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December 26, 1964
The Editor Writes
Rural Rides - No.12

HOW THE DUTTONS BECAME LORDS OF THE MINSTRELS - Chester at time of the Midsummer Fair: Earl relieved by rabble.

This Rural Ride, my second into the long past of the Cheshire family of the Duttons of Dutton, covers some five hundred years and takes us from the Chester Midsummer Fair across the Welsh border to Rhuddlan Castle, where begins the tale (a festive, picaresque tale for the Christmas fireside) of how the Duttons became lords and licensers of the Cheshire minstrels.

Last week the frost sparkled on the impressive ruins of Edward the First’s trebly-fortified castle of Rhuddlan and crisped the greensward of the inner courtyard. The rounded tops of the hills looked down upon the fast-flowing, swollen estuary of the River Clwyd. A strategic place for a fortress - one sees as much at a glance.

With Flint Castle serving as sentinel on the estuary of the Dee, the stronghold of Rhuddlan was the marshalling point of Edward’s power against the Welsh. "It was," says Thomas Pennant, the Welsh historian whose home was at Holywell, "the place d’armes and the great magazine of provisions for the support of the King’s army in its advance into the country." And it was here that Edward held a Parliament to give laws for the government of Wales.

Warrior Earl at bay

Earlier the castle, or its precursor of Welsh origin, was one of the redoubts of the Norman Earls of Chester. The first of these, Hugh Lupus (Hugh the Wolf), had a nephew, Robert of Rhuddlan, who conquered the castle from the Welsh and refortified it.

And it was here, one June day in the year 1216, in the time of King John, that Randle (or Ranulf) de Blundeville, the sixth Earl and one of the most powerful men in Britain, found himself at bay, besieged by the forces of Llewellyn Prince of Wales. It was an embarrassing situation for this celebrated warrior and councillor of kings, this "famous, romantic Ranulf", as Sir Winston Churchill describes him in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

To be cooped up in Rhuddlan by a ragged rabble of fanatical Welshmen, crying for vengeance and the blood of the feudal overlord! This was a sorry come-down for one who had carved his way through the baronial wars, reduced the castles of Anjou, and smitten the Saracen and the infidel in Egypt and Syria. Humiliating indeed for one who had refused to pay tithe to the Pope, leaving his Holiness no option but to whistle for his Peter’s Pence.

This was the man who in his 51 years of semi-regal power as Earl of Chester threw his mantle over Henry the Third in the days of his minority and cast out the French usurper in a battle at Lincoln; the man who later rejected the same King’s demand for a contribution to his war chest and his Majesty was obliged to lump it; the man who built Beeston Castle; the man who, for all his martial valour, was conscious that he lacked inches and slew an emissary of the French King who dared to call him a "dwarf".

This then was the almighty character who was confined by Llewellyn within the walls of Rhuddlan. The drama was near to farce and it had a farcical sequel.

At Chester’s Great Fair

In desperation the Earl sent a messenger through the lines of besiegers to his Constable of Chester, Roger Lacy, for a relief force from the city garrison. The Constable (they called him "Hell" because of his readiness to stop at nothing) was in a dilemma. This was the time of the Midsummer Fair; his soldiers were dispersed and unbuttoned, mingling with citizens and artisans and the mediaeval throng of Anglo-French merchant, monks, minstrels, mendicants, thieves and whores.

Imagine the scene at this, one of the great public Fairs where much of the country’s trade was transacted - trade in skins, wool, linen, wine, trade by land and water. Between the high mud-and-timber houses, along the evil-smelling streets with their side "kennels" overflowing with garbage and offal pitched out from the windows above, the booths of the Fair are erected and around them a press of people in a square mile as various as you would find in all of Europe.

Brilliant raiment and rags-and-tatters. Well-found merchants and importunate beggars. Citizens and craftsmen, stewards, bailiffs, and serving-men, women of high degree and women of the stews. Mountebanks, traveling showmen, tavern singers, troubadours, gleemen, rope dancers, acrobats, tumblers. Performers upon the viol, hurdy-gurdy, trumpet, sackbut, cornet, bagpipes, rebec and cymbals.

And a nameless, houseless rabble come to town under the protection of Hugh the Wolf’s charter for the foundation of St. Werburgh’s Abbey (the Cathedral of today), granting to "whatsoever thief or malefactor" who attended Chester Fair exemption from arrest unless they committed a fresh crime during Fair time. The toll and profit of the Fair for three days, went to the Abbey.

March of the Mountebanks

The Constable took council with his steward and son-in-law, Hugh Dutton, of the Duttons of Dutton, and together they assembled in the streets "a tumultuous rout" (to quote Sir Peter Leycester, the seventeenth century historian of Cheshire) "of fiddlers, players, cobblers, debauched persons, both men and women, and marched immediately to the relief of the Earl."

Putting themselves at the head of these Falstaffian troops, the Constable and his steward hoped that their formidable numbers and strange appearance, and the noise they made, would frighten the Welsh into flight before an engagement could take place. So it happened. The Welsh saw them coming and lifted the siege, and the Earl returned safely to the city with Lacy, Dutton, and the rabble, among whom no doubt were many citizens who felt themselves indebted to Randle de Blundeville for confirming their Merchant Guild, the forerunner of the City Guilds which survive today.

Chivalrously, and with the right touch of appreciation of the somewhat comic manner of his deliverance, Randal granted to his quick-witted Constable a charter of patronage and authority "over all the fiddlers, players, minstrels, and shoemakers in Cheshire" forever.

The Constable in turn transferred that part of his authority relating to fiddlers, players and minstrels to Hugh Dutton. This jurisdiction endured as long as minstrelsy lasted and after that, and as a result the minstrels of Cheshire were unmolested at a time when minstrels in other parts of the country were at the mercy of the law as "rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars".

Lightly given perhaps as it was, the Earl’s writ nevertheless continued to run for centuries. Edward the Fourth, granting a charter to the fraternity of Minstrels of England in 1469, carefully excepted the "county of Chester". A statue of Queen Elizabeth declared fiddlers and minstrels to be rogues but exempted those of Cheshire "licensed by Duttons of Dutton."

Tavern Court of the Minstrels

In the fifteenth century Lawrence Dutton was ordering all minstrels in the county and city of Chester to appear before him annually at the Minstrels Court on the feast of St.John the Baptist, at the time of the Midsummer Fair, each to contribute four flagons of wine (a gallon of claret then cost sixpence), one lance, and 4 d. in money.

The minstrels court-house of the Duttons of Dutton was for centuries part of the Eagle and Child tavern in Shoemaker’s Row in Chester’s Northgate Street. Of this house record goes back as far as 1540. It had an open gallery round the chief kitchen. Here the last Minstrel Court was held in 1756, when Robert Cluff was the inn-keeper and R. Lant, Esq., was the licensing Lord of Dutton, having acquired the ancient right by purchase, long after the Midsummer Fair and the Midsummer Show had ceased to exist and after the Dutton family had lost the direct succession.

The inn continued to in a steady decline until about 1864, when, under the name of the Legs of Man, it served its last days as a licensed house and was swept away with Shoemaker’s Row itself.

It was customary on St. John the Baptist Day, or Midsummer Day to hang out from the inn window a banner with the arms of Dutton, and a drummer in the streets summoned all persons concerned to appear at the court. At eleven o’clock in the morning a procession moved off from the inn, at the head a band, followed by two trumpeters, licensed musicians with white napkins across their shoulders, the Steward of Dutton on horseback with a white wand in his hand, a tabarder bearing the arms of Dutton, and the Lord or Heir of Dutton attended by many of the notable people of city and county on horse back.

After The Service - The Feast

In the middle of Eastgate street a proclamation gave notice of the convening of the Minstrel Court and the procession continued to the Church of St. John the Baptist for a special service at which the musicians played their instruments kneeling. After this the company returned to the inn for a feast, and in the afternoon a jury was empanelled from among the licensed musicians. This jury, exercising the authority of the Duttons of Dutton, granted licenses to all who were worthy, authorising them to play upon their musical instruments within the city and county of Chester during the ensuing year.

The minstrels long ago fell silent – the musicians of today are of a different order and we have come right down through recorded history with Duttons of Dutton, and still their story is not fully told. Next week in Rural Ride N0.13, we shall return to Dutton Hall, tell the story of two fatal duels, and pursue the ancestral home to East Grinstead, where, strangely enough, it stands today.

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