Knightlow Wroth Silver, WarwickshireThe origins of the Wroth Silver ceremony in the hundred of Knightlow, Warwickshire, are much debated, as is inevitable with an event that dates back to at least 1170. But it is a custom that those involved are determined to keep alive, even if only to enjoy the breakfast and rum with milk afterwards.
As the sun is rising on November 11, St Martin's Day, representatives from 25 parishes gather around an ancient stone at the top of Knightlow Hill, not too far from Rugby . The agent of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry reads aloud what amounts to a rent demand, then lists the parishes which are to pay it, on pain of a fine of a pound for every penny unpaid. Alternatively the fine can be demanded in the form of a white bull with red ears and nose. The whole event is uneconomic for the Duke, who sends an agent, advertises the event in the local paper, and stands some guests a hearty breakfast in the local pub - others pay for the privilege these days. Included in the tradition is the drinking of rum with milk, or milk with rum if preferred, and the smoking of a clay churchwarden pipe, made specially for the occasion.
Some believe the money - referred to as Wroth Silver - is payment for some past wrong, wroth being taken as an alternative spelling for Wrath. Others, as seems more likely, take it as payment linked to cattle movements over the Duke's lands. Intriguingly, there are echoes of far older rites in the custom: it takes place on the eve of the Celtic Samhair day, when cattle were moved or slaughtered; the milk which is part of the celebrations afterwards is possibly linked to this cattle rite; and the fact that it takes place at dawn is also possibly of religious significance. Of course the dawn timing may be leaving taxes to the last minute, if we are being prosaic.
Whatever the origin, an event that justifies drinking rum and milk in the early morning and eating a huge breakfast is not to be ended at any cost. The Queen's Head is the venue these days for the breakfast, entry by ticket only, though before the ceremony many gather there for a preparatory rum and milk, and in England in November who can blame them?
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