The Minstrels’ Court returns to Chester on Saturday 11th June. The free event at St Johns Church is a recreation of Chester’s longest running tradition, the annual gathering of musicians and entertainers who would meet to receive their annual license to perform.
The minstrels will gather at St Johns from 1030 with music and living history throughout the day. Heritage worker and medieval bagpiper Tom Hughes said “if you come along to the event you’ll meet not only musicians playing all sorts of medieval instruments, hurdy gurdy, harp, bagpipes, you name it… but there’s also a real mix of medieval characters demonstrating everyday life of the time, scribes, knights, weavers, archers, pilgrims and so on.”
Tom, who has worked in heritage for 2o years, formerly worked as an education officer for CWAC museums and is now in charge of the new museum at Norton Priory which opens in the summer. He explained that the Minstrel’s Court is believed to date back to 1204:
“When the Earl of Chester was at the old Rhuddlan Castle and besieged by the Welsh. Word was sent to the Constable of Chester Castle asking for reinforcements but it was the time of the Midsummer fair and all the soldiers were drunk, so instead they rounded up all the musicians, jugglers, players and so on and marched them off to Rhuddlan. The sound of all these minstrels approaching made the Welsh fear a great army was coming and so they fled and the Earl of Chester was saved. In thanks, he granted the minstrels a licence to perform without fear of arrest and this could be renewed each Midsummer. The tradition went on until 1756, that’s over five and a half centuries, and it was unique to Chester, no other city had anything like it.”
The event was revived in 2008 and has grown each year. This year the Court will be welcoming Trouvere, one of Britain’s best medieval groups, who will be travelling down from North Yorkshire. There will also be pipers playing lively dance tunes, as well as performances from Maranella a Cheshire based early music group who have beautiful arrangements of songs with lute and recorder and there will also be a set from Chester’s very own Time Bandits who have built a name for themselves specialising in lively tunes spanning the period from the 15th to 18th centuries. Also on the day visitors will be able to enjoy medieval puppet shows and storytellers from across the country. Living history demonstrations will take place in the church and the musicians will perform throughout the day.
.At 1pm the Minstrels gather for a musical procession through the streets of the city, past the amphitheatre, along Pepper Street, up Bridge Street to the Cross, then along Eastgate and back to St John’s for about 1.30pm where they are issued with their licences to perform in a recreation of the medieval ceremony.
Other key timings during the day are the performances by Trouvere at 12noon and 3pm, medieval puppetry at 11.30am, a demonstration of dressing and arming a knight at 12.30pm, and a performance of The Mulberry Tree, a specially written piece for the Shakespeare 400 anniversary.
Pauline from The Lovelies enjoys the 2014 event
History and St Johns
“The Minstrels’ Court is one of only a handful of re-enactments to take place in their original and authentic venue” says Tom. The city’s archives have records of the proceedings and the Town Hall has a carving of the Minstrels marching to save the Earl above one of the main doorways inside.
“Medieval documents tell of business transactions being carried out inside St John’s and scribes writing their works there. ” St Johns, which is the oldest church in Cheshire and the city’s original cathedral is often overlooked, but Tom hopes it will get more recognition. “It has witnessed the coronation of a king on the site, and been a base for the siege of Chester. The history of St John’s is really tied up with the history of England.
“I’ve got family links to St John’s, decades ago my grandparents were custodians there, my dad was a choir boy who helped raise money for the restoration of the organ, (which incidentally was the one used at Westminster Abbey for Queen Victoria’s coronation), and my cousin was the first baby to be baptised in the “Commonwealth font” when it was rediscovered. I’m delighted to have a tiny part in helping celebrate its history. ”
Tom got involved in the revival of the court through his friendship with the Reverend David Chesters, the Rector of Chester. “David is one of the great ambassadors for the city, and an unsung heritage hero in my opinion. He’s also an archaeologist and studied the subject at the University of Liverpool a couple of years after me, so didn’t take much persuading to get the idea off the ground.”
Tom says that it is great that Chester can celebrate its medieval heritage. “Most people think of Chester as a Roman city, and that’s important of course, but most of its appearance today, the extended walls, towers, the Rows, churches, etc, was established in medieval times, and that’s when the city was at its most influential. ” The event which is run entirely by grassroots volunteers is a “great example of what the city does best” says Tom.
St Johns Church Sat 11th June 1030-430
Parade at 1pm