Book review: ‘Keepers: The Ancient Offices of Britain’

by Alastair Bruce, Julian Calder and Mark Cator

KEEPERS COVERA few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be given the most wonderful book.   It is entitled ‘Keepers:  The Ancient Offices of Britain’, and it is written by Alastair Bruce, with photographs by Julian Calder and Mark Cator.

Alastair Bruce, if you’re not already aware, is a well known TV commentator on royal events and ceremonies, and he is the historical advisor for the series ‘Downton Abbey’.   He is an acknowledged expert on the hierarchy, duties, dress and deportment of generations past and present, whatever their rank or status;   and a mine of information on the little-known titles and traditions that lie within the very walls of Britain’s palaces, cathedrals and colleges, some of which have been passed on like a torch of honour from one holder to the next, over the course of many centuries.

‘Keepers’ was commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne.  On the cover is a truly remarkable photograph of Her Majesty wearing a beautiful emerald and diamond tiara, and a dark green velvet mantle adorned with the insignia of The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle.  She is standing, not on the steps of Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle, but in a remote glen on the Balmoral Estate, with heather in bloom around her feet and some dark clouds threatening an imminent downpour on the distant hills.  The effect is stunning.

While the book describes the ancient roles and titles of our royal family, and explains the history behind some of their duties, the limelight is shared by so many other, lesser-known but fascinating ‘keepers’ of offices.  Turning to any page at random will reveal a slice of Britain’s past that will intrigue and delight you in equal measure.  I tried to bookmark examples that I found particularly interesting, but I gave up because I realised I would end up highlighting them all.

Take, for example, the Queen’s Guide over Kent Sands, a post first recorded in 1501, created so that the Monarch could cross the treacherous quicksands of Morecambe Bay in safety.  At low water, the Guide ventures out onto the estuary with a long pole which he uses to test the stability of the mud;  he then plants ‘brobs’ of laurel at regular intervals to mark a safe route to the shore.  His dedication has saved the lives of many travellers because, alarmingly, the incoming tide can outstrip a galloping horse.

The Queen's Guide over Kent Sands

The Queen’s Guide over Kent Sands

In the 1600s a watchful eye was also needed by the Bearer of the Dog Whipper’s Rod in Exeter Cathedral.  While a service was in progress, he would observe the canine members of the congregation who had accompanied their masters to church.  If a dog fight broke out, the Dog Whipper would use his rod to enforce the peace, while a pair of wooden tongs came in handy for extracting an animal from underneath a pew.  The Rod is still carried by the verger who leads the cathedral processions.

Then there is the Seigneur de Rosel and Butler to the Duke of Normandy, a title bestowed on the Lemprière family on the island of Jersey in 1376.  The present holder, the Dame de Rosel, sits astride a grey horse, ready to fulfil her duty to ride into the sea up to her stirrups in order to convey the visiting Duke of Normandy onto the shore.  (In the Channel Islands, the Duke of Normandy is, in fact, the Queen.)

Across the border in Scotland, Mr Houison Craufurd and two members of his family are photographed standing by the River Cramond near Edinburgh, pouring water from a pitcher into a silver dish.  Legend tells us that James V of Scotland was rescued from a band of muggers by one of Mr Craufurd’s ancestors, even though he was unaware of the King’s identity.  His reward was a farm at Braehead, on condition that he should be ready at all times to present a ewer and basin for the King to wash his hands in, either at Holyrood Palace or at Cramond Bridge, the scene of the foiled attack.

And how can I not tell you about The Lord Mallard of All Souls?   Proudly holding a duck (now, thankfully, a wooden one) on a post, and wearing a gown and mortar board, he stands on the roof of All Souls College in Oxford and regales his listeners with the Mallard Song, first sung by his predecessors in the 17th century during rowdy night-time processions.  The procession now only takes place in the first year of every century.  Think carefully before booking your holiday to see this.

The Lord Mallard of All Souls

The Lord Mallard of All Souls

And there is so, so much more…  the Chief Yeoman Warder, who ceremonially locks the Tower of London every night, and whose duties are rooted in a time when the danger of attack was very real;  the Keeper of the Bachuil, kilted and brandishing the Great Staff of St Moluag on the island of Lismore;   the Master of the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, framed by lit candles in silver sconces;  the Verderers and Agisters of the New Forest, charged with preserving the ancient sport of kings;  the Queen’s Champion, Lord of the Manor of Scrivelsby, who has thrown down a gauntlet to would-be contenders for the crown since the Norman conquest;  the Lord Great Chamberlain, who carries a white stave and walks backwards when leading the Sovereign to the House of Lords;   the Herb Strewer, a lady who casts fresh herbs and flowers over the floor of Westminster Abbey in the path of an approaching monarch;   and the Hereditary Captain of Dunstaffnage, who, in exchange for his title, must spend three nights of every year braving the cold and the ghostly footsteps within the ruins of Dunstaffnage Castle.

The Lord Great Chamberlain

The Lord Great Chamberlain

In every corner of the United Kingdom, it seems, there is an ordinary person with an extraordinary title of office, whether it involves a daily presence and commitment, or the legacy of a quietly held honour.  From the dark chambers of London’s Inner Temple and the Palace of Westminster to the windswept shores of Loch Arkaig and the tin mines of Cornwall, the story behind these offices is completely absorbing and utterly delightful.  Each page is like a small window into an obscure corner of our history;  and the photographs capture the blend of solemn tradition and idiosyncratic charm that seem to define what it is to be British.

‘Keepers’ is divided into sections, beginning with early medieval times and progressing forward to the 20th and 21st centuries.  Alastair Bruce reveals the original purpose of each office and places it in the wider context of historical events, often describing the fate of previous post holders and explaining the detail and symbolism of their livery.  At the back is a photographic index – a ‘key to the keepers’ – together with an insight into how some of the photographs were taken.

This is not a small book:   when open, it measures 14 inches by 20, requiring care and space if you are going to read it comfortably!   Its size is entirely justified, but you might need the sofa all to yourself.

What more can I say?   This is a book to be treasured.  If you’re at all interested in history and pageantry, or if you love British eccentricity, you will adore it from cover to cover.

My thanks to Julian Calder for allowing me to reproduce the front cover and to photograph some of the pages.  Rights to all the photographs are reserved and copyrighted by Julian Calder and Mark Cator.

The Searcher of the Sanctuary and High Bailiff of Westminster Abbey

The Searcher of the Sanctuary and High Bailiff of Westminster Abbey

 

‘Keepers:  The Ancient Offices of Britain’ is available to purchase from www.keepersofthekingdom.co.uk.   For customers in the UK, it is priced at £35 including post and packing.  Overseas customers should email info@keepersofthekingdom.co.uk so that carriage costs can be calculated.

Published in 2013 by Julian Calder Publishing

Hardback, 256 pages, full colour throughout, printed on beautiful, heavyweight paper

ISBN  978-0-9553253-3-5

Comments

  1. Homestead Ramblings says:

    How fascinating and intriguing. Like a box filled with all kinds of delicate treasures just waiting to be uncovered, turned over and explored with the mind and heart. Neat!

  2. How wonderful……love the dog whipper and the Queen’s Guide over Kent’s sand🙂

  3. What a wonderfully eccentric collection of curiousities, this would make a great present for the right person. I seem to remember seeing something on TV about how the front cover photo shoot was arranged, it might have been part of a documentary about the Queen. I can imagine you enjoying every page of this book, thank you for sharing it here, I’m delighted to know about it.

    • It would make a wonderful present, Lorna, a real book to enjoy reading at leisure! I’m glad you liked reading about it, and I’m really happy to be able to share it on here because it’s so special. I saw the media coverage of those photographs too, and I remember marvelling at them at the time because they are so unusual and beautiful.

  4. I saw a photo of the photo shoot for that cover and I thought it was really impressive.
    I asked our library system to buy a copy, but I highly doubt that they will. Not sure how I’ll get a hold of a copy, as the price is a bit high for me!

    • That is a shame, I know you would love it! I hope you might find a way to get your hands on a copy! Yes, that photo (and the ones inside) are just spectacular.

  5. Boy would this be a good book to curl up on the sofa with. I find this kind of thing so interesting and refreshing as well.

  6. Marvelous, Jo! Thanks for the recommendation. Hank is particularly interested in the “Bearer of the Dog Whipper’s Rod” as he’d forgotten that dogs could come into the cathedrals, too. Rather ecumenical-ish.
    Definitely British!

  7. …Though he wonders who bears the very important office of “Bearer of the Poo Bags and Nature’s Miracle”?

    • Thank you for your interest, Hank, and I’m sure you’d feel at home – at least in Exeter! I am not sure who holds the particular post that you mention but it may well be closer to home than you imagine. I hope that you extend your gratitude to the bearer of such an important office.

  8. A DEFINITE addition to my library.🙂

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