Friday, 19 June 2015

The Bayard’s Colts, Walsall

The following text (reproduced here without permission) is from the Walsall Council PDF:

"The Bayard’s Colts are a curious surviving relic from Walsall’s past. They are a collection of seventeen clubs which were carried behind the Mayor in ceremonial processions at the openings of markets and fairs and on other civic occasions. In about 1670 there is a mention in the Mayor’s accounts of 7/6d being paid to “ye clubbemen for carrying ye clubbes in procession”. The practice was discontinued in the mid-nineteenth century, and after this the clubs were hung on the walls of the Magistrates’ Court in the Guildhall. In 1969 two of the clubs fell from their hanging place while the court was in session, and were found to be infested with wood worm. The clubs were transferred to the care of Walsall Museum, which arranged for their restoration. Subsequently fifteen of the clubs were returned to the new Magistrates’ Court on Stafford Street, where they continue to hang today. 
Bayard’s Colts
Local historians in the nineteenth century linked the clubs to those mentioned in an interesting document from the sixteenth century. This document, dated 1524-5, concerns a dispute between Robert Acton, Lord of the Manor, and the Mayor of Walsall, Richard Hopkyns. Hopkyns and the two leading burgesses of the town, Richard Bingley and Nick Woodward, were accused, among other things, of cutting down trees in Walsall Park and killing the King’s deer. Claiming that Acton had no jurisdiction over them, the three men threatened to ring Bayard’s Bell and summon Bayard and his thousand colts to deal with him: “these coltes being great clubs which have been of long time set and hanged up on high in the Guildhall and be at certain times borne about the town in great reverence, which thing to be suffered is a great abomination”. 

It is not clear whether the clubs which survive today are the same as those referred to in this document. Although it is thought that those clubs which have carved heads may be sixteenth century in origin, they could however be later replacements. When the clubs were restored in the early 1970s, the date 1714 was found carved into one of the heads. 

The origins of the name of the clubs is also uncertain. One explanation is that they were named after a French knight called Bayard, a hero of the early sixteenth century wars between France and Spain, who was killed in 1524. Bayard was famous across Europe, and people locally may have come to hear of his reputation. Another explanation has been prompted by the fact that two of the clubs have heads in the shape of horses. This has led to suggestions that their name is derived from a legendary horse called Bayard who featured in a popular Medieval romance. 

The Bayard’s Colts vary in length from one and a half metres long to well over two metres long. Most of them are ornamented around the tops of the poles with brass studs and woollen tassels. They would originally have been brightly painted, and traces of flesh tints and blue, gold and red pigments can still be seen on them. During the nineteenth century they were covered with thick black paint, which was removed when they were restored in the early 1970s. Two of the clubs have the letters ‘W.H.’ and ‘E.W.’ in brass immediately below the heads. 

Five of the clubs are topped by weapons, which include pikes and halberds. One club has an empty socket at its top, and the remaining eleven clubs are topped by carved heads. These carved heads consist of two demonlike faces, a lamb’s head, a bear or lion’s head, two horses, three male heads possibly representing a king, a nobleman and a priest, and two more human heads. While some of the heads have placid, calm expressions, others appear angry, with gnashing teeth. One of the horse’s heads is calm, while the other has a fierce expression. This has led to suggestions that the clubs were carved to represent different aspects of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and that they might have started off as props in a morality play, which later came to be adopted into the town’s civic regalia. The restoration work on the clubs uncovered traces of fabric around the tops of some of the poles. This may be the remains of a fabric cape fixed around the pole to conceal the player holding it during such a play. 

However, although Walsall is an ancient Borough with a list of Mayors going back to the fourteenth century, no evidence survives of a morality play peculiar to this area. We may never know exactly what the Bayard’s Colts were for."

Following on from my post about English billhooks - details of which can can see (here) - note that, although these clubs are thought to be ceremonial, there are at least three that could have possibly been practical weapons. These are a halbard (which does look quite ornate), a poleaxe and of special interest is another weapon based on a agricultural implement (this time a forest bill) known as a Welsh hook. This type of pole arm is even mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1 with Falstaff saying,

"My own knee? ... and swore the devil his true liegeman upon the cross of a Welsh hook,—What, a plague, call you him?",
Bayard's Colts
Pole Axe detail
Welsh Hook & Halbard
Halbard detail
Until recently all these clubs were on display at the local history museum, unfortunately however, due to council cut backs the museum is shut for the foreseeable future. I can only assume that the clubs have been returned to the Magistrates' Court.