A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

27 thoughts on “A quick history of town criers

  1. “…were illiterate and couldn’t read…”
    Yeah, I said something similar when I read that.
    It’s probably not at all important, but some people seem to think the nursery rhyme about Wee Willie Winkie is based on a crier.
    I’ll just go and refill my salt shaker…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hmm. Interesting question–and not one I can answer. I expect a lot of the announcements weren’t about truth or falsehood but about laws, bylaws, reasons for a hanging–things that would easily be accepted as fact. The hanging was going on. The bylaw would take effect. The tax would be charged.

      Beyond that, I’m betting they’d have said, Look, I’m just a voice. I carry the message. I don’t write it.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Wait – “go eat a cookie” ? Did you mean a biscuit ? What is meant by “a cookie” in the UK ? I know “chips” = what we call French fries and “crisps” are what we know as potato chips.
    Oh for dumb ! I would think if you could speak Minnesotan you could befuddle any Scot !
    “Oyez Oyez” is supposedly used in court too, isn’t it ?
    Very interesting post. Thanks !

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not sure about the courts. I have studiously avoided being arrested in this country since as a naturalized citizen my status is a little fragile. But I can answer the question about cookies. They mean cookies here, but as a friend told me recently, they sound a bit fancier than biscuits, what with being American and all. (The wording there is mine, not hers.)

      I don’t know that Minneostan would befuddle a Scot (rubber binders, anyone?), but I do sometimes find myself slipping into a bit of unplanned, Yiddish-inflected English–asking someone, “How’s by you?” for example, which I think gets filed in the Inexplicable Americanisms drawer. I tried explaining it once or twice. It didn’t translate well. Without my partner, who actually knows what I’m talking about and why, I’d be lonely sometimes.

      Like

  3. Oyez, oyez, braves gens… Aulde French indeed. I suddenly had a visual memory of the little village in Normandy where my parents bought a house in 1960. A modern house, only 2 centuries “Aulde”. I seem to remember the first summer the “garde-champêtre” (rural guard) drumming his drum on the village’s main square and reading out a “procalamation”. real memory or invented? I was 6 or so. I do remember the long white “moustache”…
    (I will get therapy)

    Liked by 3 people

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