Custom demised: Gyst-ale in Ashton-under-Lyne

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A lost festival was associated with Lady Day in Ashton-under-Lyne. Its first mention is in a rental of Sir John de Assheton, compiled a.d. 1422:

“that twenty shillings were paid to him as lord of the manor for the privilege of holding this feast by its then conductors. The persons named in the roll as having paid 3s. 4d. each are: Margret, that was the wife of Hobbe the Kynges (of misrule) ; Hobbe Adamson ; Eoger the Baxter; Robert Somayster; Jenkyn of the Wode; and Thomas of Curtual.”

What does Gyst-ale mean?

The meaning of the term gyst-ale is involved in some obscurity—most probably the payments above were for the gyst, or hire, for the privilege of selling ale and other refreshments during the festivals held on the payment of the rents of the manor. These guis-ings were frequently held in the spring, most probably about Lady Day, when manorial rents were usually paid; and, as the fields were manured with marl about the same period, the term marlings has been supposed to indicate the rough play or marlocMng which was then practised. This, however, must be a mistake, since the term relates to merry pranks, or pleasure gambols only, and has no connection with marl as a manure.”

Thistleton-Dwyer goes on to explain:

“These gyst-ales, or guisings, once ranked amongst the principal festivals of Lancashire, and large sums of money were subscribed by all ranks of society in order that they might be celebrated with becoming splendour. The lord of the manor, the vicar of the parish, the farmer, and the operative, severally announced the sums they intended to give, and when the treasurer exclaimed ” A largesse,” the crowd demanded ” from whom ?” and then due proclamation was made of the sum subscribed. The real amount, however, was seldom named, but it was announced that ” Lord John­son,” or some other equally distinguished person had con­tributed “a portion of ten thousand pounds” towards the expenses of the feast.”

One of the important aspects on the custom was the construction of an immense garland:

“which contained abundance of every flower in season, interspersed with a profusion of evergreens and ribbons of every shade and pattern. The framework of this garland was made of wood, to which hooks were affixed, and on these were suspended a large collection of watches, jewels, and silver articles borrowed from the richer residents in the town. On the day of the gyst this garland was borne through the principal streets and thoroughfares, attended by crowds of townspeople dressed in their best attire.”

The custom appeared to have inherited some characters from a mummer’s play. Indeed R.T. Hampson’s 1841 Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages,states:

“In Lancashire we find the term gyst-ale, which seems to be one of the corruptions of disguising, as applied to mumming. Gyst-ale, or guising, was celebrated in Eccles [England] with much rustic splendor at the termination of the marling [field-dunging] season when the villagers, with a “king” at their head, walked in procession with garlands, to which silver plate was attached, which was contributed by the principal gentry in the neighbourhood.”

Thistleton-Dwyer continues:

“These were formed into a procession by a master of the ceremonies, locally termed the king. Another principal attendant was the Fool, dressed in a grotesque cap, a hideous grinning mask, a long tail hanging behind him, and a bell with which he commanded attention when announcements were to be made. In an early period of these guisings the fool was usually mounted on a hobby-horse, and indulged in grotesque pranks as he passed along—hence we obtained the term ” hob-riding,” and more recently the proverbial expression of “riding one’s hobby to death.”

Sadly all this uniqueness has now gone around the beginning of the last century!

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