Carla Passino investigates the meaning of the town crier's opening shout and ponders whether there is still a need for it today.
The news that the Suffolk town of Clare is looking for a new crier — their first in 300 years, and only those with powerful lungs need apply — calls for the question: what do town criers actually do and why do they parade around the streets in period clothes, shouting ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez’?
Albeit in slightly different forms and roles, criers have been a fixture of villages, towns and cities since the antiquity — Homer refers to the herald Stentor, whose voice was as powerful as that of fifty men put together.
In the past, they were essentially walking newspapers, keeping people abreast of important events. Their presence is recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry and it’s precisely from the Norman past that criers’ opening line — ‘Oyez, oyez, oyez!’— comes from.
Oyez is an Anglo-Norman word derived from the imperative form of the archaic French word ouïr (nowadays replaced by entendez or écoutez) and it means ‘Hear ye!’ Criers used it alongside the bell (from which comes their other name, bellmen) to attract people’s attention and make sure they did listen to important proclamations, which were later pinned to the door of local inns. And because the news that the criers shared wasn’t always good or welcome, they were protected by law.
In medieval England, however, having ‘a voice like a foghorn’— as Southwold’s own crier, John Barber, was praised upon his retirement in 2017 — wasn’t enough to qualify for the job. Criers also had to be sufficiently burly — after all, they needed to drag offenders to the stocks — and not at all squeamish, because they had to help cut hanged felons from the rope.
In the 18th century, their livery had a makeover, acquiring the kind of breeches, tricorn hats and greatcoats the majority of criers still wear today. Most have a red coat — a tribute to the fact that many bellmen had a military past — but Windsor town crier Chris Brown wears purple in homage to the royal designation of his borough (as does the crier of Royal Wootton Bassett).
Mr Brown was one of the many bellmen across Britain to proclaim the birth of the latest generation of Royals — town criers today are lucky they have much more pleasant tasks than those of yore, opening local fêtes, appearing at charity events and, of course, announcing royal births.
Not only is the profession still alive and well in the country, but British criers even have their very own collective noun — two or more are known as ‘a bellow of criers’ — and their own championships. The current title-holder is the Nuneaton crier, Paul Gough from the village of Bulkington, in Warwickshire, who was crowned in Darlington last month (for the sixth time in 24 years) and is best known for announcing the local Christmas lights switch-on in suitably stentorian tones.
However, a much trickier question remains unanswered: in the age of social media, for how long will a town still need a crier?
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