Swearing on the Horns

Swearing on the Horns

Swearing on the Horns is a farcical oath that was traditionally given to visitors at various pubs in the London suburb of Highgate during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. 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.


While some versions are quite long—one source depicts a ceremony with six stanzas—the best-known points are:cite book|title=English Inn Past and Present|author=Harold D. Eberlein and Albert E. Richardson|year=1972|pages=28]

The exception clauses make clear that the oath is not an oath at all; one may do as one pleases. Other parts of the oath include pledges to be kind to one's wife, to remember that the man is the head of his household, and to bring new initiates on one's next visit.


Swearing on the Horns and becoming Freemen of Highgate conferred several privileges, though the privileges were subject to several conditions and often turned out to be no privilege at all. The immediate reward was to kiss the prettiest woman in the pub; if no pretty women were to be found, the new initiate had to settle for less. If a Freeman in need of a rest was in Highgate, he could kick a pig out of a ditch and take its place. But if there were three pigs in the ditch, he could only chase away the middle one and sleep between the other two. If a Freeman found himself penniless in Highgate, he could have free drinks for himself and his friends, but if any money was found on him (or if it was found he had given it to his friends to hold) he had to buy a round of drinks for the house.


The earliest confirmed mention is in a burlesque routine performed in Haymarket Theatre in 1742. The 1785 edition of Grose's "Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" held that the oath had been invented by a landlord of one of the public houses, to entertain guests and con newcomers out of some money. According to Grose, the custom had fallen into disuse at that time, which—considering its wide popularity in the early 1800scite book|title=Chambers' Book of Days|author=Robert Chambers|year=1869|chapter=January 15|url=http://www.thebookofdays.com/months/jan/15.htm] — indicates that swearing on the horns came in and out of fashion over the centuries.

At one time, members of all social classes took part in the swearing in. In "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage", Lord Byron alludes to it. [cite book|title=Notes and Queries, Volume 4|author=William John Thomas et al.|year=1851|url=http://books.google.com/books?id=lV0CAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA84&lpg=PA84&dq=%22swearing+on+the+horns%22&source=web&ots=WejWX-lJ2R&sig=uiJEZIaIvmVGuB2AUiQywCYSQ7w|pages=84] :quote|"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."|Byron

Young people would make mock pilgrimages from the city to experience the festivities, and by 1826 there were at least 19 different pubs in Highgate performing the ceremony. Some pubs would display a set of horns over their doors to indicate that travellers could be sworn in and made Freemen there.

By the mid-19th century, however, the tradition began to lose its popularity and had almost completely died out by 1875. [cite book|title=London and Its Environs|author=Karl Baedeker|year=1885|url= http://books.google.com/books?id=VEgdAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA315&lpg=PA315&dq=%22swearing+on+the+horns%22+small+beer&source=web&ots=mClhoqmV0J&sig=30uKffaIYmMNzmdvoK7Vqgzs5aI|pages=315]

The custom is examined in detail in George Walter Thornbury's "Old and New London" from 1874. Thornbury believes the custom is at least as old as the Reformation and states that the text "was originally intended as a parody on the admission of neophytes into religious guilds and confraternities by the clergy of the Catholic Church".cite book|title=Old and New London|author=George Walter Thornbury|year=1875|pages=413-418|url=http://books.google.com/books?id=jXcuAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA413&lpg=PA413&dq=%22swearing+on+the+horns%22&source=web&ots=x-WxNLqhsM&sig=GWuD8ovGdTxRi2pTYqy4Mc8o2MQ] He holds that the ceremony began at the Gate House Inn (the site of the gate from which Highgate draws its name) as a club for travellers along the cattle route to Smithfield.

In 1906, members of the Hampstead Antiquarian and Historical Society held a public re-enactment of the ceremony at what was by then known as the Old Gate House Hotel. [cite book|title=The Antiquary|author=Edward Walford, et al.|year=1906|pages=242|url= http://books.google.com/books?id=doy-H6ZD0ZMC&pg=PA242&lpg=PA242&dq=%22swearing+on+the+horns%22+small+beer&source=web&ots=J9i2HNVjwZ&sig=YVyZaHZPb7CmMMAVLC87B8xagbw] Throughout the 20th century the tradition was once again revived, and continues to be conducted on special occasions at certain Highgate pubs: The Wrestlers conducts theirs twice annually, under a set of stag antlers. [cite web|url=http://www.professorharbottle.co.uk/pub/londonnorth/wrestlers.html|title=Harbottle's Pub Guide] In 2007, The Flask pub conducted the ceremony with a set of 200-year-old ram's horns taken from the Coopers Arms, as part of their beating the bounds festivities. [cite web|url=http://www.camden.gov.uk/ccm/content/press/2007/april/mayor-of-camden-puts-best-foot-forward.en|title=Mayor of Camden puts best foot forward|date=18 April 2007|publisher=Camden Council]


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Игры ⚽ Нужно сделать НИР?

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Highgate horns —    A custom which used to take place at Highgate, north London, was the swearing on the horns . Anyone passing through the village for the first time was requested to submit to a ceremony in one of the local public houses conducted by the… …   A Dictionary of English folklore

  • The Satanic Verses controversy — refers to the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie s novel The Satanic Verses . In particular it involves the novel s alleged blasphemy or unbelief; the 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie; and the… …   Wikipedia

  • The Bill (series 11) — The Bill Series 11 Country of origin United Kingdom No. of episodes 149 Broadcast Original channel ITV …   Wikipedia

  • List of Acts of Parliament of the English Parliament, 1603 to 1641 — This is a list of Acts of Parliament of the English Parliament during that body s existence prior to the Act of Union of 1707. For legislation passed after that date see List of Acts of Parliament of the United Kingdom Parliament.The numbers… …   Wikipedia

  • List of characters in the Soul series — A comprehensive list of characters from the Soul series of fighting games produced by Namco. Series characters Official characters within the series storyline. They are playable in some installments of the series. Abyss nihongo|Abyss|アビス|Abisu is …   Wikipedia

  • Chronology of the 2009 Honduran constitutional crisis — Contents 1 September 30, 2008 2 November 11, 2008 3 February 2009 3.1 February 17 …   Wikipedia

  • Highgate — infobox UK place country = England region= London population= official name= Highgate london borough= Camden london borough1= Haringey london borough2= Islington constituency westminster= Hampstead and Highgate post town= LONDON postcode area= N… …   Wikipedia

  • List of Bakugan Battle Brawlers characters — This is a list of characters from the Japanese anime series Bakugan Battle Brawlers. Contents 1 Heroes 1.1 Battle Brawlers …   Wikipedia

  • List of Doctor Who universe creatures and aliens — This is a list of fictional creatures and aliens from the universe of the long running BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who, including Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and K 9. It covers alien races and other fictional creatures,… …   Wikipedia

  • List of Athena's Saints — Athena, accompanied by Bronze and Gold Saints. Screenshot from the anime. The following list comprises the characters that form the three ranks of the army of the greek goddess Athena, in the japanese manga Saint Seiya, written and illustrated by …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”