This weekend, St Andrews saw a spectacular medieval pageant, commemorating the 700th anniversary of the Consecration of St Andrews Cathedral, with costumes provided by the Kate Kennedy Trust. If you missed this event, then don’t worry: every year in April, the Kate Kennedy Club put on a costumed parade of their own. One of our volunteer bloggers, Laura Gianesi, tells us about this unique event and its origins.
When it’s your first day in St Andrews and you encounter ancient horse-drawn carriages, maidens wearing colourful veils and bagpipe players marching behind a banner through our streets, then do not think that this is the way we spend every day here in this small town by the sea. You’re lucky that you came at the right time of year – the second Saturday in April – to join us in celebrating one of St Andrews’ oldest traditions: The Kate Kennedy Procession.
Samuel Feakes, a former keeper of the Procession’s costumes and shields, very fittingly compared the event to a “walking tapestry of history”. Members of the procession’s society, locals and students dress up as historical figures who were born, lived, taught, preached or researched in St Andrews and bring these figures to life again by pacing, strolling or riding through the streets in their costumes. Cross-bearing martyr St Andrew, of course, leads the procession. You may also meet King Robert the Bruce who fought during the First War of Scottish Independence, or Queen Margaret, who fled the Norman conquest by ship but was blown ashore at Fife. You may be given candy by Pope Benedict XIII, hear a poem recited by William Dunbar, meet John Knox, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, or Mary, Queen of Scots, who was beheaded by Elizabeth I, or observe the French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat who probably paid for a diploma from St Andrews without ever having been here.
Among these illustrious characters, it is Kate Kennedy who marks the centre of the procession. Each year, she is played by another first-year student who newly joined the Kate Kennedy Club – usually a man. Legend has it that the original Kate Kennedy lived during the fifteenth century and visited her uncle, Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews, every spring. Kate was so beautiful that every time she came to town, the citizens would gather in order to catch but a glimpse of her face. Every April, St Salvator’s church bells rang to mark her arrival, one among which the bishop named after his beloved niece.
Today, it is impossible to come to a definite conclusion as to whether Kate Kennedy was a mythological or historical character. The celebration of her visit may just as well go back to Gaelic seasonal festivals which marked the arrival of spring. However, they have not always been as civilised as they are today. In 1432, the University authorities condemned the pagan festivities practiced by students as “useless, unprofitable, dangerous, and damnable”.
And things got worse: 400 years later, in the 1840s, the young citizens and students from the arts faculty would celebrate the end of their exam period by rioting through the streets. In the 1870s, the festivity had evolved into a sort of local carnival during which students mocked professors and staff. Spring celebrations got more and more turbulent until the general chaos claimed its victims: during the festivities in 1881, two ships collided in St Andrews Bay. The majority of students were too drunk to help the drowning and wounded sailors. Therefore, the University Court ruled that the Procession was forever forbidden.
The celebration would be reborn in today’s form by a descendant of Kate Kennedy’s uncle the bishop. In 1926, Donald Kennedy and James Doak, two students of the university, restored the procession, not as a pagan celebration of spring, but as a historical pageant. It was Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan and St Andrews’ Rector, who inspired them to revive the tradition with his speech “Courage”. The Second World War marked the last break in the annual pageant, for Principal Irvine forbade the tradition as he was afraid that St Andrews students might be accused of “fiddling while Rome is burning”.
However, after the end of the War, the Principal restored the festivities as well as the Kate Kennedy Bell. It rings at the start of each procession to celebrate peacetime and to welcome back St Andrews’ historical figures ever since.
About Laura Gianesi
Laura is a postgraduate student of Romantic and Victorian Literature from Zurich, Switzerland. She is especially interested in women writers and poets such as Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Brontë. Aside from reading, she is passionate about history, skiing in the Alps, painting, taking long walks on the beach and melanzane alla parmigiana.