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A horn blowing ceremony in Ripon, England. Source: Grove House Bed and Breakfast

1100-year-old Horn Blowing Ceremony Continues Despite Coronavirus

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Daily life has been heavily disrupted by the outbreak of COVID-19 or coronavirus. However, one British town is determined to carry on as normal as possible. They are committed to continuing a tradition that is over a millennium old. Despite the current pandemic, a horn will be blown in a ceremony to mark the watch, just as it has been done every night for 1,134 years.

Ripon is a historic town in England. Since the 9th century AD, municipal officials have blown a horn in a ceremony to mark the ‘watch’. This setting of the watch was traditionally seen as the beginning of the night. In Medieval times, after the horn was blown a municipal official would patrol the town of Ripon during the night hours. The setting of the watch happened throughout Europe from the Middle Ages right down to the 19th century in some cities and towns.

A Medieval Ritual

This ceremony of setting the watch was abandoned and forgotten in most towns and cities many years ago. But not in Ripon, which is proud of its heritage. The ceremony is still held every night by a group of horn blowers . According to the Ripon Hornblower , the ceremony is conducted ‘by a team of four or five Deputies on a job share basis’. Despite the concerns over the coronavirus, the age-old ceremony is still going ahead and will be held as it has been for over 1000 years.

It has been announced by the horn blowers that they are going to hold the ceremony despite the virtual shut-down of their town. The Harrogate Advertiser quotes a post on the Ripon Hornblower Facebook page, that states “To put any minds at rest regarding recent events, our nightly setting of the watch ceremony will continue.” However, the ceremony will be somewhat changed as a precautionary measure . The post also stated that “In order to continue in a safe and sensible fashion a few changes will be made, the main being that the talk given at the end of the ceremony will not be done until further notice,” according to the Harrogate Advertiser.

Horn Blowing Ceremony to Continue

The hornblowers are determined to keep the tradition going. They acknowledge that these are “trying times,” but they believe that it should be continued. After all, it has been conducted every night during ‘many hardships,’ reports the Harrogate Advertizer . The horn has announced the watch during the Norman Conquest , Black Death , English Civil War, and the German bombing of Britain during WWII.

The horn has announced the watch during the Norman Conquest, Black Death, English Civil War, and the German bombing of Britain during WWII. (Ripon Hornblower)

The horn has announced the watch during the Norman Conquest, Black Death, English Civil War, and the German bombing of Britain during WWII. ( Ripon Hornblower )

The setting of the watch ceremony began when the town of Ripon received its charter. This was granted to the citizens by King Alfred the Great in 886 AD. He was the monarch who saved England from the Vikings.

He gave the local people the charter, which bestowed on them certain rights, in recognition of their help during the fight against the invasions and raids of the Norse. King Alfred offered them a horn as a symbol of their new charter. According to the Ripon Hornblower webpage, ‘he told them that they should treasure the horn, refer to it henceforth as the Charter Horn and look after it forever.’

Viking Horn Blowers

The king ordered that Ripon remain vigilant regarding the Viking threat . A ‘Wakeman’ was appointed to blow the horn every night and to patrol the city. According to the BBC, ‘It was therefore decided to appoint a Wakeman. That was a man who would stay awake and patrol the settlement and the surrounding areas from dusk till dawn.’

During the Middle Ages, he became a very powerful official. He was given an official residence known as the ‘Watchman’s House’ - which still stands and is now a café.

Sign of the Hornblower, Ripon. (Stephen Craver/CC BY SA 2.0)

Sign of the Hornblower, Ripon. (Stephen Craver/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

The setting of the watch ceremony has inspired many legends and stories. It is believed that if the horn is not blown correctly that it will anger the ghost of the first mayor. The appearance of the ghost is said to be a portent of disaster for Ripon.

Hornblower Edward Heward (1903-1915). (Ripon Hornblower)

Hornblower Edward Heward (1903-1915). ( Ripon Hornblower )

Symbol of the Town

According to the Ripon Hornblower website, ‘The original charter horn given by Alfred the Great in 886 does still exist,’ although it is no longer used and is kept in a local museum. There are another three of the wind instruments, the oldest from the 1690s, that are still used in the ceremony. Another horn has never been blown and is placed on Ripon’s obelisk and is regarded as a symbol of the city.

A horn is on Ripon’s obelisk and is regarded as a symbol of the city. (Brian Pettinger/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

A horn is on Ripon’s obelisk and is regarded as a symbol of the city. (Brian Pettinger/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

The tradition is very popular with locals and visitors alike and is something of a tourist attraction. The Harrogate Advertiser quotes the Ripon Hornblowers as stating that “we also ask that anyone coming to see us that you follow sensible precautions as well, spread out across the square to avoid being too close to other groups.” It is believed that if everyone practices social distancing that the 1,300-year-old ceremony can continue during the coming weeks and possibly months.

Top Image: A horn blowing ceremony in Ripon, England. Source: Grove House Bed and Breakfast

By Ed Whelan

Comments

Gary Moran's picture

Kudos to the hornblowers – can’t let that old a tradition die.

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