If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you certainly remember…
‘Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!’ – The town crier
Does ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez’ ring a bell? Yes, this is what town criers shout to attract attention. But who are they and what do they do?
The Town Crier
Believe it or not, town criers are still around in England, albeit their role has slightly changed of their ancestors and have been adjusted to current needs. In the past town criers or bellmen made public announcements. They carried a hand bell to attract people’s attention, and they shouted the words “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez!” which comes from an Anglo-Norman word and means “hear ye”. Then they would inform the people of the town of the latest news, proclamations, bylaws, market days, fairs and any other important information, as the majority of the town folks were illiterate and could not read. They would then end their words with God save the King/Queen.
Town Criers were protected by law. No wonder, when you think about it, they often read out bad news such as tax increases or at public hangings, they read out why somebody was hanged and also helped to cut the person down from the gallows. Whatever the town crier did, he did it in the name of the ruling monarch and harming a town crier was considered to be a treason.*
*Let me remark, that the Town Crier of Chester, David Mitchell kindly reached out to me and advised the following:
‘Although this is endlessly repeated on the internet, it has no basis in fact. Proclamations made on behalf of the ruling monarch were delivered by royal heralds or county sheriffs, not by town criers. The latter were much further down the pecking order. They announced purely local announcements: strayed or stolen horses, runaway apprentices, lost children. They were not entrusted with matters of national importance and therefore, unlike heralds, they did not enjoy legal royal protection.’
Today their role is to announce the birth of a royal baby, arrival of the Royal Family, escorting the Mayor on events and civic functions, however, you can hire them for weddings, different celebrations, fairs, Christmas Lights Switch on etc. Besides, they also do PR work as they promote the good name of their towns.
Their attire has hardly changed since the 18th century. They wear a scarlet and gold coat, white breeches, black shoes and a tricorne hat that became fashionable during Louis XIV reign in France.
You could ask the question why does the Windsor Town Crier have a purple coat then?
The answer is simpler than you’d think. As Windsor is a royal borough, purple stands for the royal presence, but also the military scarlet was reserved for the troops who are stationed in the town.
Windsor’s Town Crier
Both Windsor and Maidenhead had Town Criers in the past. The last recorded crier of Windsor is dated in 1892. Maidenhead’s last crier was Mark James Taylor until 1910. Luckily Windsor managed to revive the tradition in 2012 and the town has had a Town Crier since. Well, he certainly has been busy in recent years as the Royal Family had lots of babies and they are often in town. If you are lucky, you may bump into Chris Brown (see above), Windsor’s Town Crier when walking down Windsor’s streets.
Why are they still around?
You could say with social media there is no need for Town Criers anymore. Well, the British are keen on traditions, yet I think most towns have one because having a Town Crier is rather fun. The British take this role seriously by the way: Not only did they establish the Loyal Company of Town Criers in 1993 but they organise competitions for Town Criers where they are judged in six categories:
- Sustained Volume and Clarity
- Diction and Inflection
- Confidence and Bearing
- Engaging the Audience
- Content of Cry
On top of this, separate judges are responsible for choosing Best Dressed Crier where historical authenticity is paramount.
If you would like to know more about Windsor’s history get in touch. I run fun-filled and informative Widnsor walking tours.
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