Have any of you been made a ‘Freeman (or childe) of Highgate’ after taking part in the Swearing on the Horns ceremony? I haven’t, but it sounds like fun even if it is, and always was, just a publicity stunt made up to bring customers to the many public houses and inns of the village. Intrigued?
The oath consists of a series of statements read by a clerk, confirming one’s dedication to merriment and debauchery; those being sworn in would agree to each statement, kiss or salute a set of horns, and be entered in a logbook for posterity. The proceedings were typically overseen by the landlord—referred to as the Master, the Father, or the Host—often dressed in formal costume, such as that of a barrister. In some houses, an “initiation fee” of money or drinks was required in addition to the oath; in others, the fee could be paid to bypass the ceremony altogether. Participants were then awarded the title of “Freemen of Highgate”.
The ceremony was a source of amusement for regular customers, who would do their best to convince newcomers to take part in the swearing in. The details of the swearing took various forms across the years and from pub to pub, but maintained the common themes of the horns and many of the individual statements. It seems clear that most participants understood it to be a tourist trap, but were happy to take part in it just the same. So popular was the oath that Byron referred to the ceremony in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
“Some o’er thy Thamis row the ribboned fair,
Others along the safer turnpike fly;
Some Richmond Hill ascend, some scud to Ware,
And many to the steep of Highgate hie.
Ask ye, Boeotian 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.”
The custom died out in the 19th century but in 2014 The Bull revived it for a charity event and someone who goes under the pseudonym of Quantum Phoenix has usurped it for goings on in Queens Wood. Maybe it’s time to bring back to life as one of the benefits is kissing the best looking person in the pub – and then there’s the right to evict any pigs from the ditch so as to make room for a kip.