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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Swearing on the Horns at Highgate

Shortly after, or even before I left senior school (many years ago!) I was introduced to the institution of the English Pub, several of which were within 1km of my home at Highgate in North London. One of these pubs, just around the corner from home and across North Hill towars Highgate village, is The Wrestlers Tavern. http://www.fancyapint.com/pubs/pub2166.html It was here in 1961 or thereabouts, when I was 18 years old, the then publican revived the ancient ceremony of Swearing on the Horns at Highgate. It is now a biannual event at the same pub.
Many people came, placed their hands on a dusty set of deer antlers, held aloft on a stick and gave an oath, a very silly but enjoyable oath that conferred several strange concessions to those, having sworn, might visit the streets of Highgate in future….
While some versions are quite long—one source depicts a ceremony with six stanzas,
the best known points are:
You must not eat brown bread while you can get white, except you like the brown the best.
You must not drink small beer while you can get strong, except you like the small the best.
You must not kiss the maid while you can kiss the mistress, except you like the maid the best, but sooner than lose a good chance you may kiss them both.
The exception clauses make it 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 confers 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.

Looking back over many years, I cannot now remember kissing any maids on that day, pretty or otherwise! I kept a photograph from the local newspaper of the day, but cannot now find it.

I am pleased to see that Swearing on the Horns is still a Highgate tradition after so many years, and who knows, one day I might visit The Wrestlers Tavern again and renwew old acquaintance or kick out a pig I may find there.

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