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Swearing on the Horns

Between the 17th and 19th centuries there was a folk custom in the Public Houses and Inns of Highgate known as the ‘Swearing on the Horns’. Described as a burlesque performance in which visitors to the establishments were required to take a oath presided over by a costumed Master (usually the landlord), which culminated with the saluting (kissing) of a set of horns or a pretty woman if one was present. Having taken the oath and paid the required price for the ceremony the visitor was entitled a Freeman of Highgate which came a variety of dubious benefits. This ritual obviously appealed to the young men of that age who revelled in merriment and debauchery and proved to be great entertainment for the inhabitants of Highgate.

The ceremony may date back to the Reformation and it has been suggested that it is a ‘parody on the admission of neophytes into religious guilds and confraternities by the clergy of the Catholic Church.’ The oath was taken by people from all walks of life, level of education and rank in society. Lord Byron is thought to have taken the oath during his lifetime and mentioned the horns in one of his poems;

Many to the steep of Highgate die;
Ask, ye Baeceotian shades! the reason why?
'Tis to the worship of the solemn Horn,
Grasped in the holy hand of Mystery,
In whose dread name both men and maids are sworn,
And consecrate the oath with draught and dance till morn.'

There were nineteen taverns in Highgate in 1826 (according to William Hone, Every Day Book, 1826) and most if not all would hold Swearing on the Horns ceremonies. In ‘Old and New London: Volume 5’ published in 1878, Edward Walford describes the ceremony. ‘Some sixty years ago upwards of eighty stage-coaches would stop every day at the 'Red Lion' inn, and out of every five passengers three were sworn. So soon as the coach drew up at the inn-door most pressing invitations would be given to the company to alight, and after as many as possible could be collected in the parlour, the landlord would introduce the Highgate oath. A little artifice easily led to the detection of the uninitiated, and as soon as the fact was ascertained the horns were brought in. There were generally sufficient of the initiated to induce compliance with those who had not yet passed through the ordeal. The horns were fixed on a pole five feet in height, and placed upright on the ground before the person who was to be sworn. The neophyte was then required to take off his hat, which all present having also done, the landlord, in a bold voice, began the ceremony. It commenced by the landlord saying—

'Upstanding and uncovered: silence. Take notice what I now say to you, for that is the first word of the oath; mind that! You must acknowledge me to be your adopted father, I must acknowledge you to be my adopted son. If you do not call me father, you forfeit a bottle of wine; if I do not call you son, I forfeit the same. And now, my good son, if you are travelling through this village of Highgate, and you have no money in your pocket, go call for a bottle of wine at any house you may think proper to enter, and book it to your father's score. If you have any friends with you, you may treat them as well; but if you have money of your own, you must pay for it yourself; for you must not say you have no money when you have; neither must you convey your money out of your own pocket into that of your friend's pocket, for I shall search them as well as you, and if I find that you or they have any money, you forfeit a bottle of wine for trying to cheat and cozen your old father. You must not eat brown bread while you can get white, unless you like brown the best; nor must you drink small beer when you can get strong, unless you like small the best; you must not kiss the maid while you can kiss the mistress, unless you like the maid best; but sooner than lose a good chance, you may kiss them both. And now, my good son, I wish you a safe journey through Highgate and this life. I charge you, my good son, that if you know any in this company who have not taken this oath, you must cause them to take it, or make each of them forfeit a bottle of wine; for if you fail to do so, you will forfeit one yourself. So now, my son, God bless you; kiss the horns, or a pretty girl if you see one here, which you like best, and so be free of Highgate.'

If a female were in the room, she was, of course, saluted; if not, the horns were to be kissed, but the option was not allowed formerly. The peculiarity of the oath was in the pronoun that, which generally resulted in victimising the strangers of some bottles of wine. So soon as the salutation was over, and the wine drank, the landlord, addressing himself to the newly-made son, said;

'I have now to acquaint you with your privileges as a freeman of Highgate. If at any time you are going through the hamlet, and want to rest yourself, and you see a pig lying in a ditch, you are quite at liberty to kick her out and take her place; but if you see three lying together, you must only kick out the middle one, and lie between the two; so God save the king!'" These last liberties, however, are, according to Mr. Larwood, a later addition to the oath, introduced by a facetious blacksmith, who at one time kept the "Coach and Horses."

In some circumstances a song would be sung, as long as the landlord had a decent singing voice. This ceremony with song one appeared in ‘Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England’ by Robert Bell.

The Landlord enters, dressed in a black gown and bands, and wearing an antique-fashioned wig; followed by the Clerk of the Court, also in appropriate costume, and carrying the register book and the horns.

Landlord:- Do you wish to be sworn at Highgate?
Candidate:- I do, father.
Clerk:- Amen.

The Landlord then says or sings as follows:

Silence! O yes! you are my son!
Full to your old father turn, sir;
This is an oath you may take as you run,
So lay your hand thus on the horn, sir.

[Here the Candidate places his right hand on the horn]

You shall not spend with cheaters or cozens your life,
Nor waste it on profligate beauty;
And when you are wedded, be kind to your wife,
And true to all petticoat duty.

[The Candidate says "I will," and kisses the horns, in obedience to the Clerk, who exclaims, in a loud and solemn tone, "Kiss the horns, sir."]

And while you thus solemnly swear to be kind,
And shield and protect from disaster,
This part of the oath, you must bear it in mind,
That you and not she is the master.

[Clerk:- "Kiss the horns again, sir."]

You shall pledge no man first when a woman is near,
For 'tis neither proper nor right, sir;
Nor, unless you prefer it, drink small for strong beer,
Nor eat brown bread when you can get white, sir.

[Clerk-: "Kiss the horns again, sir."]
You shall never drink brandy when wine you can get,
Say when good port or sherry is handy,
Unless that your taste on strong spirit is set,
In which case you may, sir, drink brandy.

[Clerk:- "Kiss the horns again, sir."]

To kiss the fair maid when the mistress is kind
Remember that you must be loth, sir;
But if the maid's fairest, your oath does not bind,
Or you may, if you like it, kiss both, sir.

[Clerk:- "Kiss the horns again, sir."]

Should you ever return, take this oath here again,
Like a man of good sense, leal and true, sir;
And be sure to bring with you some more merry men,
That they on the horn may swear too, sir.

Landlord:- Now, sir, if you please, sign your name in that book; and if you can't write, then make your mark, and the Clerk of the Court will attest it.
[Here one of the above requests is complied with.]
Landlord:- You will now please to pay half-a-crown for court fees, and what you please to the Clerk.

The necessary ceremony being thus gone through, the business terminates by the Landlord saying "God bless the King (or Queen) and the Lord of the Manor," to which the Clerk responds, "Amen, amen!" N.B. The court fees are always returned in wine, spirits, or porter, of which the Landlord and the Clerk are invited to partake.

Mounted on a stick, the horns were generally either from a stag (The Gate House, The Mitre, The Green Dragon, The Bell, The Rose and Crown, The Bull, The Wrestlers, The Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, The Crown, and The Duke's Head) a bullock (The Red Lion and The Sun) or a ram (The Coach and Horses, The Castle, The Red Lion, The Coopers' Arms, The Fox and Hounds, The Flask, and The Angel).

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Ian Topham
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Re: Swearing on the Horns

I believe that they have may actually revived the tradition of Swearing on the Horns at The Wrestlers and The Flask Tavern.



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