If something happens very infrequently you may here it referred to as being ‘once in a blue moon’. In Lancashire, ‘appen tha’ll say ‘once in a Preston Guild’. The Preston Guild is celebrated enough to become part of the language but celebrated so infrequently to become a byword for rare events.
So what is the Preston Guild? And why is celebrated only once every twenty years?
The Preston Guild dates back to 1179 and is the only such ceremony still celebrated in the UK. In 1179, Henry II granted Preston the right to have a Guild Merchant. The Guild controlled the town’s craftsmen, the right to trade in the town and the town’s marketplace. Membership of the Guild was for life, and the membership rolls were updated infrequently.
There is evidence of a Guild Court in 1328 and a celebration of the Guild Merchant in 1397. The regular pattern of holding a guild merchant every twenty years appears to have started in 1542, on the grounds that the membership roles would only need to be updated once every generation.
Bringing together all of the town’s traders, merchants and craftsmen was a perfect excuse for a display of civic pageantry, great processions and feasting. The celebratory aspects of the Preston Guild became central to the ceremony and then replaced the trade origins of the Guild when free trade was established in the town from 1790.
The Guild takes the form of a series of formal proclamations culminating in the Guild Courts. This year, the first proclamation will be read on Saturday 18 August, the second on Saturday 25 August and the third on Saturday 1 September. The Guild Court (and attendant civic procession) will take place on Monday 3 September.
A series of Guild Processions will then fill the streets of Preston, showcasing the town’s trades (Saturday 1 September), churches (Monday 3 September) and voluntary groups and schools (Friday 7 September). This culminates in a torchlight procession on Saturday 8 September before the whole Guild is wrapped up with more civic pomp on Sunday 9 September. The sense of celebration and festivity is augmented by street parties that are held throughout the borough and beyond.
This year has already seen Preston take the centre stage with a live BBC broadcast on Good Friday from the city. It will also feature in the national Olympic torch relay and has attempted to tie into the national mood of celebration with the slogan ‘all back to ours’ for anyone visiting the UK.
An uninterrupted series of Guilds from 1542 to 1922 was finally broken in 1942, as the Second World War took priority over the continuation of medieval pageantry. It was resumed in 1952 and celebrated in 1972, 1992 and will therefore be celebrated this year.