where Prospero decides to forgive the plotters against him, Alonso and Ferdinand, and gives his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand.

Episode IV. Writing of the King James Bible, 1611

Celebrating the tercentenary of completion of the Authorised King James Bible, featuring King James and the translators from Oxford. Smith, Bishop of Gloucester, remarks on the efficacy of translating the Bible into English, thanking James, who accepts a copy.

Episode V. Milton

A scene where a blind Milton dictates to his daughters. An unspecified character, de Clifford, plays to the company, but Milton dislikes the music (‘Then my ears must be faulty as my eyes’) and throws out all but his daughters and wife, who wish to go to a masque. Milton refuses to be downcast at his blindness and declares ‘my sight is further piercing than thine own; seeing into infinity. Thine eyes depend upon the light of sun and candle; mine in the thoughts and inspirations with which good God hath chose to weave around me’. The puritan Milton muses on the transitory nature of the world, criticizing others’ celebrations, and finally recites lines from ‘Samson Agonistes’ (lines 1690–1710).

Finale of the Second Part

Ralph Roister Doister, the same as the Finale to the first part.

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Cædmon (fl. c.670) poet
  • Alfred [Ælfred] (848/9–899) king of the West Saxons and of the Anglo-Saxons
  • Matilda [Matilda of Flanders] (d. 1083) queen of England, consort of William I
  • Lanfranc (c.1010–1089) archbishop of Canterbury
  • Odo, earl of Kent (d. 1097) bishop of Bayeux and magnate
  • Richard I [called Richard Coeur de Lion, Richard the Lionheart] (1157–1199) king of England, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400) poet and administrator
  • Caxton, William (1415x24–1492) printer, merchant, and diplomat
  • Malory, Sir Thomas (1415x18–1471) author
  • Elizabeth I (1533–1603) queen of England and Ireland
  • James VI and I (1566–1625) king of Scotland, England, and Ireland
  • Smith, Miles (d. 1624) bishop of Gloucester
  • Milton, John (1608–1674) poet and polemicist

Musical production

  • Singer (Episode III): Mr Geoffrey Gwyther as Tailleffer.
  • Mr Wilfred Nurse (aged 11) sang Blondel’s minstrel song (Episode IV).
  • Sir H.R. Bishop, arrangement of the ‘Milkmaid’s Song’.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Oxford Journal Illustrated
Oxford Times

Book of words

Pageant of English Literature, Town Hall, Oxford, October, 1911. In Connection With the Home Industries Exhibition, &c., of the Oxford Diocesan Branch of the Women’s Home Mission Association (ACS). Oxford 1911.

49pp. plus 10 pages of advertising. Copies available in the BL, Cambridge UL, and Bodleian Library. Oxfordshire History Centre has Charles Oman’s copy. Ref OXFO 394.5.

Other primary published materials


References in secondary literature

  • Graham, Malcolm. Oxford in the Great War. Barnsley, 2014. At 92.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • Charles Oman’s copy in the Oxfordshire History Centre is addressed on the inside cover: ‘Alfred with love from Osbega’, October 23–7, 1911. A memento of the Anglo Saxon episode. “I will give this book to him who first can read it.”’ [This is a reference to Episode II. Osberga was Mary Plowman and Alfred was played by Miss Maud Dixey, later Mrs C.W. Trevelyan, FRS]. The letter, sent 4 November 1911, reads ‘Dear Alfred. I am just sending you a Pageant Book, as I thought you might like to have one. From Osbega.’

Sources used in preparation of pageant

  • Shakespeare. The Tempest. 1611.


This was a relatively small to mid-sized pageant, particularly for Oxford which celebrated major pageants in 1907, 1912 and 1919. It is also distinctive in its choice of featuring English Literature. It was arranged by two sisters, Emma Swann and Eva Whitmarsh, who were involved in a number of charity organisations in Oxford, including the Women’s Home Mission Association and the YMCA.2 They were nieces of the noted botanist and Oxford Don John Westwood.3 The pageant was opened by the Mayor, who noted Mrs Whitmarsh’s qualities as an organizer, guaranteeing financial success, and introduced by T. Herbert Warren (Vice Chancellor of Oxford University 1906–10, and Professor of Poetry and President of Magdalen), who remarked on the esteemed tradition of pageantry at Oxford and declared that ‘The country had been educated by the pageant movement’ and ‘hoped and believed that in a humbler way that pageant would be similarly successful and if they could have any doubts as to its value, he thought they would be very soon dissipated.’4 These comments strike a hesitant note, suggesting it was unclear whether the pageant was felt to be a guaranteed success. Yet, in the event a success it certainly was – since the pageant was restaged in 1914.

The pageant is notable for its portrayal of the nascent subject of English Literature (still a young subject at Oxford). As Warren, introducing the pageant, remarked: ‘English literature, like English history, would be found to lend itself to pageant. It was full of picturesque and dramatic moments and figures. It was a long sequence and series of a beautiful chain of most interesting events and creations.’5 (Warren featured as the composer of Caedmon’s Ode in Episode I, which he wrote with the assistance of Professor A.C. Bradley;6 he also performed the part of the President of Magdalen in 1611.) Despite the fact that the pageant was small compared to other Oxford pageants, it was connected to the university through the Omans (Charles, Carola and Dulce) and of course also Warren, as well as a number of other spouses, daughters, and nieces of the Oxford intellectual aristocracy.

The pageant presented fictionalised or very loosely historical accounts of the composition of key works of English literature or, alternately, key scenes that fostered the literary tendencies of a monarch (Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Queen Elizabeth). As such, the pageant blended both history and literature together, the difference being that the focus was predominantly on the latter. A few connections to Oxford were worked into the drama: the scholar from the Canterbury tales is fictionally from Oxford, Elizabeth is held at Woodstock, and the translators of the King James Bible were Oxonians.

The pageant’s choice of sources is significant: Caedmon, of whose work only one short poem survives, is preferred to, say, the author of Beowulf or other early Anglo-Saxon literature, presumably due to his Christianity. A number of scenes have little link to what we might consider as ‘literature’: i.e. to written books. The episodes featuring the Bayeux Tapestry and Richard the Lionheart and Blondel both feature minstrels performing in an oral tradition that is more French than English. The inclusion of the weaving of the tapestry, Caxton’s printed books, the translation of the King James Bible, emphasises the importance of reproduction alongside individual creativity. The use of an amended version of the national anthem, with words from the Tudor comedy Ralph Roister Doister (repeated at the end of the first and second half) is noteworthy, though of little significance. I cannot see any particular relevance of the scene from the Tempest, which deviates markedly from the structure of the rest of the pageant.7 1911 was the tercentenary of its first performance, though this is not noted.

The pageant is notable for its female presence (women outnumbered male performers). Most striking is Queen Matilda in Episode III in which she defends her and her ladies’ weaving as a counterpoint to writing in a society in which women are prevented from taking part in the latter activity.8 Here, there are obvious parallels to the final scene in which it is Milton’s daughters who are doing the actual writing. Their costumes, and especially headwear, are frequently commented on in the preliminary text to each episode, as are the historical images and sources from which these are derived.9 Milton’s wife, who the text notes died in 1653 and not 1670 when the action presumably took place, ‘loved the gay dresses of the Stuart period, while her husband affected the severe Puritan dress; she appears to show the marked contrast in the dresses of the Royalists and Roundheads.’10

Aside from being a reference to the schism of the Civil War (relatively rare in pre-Great War pageants), with other male characters in the scene being referred to as ‘royalist’ in dress and demeanour, this episode highlights a key tension in the pageant. Milton is the hero, decrying vanity and worldly concerns in favour of the everlasting nature of spirituality and literature. However, his daughters, and especially his wife, are enchanted by de Clifford (‘gay Sir Popinjay’) – a pleasure-seeking Cavalier character – and his guitar playing, and wish to attend a masque offstage, whilst Milton is content to sit in silence, composing poetry. For a pageant which derives much of its appeal from dances, music, and gay apparel such a contrast with the Puritan Milton is stark, prompting one to question the extent to which literature can be dramatized. Choosing Milton as the 1911 pageant’s endpoint offers a few possible readings. It provides a nice return to Caedmon’s desire to link poetry and religion together. Alternatively, it could be a concession to Oxford English’s hesitancy about addressing ‘contemporary’ literature such as the romantics or later Victorians, as well as the pageant’s overall disdain for the novel.

The pageant was a success. Its limited casts and indoor location suggests that filling, or nearly filling, the hall for each performance served to regain the cost. The pageant was well-received by the newspapers. One regular commentator, Barbara Bocardo (possibly a pseudonym), was full of praise for the pageant as a whole, in particular enjoying the colours of the Matilda scene, the dialogue in the King Alfred Scene, and the Milton. She most enjoyed the ‘quaint cynicism’ of the Canterbury Pilgrims’, remarking that ‘It had never struck me before that a pilgrimage was neither more nor less than a medieval [Thomas] Cook’s personally conducted tour…Life in the Middle Ages was much gayer than it appears to us now.’ Bocardo regretted that pilgrimages have gone out of fashion: ‘A fortnight at a hydro or a seaside boarding house is very tame in comparison.’11 The pageant was an early portrayal of the evolution of English Literature and, at a time when Women’s Suffrage was a crucial issue, suggested that women’s part in English Literature was one male writers and scholars overlooked at their peril.


  1. ^ Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in synopses taken from Pageant of English Literature, Town Hall, Oxford, October, 1911. In Connection With the Home Industries Exhibition, &c., of the Oxford Diocesan Branch of the Women’s Home Mission Association (ACS) (Oxford 1911).
  2. ^ Malcolm Graham, Oxford in the Great War (Barnsley, 2014), 92.
  3. ^ Audrey Z. Smith, A History of the Hope Entomological Collections in the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1986), 13, 38 and 46.
  4. ^ ‘Home Industries Exhibition in the Town Hall’, Oxford Journal Illustrated, 25 October 1911, 11.
  5. ^ ‘Pageant of Literature’, Oxford Times, 28 October 1911, 7.
  6. ^ Ibid., 7.
  7. ^ J.W. Mackail delivered various lectures at Oxford between 1907 and 1911 which foregrounded The Tempest. A.D. Nutall, A Study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the Logic of Allegorical Expression (New Haven, CT, 1967), 10–11.
  8. ^ Pageant of English Literature, Town Hall, Oxford, October, 1911. In Connection With the Home Industries Exhibition, &c., of the Oxford Diocesan Branch of the Women’s Home Mission Association (ACS), (Oxford, 1911), 12–13.
  9. ^ Ibid., 27, 30.
  10. ^ Ibid., 44.
  11. ^ Bocardo, ‘Exhibition and Pageant’, Oxford Journal Illustrated, 11 November 1911, 11.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Pageant of English Literature, 1911’, The Redress of the Past,