Trailblazing pageant master organised first Battle of Hastings re-enactment

On the eve of the Battle of Hastings anniversary and the annual re-enactment of that battle, a new English Heritage podcast reveals that the person who directed the very first re-enactment in 1932 was the country’s first self-proclaimed female pageant master and someone who subverted the gender norms of the inter-war years.

Speaking with Shadows – a new English Heritage podcast series hosted by broadcaster and comedian Josie Long – tells the stories of under-represented and overlooked people in history. The first episode focuses on theatre producer and actress Gwen Lally – a prolific organiser of historical pageants including in 1932, the first re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. Renowned for her striking appearance and masculine style of dress, Lally only played male parts in her acting career – famously claiming ‘the distinction of being the only actress who has never worn skirts on the stage’.

But until now, little was known of her personal life outside the realms of theatre. Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan, an expert on Lally from the University of Portsmouth, has unearthed records which indicate that Lally may have been hiding her romantic life in plain sight. Registers reveal that Lally lived with ‘partner’ and fellow actress Amabel aka Mabel Gibson for almost 40 years until her death in 1963, and also left her the entirety of her estate.

Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan said: “George Bernard Shaw told Gwen Lally ‘you are a pageant in yourself’ and throughout her life, theatrics pervaded every facet of her character, but simultaneously reflected her truth. It was fascinating to unearth these records which hint at the relationship she may have shared with Mabel Gibson, but regardless of her sexual orientation, her romantic poetry written to a female subject and her associations with famous feminists and self-identified lesbians at the time work together to allow us to suggest that she was a woman who fearlessly subverted the norm of early twentieth century femininity and bent the prescribed rules of gender to her will.”

In 1932, when Lally directed the first ever re-creation of the Battle of Hastings at Battle Abbey in East Sussex, 2,600 people took part. Lally told the Sussex Agricultural Express that she and her partner Mabel Gibson, ‘had felt definite psychic influences in the Abbey grounds at late rehearsals…I think that the monks were probably not displeased with us, for we were doing them no dishonour in making those lovely scenes live again’. A strikingly coloured programme from the original 1932 pageant is now on display at Battle Abbey.

She was a woman who fearlessly subverted the norm of early twentieth century femininity and bent the prescribed rules of gender to her will

Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan,

Over the weekend of 12-13 October, English Heritage will recreate the most famous battle in English history in the place where it happened with the battlefield site transformed by the sights, sounds and smells of the Norman and Saxon encampments and over 600 re-enactors and scores of horses taking to the field.

Diana Evans, English Heritage’s Events Manager for the South – a pageant master in her own right – said: “The Battle of Hastings was a defining event in English history and the re-enactment today is hugely popular attracting large crowds year after year. I can see exactly why Gwen Lally chose to recreate the event of 1066 in her 1932 Pageant but what is a surprise is the incredible insight this podcast reveals about her life and relationships. I admire just how ground breaking she was in refusing to conform to the gender norms of her day and follow her heart. Her story is now another layer in the history of the battlefield site and I’m proud to stand in her shoes today and help bring history to life.”

Launching today (8 October) and recorded at six English Heritage historic properties across the country, English Heritage’s Speaking With Shadows podcast will cover a range of previously suppressed histories, seeking out the voices that have previously gone unheard; from Black prisoners of war at Portchester Castle in Hampshire and the massacre of a Jewish community at Clifford’s Tower in North Yorkshire, to the queen accused of witchcraft at Pevensey Castle in East Sussex.

Speaking with Shadows Host Josie Long said: “Being able to roam the country exploring English Heritage’s castles, abbeys and Roman forts and having the opportunity to share these untold stories has been a real privilege. I hope, through sharing these unheard histories, we’ve been able to give a voice to the voiceless.”

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