Monday, 2 April 2012

The Skimmington Ride

The large plaster frieze in the Great Hall at Montacute House is one of the room’s most distinctive features, and one that is particularly puzzling for modern visitors. In such a grand house one might expect the frieze to depict a morally uplifting tale from the Bible or classical mythology... but instead it shows a rustic scene from the time the frieze was produced, in the early seventeenth century.

The subject matter is equally confusing for modern visitors: a kind of ritual public humiliation called a Skimmington ride, which was quite a common form of ‘rough justice’ in previous centuries but is almost forgotten today. The punishment was often meted out to a man who had allowed his wife to get the better of him, and that’s the case in this instance. The victim is a hen-pecked husband whose wife catches him having a quick drink while he should be minding the baby. You can see her hitting him over the head with a shoe in the left half of the picture! This little scene having been witnessed by a neighbour, the right side of the frieze shows the Skimmington ride itself—with the man paraded around the village on a pole while being made to play a flute. To modern viewers the husband’s ‘crime’ and his ensuing punishment may seem trivial, but four centuries ago both would have been viewed as dishonourable in the extreme.

So why was the Skimmington frieze given such a prominent place in Montacute House? No-one really knows! The original owner, Sir Edward Phelips, was a high-ranking government lawyer—he was involved in the prosecution of Guy Fawkes and the other gunpowder plotters in 1605. No doubt his profession had something to do with his choice of subject. It may be a lawyer’s in-joke, or a warning to clients to stay on the right side of the law, or a reference to some specific but now forgotten incident.

You can read more about Skimmington riding in this article on the Dark Dorset website.

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