Lichfield Court of Array

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Lichfield, Staffordshire, preserves several unique customs which are now linked. The Court of Array is a genuine survival of a previous serious and practical event: by the Assize of Arms, an Act passed in 1176 and restated in 1285 (Statute of Winchester) every freeman aged between 15 and 60 was required to keep arms and armour and be able to handle them properly in times of military need. The Court of Array was set up to enforce these regulations, and to inspect the said arms and armour on a regular basis, and although the Acts were repealed in the reign of James I, Lichfield still keeps its Court in operation, and part of the custom is to inspect some medieval suits of armour which the city possesses.

The Commissioners of Array, or ‘dozeners’ are appointed at the Court Leet, held every St George's Day. This Court's officers also include an ale tester, constables, pinlock keepers, and pinners and is nowadays conducted in good humour rather than in solemn dignity.

One other civic survival in Lichfield which is treated with more respect is the Sherriff's Ride in early September. By a charter of Queen Mary (1552), confirmed by Charles II (1664) and apparently still in force, the Bailiffs and Brethren of the city were obliged to elect a Sherriff, one of whose duties was to perambulate the city boundaries once a year. And so he still does, on horseback, accompanied nowadays by anything up to 200 other riders.

Lichfield's other claim to folkloric fame comes in the shape of its Greenhill Bower, which also takes place on Spring Bank Holiday but was previously a Whit Monday custom. The custom is nowadays a carnival with lorries carrying tableaux, decorated carts, and bands, but previously it was the day when the City Guilds used to meet at Greenhill, where a temporary bower had been erected, carrying emblems of their trades along with flower garlands. Celia Fiennes recorded in her diary in the late 18th century the ceremony of dressing up ‘baby's with garlands of flowers’ and carrying it through the streets before proceeding to the hill and the large bower made with ‘greens’ in which they have their feast. A contributor to Hone's Every-Day Book in 1826 describes the mechanics of the town carrying small working models symbolizing their trade, fixed on top of six-foot poles, again decorated with flowers and greenery, but even at that time the Greenhill was ‘nearly surrounded by houses’.

Stone, 1906: 39–42; Illustrated London News (25 May 1850), 364;Crawford, 1938: 54–5;Hone, 1827: ii. 334;Wright and Lones, 1936: i. 166–7;Shuel, 1985: 111–12.

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