Dating from the time of Ranulf de Blondeville and his rescue from Rhuddlan Castle by minstrels and various others (as depicted at the Town Hall), the last such court was held in 1756. The "Mirror of Literature" describes the origin as follows:
- About the end of the reign of John, or the beginning of that of Henry III. the fire of Roger being extinguished by death, his son John Lacy, granted this privilege by deed to his steward, one Hugh Dutton and his heirs, in the words following: — "Dedi et concessi, et per hac present! charta mea, contirmavi Hugoni de Dutton, et heredibus suis, magistratum omnium lecatorum, ut meretricum, totius Cestershiriae/'&c.
It is described as follows in "The Patrician" (1848) edited by John Burke, Bernard Burke
- It was the custom for all minstrels in Chester to meet the Lord of Dutton on the day of St-John the Baptist, on which occasion they were to present him with four flagons of wine and a lance, and he was entitled to receive from every minstrel the sum of four pence halfpenny and " de qualibet meretricc," in the city of Chester, "officium xiiitm exercente," the sum of fourpence.
St John the Baptist's feast day coincides with midsummer, so the Minstrel court would happen at the same time as the Midsummer Watch Parade, the Chester Mystery Plays and the opening of the Midsummer Market. A horn would be blown at the Gloverstone.
- The ceremonies attending the exercise of this jurisdiction were as follows:— A banner bearing the arms of Dutton was hung from the window of the inn where the court was held, and notice given by a drummer proclaiming in the streets and summoning all persons concerned to appear at the court between certain hours. At eleven o'clock in the forenoon the procession moved from the inn in this manner, viz.—First a band of music, then two trumpeters, then licensed musicians, with white cloths across their shoulders, the banner borne by one of the principal musicians, next the steward on horseback with a white wand in his hand, then a tabarder with a tabard, bearing the arms of Dutton. Lastly the Lord of Dutton (if present), attended by many of the gentry of the county and city on horseback. On reaching the east gate a proclamation was made to give notice of the holding of the court.
- " Oyez.—This is to give notice to all musicians and minstrels that the court of the honourable Charles Gerard Fleetwood, Esq., (descendant heir of Eleanor, sole daughter and heir of Thomas Dutton, of Dutton, in the county of Chester, Esq., by Sir Gilbert Gerard, son and heir of Thomas Lord Gerard, at Gerard Bromley, in the county of Stafford), is this day held at the house of Robert Chuff, at the ' Eagle and Child,' in the Northgate Street, Chester, where all such musicians and minstrels as do intend to play on any instrument of music for gain within the county of Chester, or within the county of the city of Chester, are required to appear and take licence for the year ensuing, otherwise, they will be adjudged and taken up as rogues and vagabonds, and punished accordingly. God save the King, and the Lord of the court. God save the King, the Queen, the Prince, and all the Royal Family..."
- *The procession then moved forward to the church of St. John the Baptist. On entering the church, the steward made a signal to the musicians, who instantly dropped on their knees, and proceeded to play sundry solemn airs upon their instruments. Divine service was then performed, and the Lord of Dutton was specially prayed for. Service being over, the proclamation was made, and the procession then returned to the inn, in the same order as it came. Entertainments to the Lord's friends and musicians followed, and in the afternoon a jury was impanelled from among the licensed musicians, when the steward delivered a charge. The jurors then gave in their verdicts."
Among the tax collections which were made at the court was also:
- "an annual payment of four pence from every female of a certain notoriety within the county of Chester".
Peter Leycester records the issue of the charter as follows:
- " I find in the records of Chester, inter placito, 14 Henry VII. a quo warranto brought against Laurence Button, of Button, Esq. why he claimed all the minstrels of Cheshire, and in the city of Chester, to meet before him at Chester yearly, at the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, and to give unto him at the said feast quotum. Lagenas Pini, et unam Lanceum, that is, four bottles of wine and a lance; and also every minstrel to pay unto Him at the said feast four-pence half-penny : And why he claimed from every whore in Cheshire, and in the city of Chester, afficium suum exercente, fourpence to be paid yearly at the feast aforesaid. Whereunto he pleaded prescription." After this time we hear nothing of any other controul exercised by the family of Button, than that over the minstrels; an authority recognized by several texts of parliament, which exempt the minstrels of Cheshire from the penalties of those acts by which all wandering fiddlers and minstrels are deemed rogues and vagabonds."
As noted by Leycester, the rights even made it onto the statute books. in the 1744 Vagrancy Act, (17 George II., c. 5.), the heirs and assigns of John Dutton, of Dutton, co. Chester, deceased, Esq., are stated to be "exempt from the pains and penalties of vagrancy".
The Dutton's have a branch under the surname "Button", who not only run a store on Chester Market but have kept up the musical tradition.
The Minstrel Court was revived in 2008, with musicians playing throughout the day on medieval instruments including bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, shawm, and harps, storytelling performances, displays of arming a knight, historic craft demonstrations and a range of medieval characters including soldiers, weavers, doctors, nuns, pilgrims and scribes.
Sources and Links
- Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Thomas Percy (1847)
- Hemmingways History of Chester - see page 100
- Burke's Patrician - see page 130
- Dugdale "The Mirror of Literature" - see page 419
- 2009 re-enactment as reported in the Evening Leader
- pilgrims and posies on the re-enactment;