The Leicester Pageant

The Leicester Pageant took place over ten days in June 1932 in Leicester's Abbey Park.  Over 4000 people participated and many more were involved in designing and making the costumes, writing scripts, organising rehearsals and back-stage support.  The event was organised by the famous Pageant Master, Frank Lascelles.

'But what is that of the Pageant of Leicester - the thrilling, throbbing, marvellous creation that has come to life in our midst - the miracle of which we shall talk the rest of our lives through, that which has given us visions and dreams of which we have never thought - where is the spirit to be found?

In the hearts and souls of the performers this magic dwells; it is they who have given body to the great visions of Leicester's past, and her historical associations and her ageless story.'

Frank Lascelles
Pageant Master


Abbey Park

Backdrop to the pageant

Abbey Park - backdrop to the pageant
Abbey Park - backdrop to the pageant

Abbey Park is a Victorian creation, but its history began much earlier in 1143 when Robert de Bossu, the second Earl of Leicester, founded the Augustinian Abbey of St Mary de Pratis on this land outside the town.

At the Dissolution, the abbey and lands were granted to the Marquess of Northampton who later sold it to William Cavendish, first Earl of Devonshire. In the seventeenth century he built a large house nearby with stone removed from the ruins. The house was later used by Charles I during the Civil War and was deliberately gutted and set on fire by his forces after his departure. The charred ruins remain today.

Little remains of the abbey today but its approximate 'footprint' is marked within the grounds. In recent years, much more knowledge of the abbey has been gained from archaeological digs which have been used to train students at Leicester University.

Plans to convert the 57 acres into a public park began in 1879 as part of flood defences along the River Soar. This involved widening and deepening the river, the excavated soil being used to landscape the parkland. Stone weirs and locks, and three new bridges were also constructed, more than 33,000 new trees were planted and an artificial lake was created. It was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 29 May 1882, and extended in 1932 in time for the Pageant.

Frank Lascelles 

The man who staged the Empire

Frank Lascelles was born in the village of Sibford Gower in Oxfordshire.  He was the son of the Revd Edward Thomas Stevens who was the village priest.   

He was educated at the village school before attending Keble College, Oxford, where he became the most notable member of Oxford's dramatic society. 

After Oxford, he worked as an actor in London between 1904 and 1906 at Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's His Majesty's theatre. It was during this time that he changed his name from Stevens to Lascelles.

He staged his first pageant in 1907.  The Oxford Historical was a success, despite initial reservations by the University authorities and a student riot. 

The following year he organised the celebrations for the Tercentenary of Canada at Quebec City. Lascelles enlisted the services of the Iroquois and was made an honorary chief under the name of Tehonikonraka, "the man of infinite resource". In 1909 he was Master of Pageantry at the celebration of the opening of the Union Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. The following year he organised the Pageant of London, performed by a cast of 15,000.    

Frank Lascelles
Frank Lascelles

In 1912 Lascelles was Master of the Pageant at the Coronation Durbar at Calcutta with the participation of over 300,000 Indians and British Army troops. In 1923 he was Master of the Harrow Pageant and the following year Master of the Bristol Pageant (Cradle of the Empire) and the Pageant of Empire at the British Empire Exhibition. Lascelles' imperial triumphs earned him the epithet "the man who staged the empire".

Frank Lascelles, Pageant Master
Frank Lascelles, Pageant Master

He was also a sculptor, and among his subjects were the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught, Earl Grey and the Aga Khan. Several of his sculptures are displayed in prominent positions across the former Empire. He sculpted a memorial to his mother in the church at Sibford Gower, as well as painting a Roll of Honour. He also contributed prose and verse to periodicals. In 1932 the Earl of Darnley compiled Our Modern Orpheus, a volume of essays paying tribute to Lascelles.

Lascelles had always been anxious to hide his humble origins, and built a new manor house for himself in Sibford Gower, modelled on a medieval design. He was well-connected, and regularly entertained guests such as Ivor Novello, who wrote the popular song Keep the Home Fires Burning while staying with Lascelles in Sibford.

Towards the end of his life, ill health restricted Lascelles' finances and he died in poverty on 23 May 1934 in rented rooms in Brighton. He never married.