The Byzant Ceremony
Procession of the Mace
Prior to 1830, at an agreed date May usually the Monday before Ascension Day, Shaftesbury would hold their annual Byzant Ceremony.
The ceremony came about due to the fact that Shaftesbury's geographical location was on a hill and that it did not have a water supply to call its own. To solve this problem was to siphon off some of that supplied by the Enmore Green wells at nearby Motcombe.
However, a contract between the village of Motcombe for the use of their wells, had to be met every year, by means of the Byzant (also known as Bezant) ceremony. The word 'byzant' seems to derive from the old coin of the same name and not from Byzantine as in 'fiendishly complicated', which might seem more appropriate. In the past, Kings would often present a bezant at religious festivals or when taking Mass, and the coins were often replaced with a symbolic gift, still retaining the name 'byzant'.
The Shaftesbury Byzant Ceremony would process from the town headed by an official carrying a decorated calf's head with a purse of money in its mouth. Next in line came a man carrying the gilded Byzant or Prize Besom itself an ornate mace, decorated with jewels, ribbons, flowers and peacocks' feathers. The mayor and his team were next, with the townsfolk bringing up the rear.
They danced and sang their way to Enmore Green, where they presented gave Motcombe's bailiff
The head and purse, the Byzant, some bread, a gallon of ale, and a pair of laced gloves was presented to the Lord of the Manor of Gillingham, who owned the land of Enmore Green and the Spring.
The Lord then handed back the Byzant, its function in the ceremony being purely symbolic, and the Shaftesbury towns-folk began their long journey back home, leaving Motcombe's a merrymakers to carry on with the singing and dancing.
Without this annual ritual Motcombe could refuse the use of its water to the town. The ceremony ended around the mid-nineteenth century when an artesian well was discovered at Shaftesbury in 1830.
Footnote: The last Prize Byzant (see above) can still be seen in Shaftesbury's Town Museum. Open from April to October , Admission - £1.00. For more details about the museum contact:- Shaftesbury & District Town MuseumGold Hill Shaftesbury Dorset SP7 8JW. Tel: 01747 852157 or click here Shaftesbury & District Town Museum