What on Earth?
The Penny Hedge or Horngarth ceremony is an annual custom in Whitby. A hedge made of woven hazel and willow is created on the East bank of the River Esk, at the North harbour in Whitby by two men at 9am on the morning of the eve of Ascension Day. This old feast day is forty days after Easter Sunday and marks the ascension to heaven of Christ and so the Penny Hedge actually takes place 39 days after Easter. The hedge must withstand three tides in order for it to continue the following year. If the hedge breaks, then the cermeony must end forever.
How did this come about?
The origins regarding the timing of The Penny Hedge ceremony has its roots in the year 664, when the Synod of Whitby set the date for Easter, so it falls on the Sunday after the nearest full moon to the 21st March but never after 25th April in any given year. Five hundred years later in the year 1159, two huntsmen were hunting wild boar in the forest which belonged to the Abbot of Whitby. They pursued one particular boar around the wood, until the animal ran near to the house of a monk, who also lived as a hermit. Disgusted by the inhumane practices of hunting with dogs, he sought to protect the boar from harm. Frustrated and annoyed with the interference of the monk in their hunt they beat him up until he was almost dead. The dying monk summoned the Abbot who lived nearby, who punished the hunstmen with certain death for their crime. The dying monk had another plan though and suggested that the men should keep their lives, but for their penence must build a hedge on the eve of Ascension Day, something which was more celebrated back then. Once the hedge was built in the river, under the supervision of the Abbot, the holy man must blow a horn to mark its completion. The hedge must then withstand three tides.
How is The Penny Hedge Made?
The penny hedge is made from nine hazel stakes, which are driven into the mud using an ancient mallet. Nine ‘yethers,’ or intertwining willow branches are then woven horizonally across the nine hazel stakes to create the penny hedge. In the original decree by the dying monk, the stems of woven willow stakes must be cut and created with a knife of a ‘penny price,’ or costing one penny and created by the descendants of the huntsmen.
Who Takes Part?
While the descendants of the original huntsmen’s families have died out, the ceremony is performed by two members of the Hutton family, which own the land at Harton House Farm in Fylindales, which was the original land where the murder took place back in 1159. In earlier ceremonies it was overseen by the Abbot of Whitby Abbey, but more recently it has been the Bailiff of the Manor of Fyling. Once the hedge has been created, the bailiff blows a rams horn three times and shouts, ‘Out on ye,’ ‘Out on ye’
The 1981 Penny Hedge Ceremony
In 1981, after 825 years by a quirk of lunar fate, the Penny Hedge ceremony hit a snag. Due to a rare event, in which the Sunday after the full moon nearest to 21st March fell after April 25th, of which it was decreed at the Synod back in 664 that Easter could not be held after. Therefore Easter that year was held on the 19th April, the day of the full moon. This had a knock on effect for the Whitby Penny Hedge ceremony because it meant the sea was at high tide at 9am on the morning of Ascension Day Eve, which meant the hedge could not be built in the River Esk. According to the rules, if there is a full sea, the cermony should cease forever. By poular demand, the Penny Hedge continued as normal in 1982 and every year since until 2020, when the ceremony was cancelled because of you know what. The 2021 ceremony is due to take place on Wednesday 12th May.