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A burlesque oath traditionally performed in the London village of Highgate. A number of the pubs in Highgate have real animal horns mounted on their walls, and these are used for this amusing ceremony even in the present day. People passing through Highgate, which is on the Great North Road, were persuaded to swear on the horns, and were accepted as freemen of Highgate with certain privileges.

This all sounds like some ancient tradition lost in the mists of time, except that as far as we can trace it it's been a joke from the beginning. No known serious ancient tradition exists. The Swearing on the Horns, for which in folklore Highgate is famous, is recorded from the early 1600s, but even back then it was apparently the same as the current rather silly form of swearing by Billy Bodkin.

Highgate is now an inner suburb, but was then a village atop a hill as you drove out of London. The main coaching routes went up this way; people stopped here; all the pubs were laid out along the route. Also, cattle drivers bringing their cattle in to Smithfield Market in London would stop here. Somehow the tradition developed.

It's phrased as father and son: the local magistrate requires the new visitor to be inducted as his son. He says if he's ever in Highgate and needs a drink, he can call in at any house and ask for one, and include his friends who are with him. He can chalk it up to his adoptive father. But if he actually has money on him, or slips it to his friends to avoid being caught, he has to stump up for the drinks.

Here's a form of words that's posted up in the Wrestlers, one of several Highgate pubs that actually display their horns and the traditions that go with them. Others are the Red Lion and Sun and the Gatehouse. I've seen it performed in the Red Lion and Sun, with the magistrate in eighteenth-century costume extracting fines from candidates who didn't pronounce the oath properly. All great fun, and the proceeds go to charity. So here's how the induction reads as displayed in the Wrestlers:

I SWEAR, by the Rules of sound Judgment that I will not eat Brown Bread when I can have WHITE, except I like the Brown better; that I will not Drink Small Beer when I can get STRONG, except I like the small Beer better; But I will kiss the MAID in preference to the Mistress, if I like the Maid better; but sooner than lose a good chance I will kiss them both.

SO HELP ME, Billy Bodkin.

What do you get by swearing this oath? What are the privileges of a freeman of Highgate? Well, in addition to having your Father support you in the matter of wine, you have privileges of rest. If you're passing through and see a pig in a gutter you have the right to kick it out and take the place yourself. But if you see three pigs lying together, you may only kick out the middle one and take its place, leaving the other two be.

Grose in his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue mentions it as an old custom that had fallen into desuetude. Hone's Year-Book of 1826 recorded nineteen pubs in Highgate at that time, and it seems they all kept horns. There were stag's horns at the Angel, Bell, Bull, Crown, Duke of Wellington, Duke's Head, Gate House, Green Dragon, Lord Nelson, Mitre, Rose & Crown, and Wrestler. There were ram's horns at the Castle, Coach & Horses, Cooper's Arms, Flask, Fox & Crown, and Red Lion. Lastly, the Red Lion & Sun (different from the Red Lion) had bullock's horns. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it has been performed rarely and only at a few pubs, but the memory and in some cases the horns are there, and it still happens.

It seems to be unique to the one village. I've never heard of anything quite like it outside Highgate, but an old account (early 19th century, the pages posted up in the Gatehouse) mentioned there were horns at Hornchurch and Kennington, and a Horn Fair at Charlton. Nevertheless Highgate's was nationally famous, and "He has been sworn at Highgate" was a colloquial way of saying something like "He is a knowing fellow". Byron referred to the ceremony in Childe Harold, Canto 1, stanza LXX:

And many to the steep of Highgate hie.
Ask ye, Boeotian shades! the reason why?
'Tis to the worship of the solemn horn,
Grasped in the holy hand of mystery,
In whose dread name both men and maids are sworn,
And consecrate the oath with draught, and dance till morn.
For an extended verse rendition of the oath, see http://theotherpages.org/poems/ballad13.html

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