THE OLD GREY MAYOR
Getting the horn: The returning officer for Rame takes to the hustings (Pixabay)
Sure, democracy is great and everything, but if Brexity McBre—I mean, Boaty McBoatface taught us anything, it’s that some decisions just shouldn’t be handed over to the public.
Case in point: the sleepy West Country village of Rame, high up on the Blackdown Hills between Exeter and Yeovil, which every year from 1711 to 1933 elected a unicorn as its mayor.
Wait a minute, you’re thinking, unicorns don’t exist. And that’s a very good point. Because they don’t. So who—or rather, what—did the people of Rame actually elect?
Well, the story begins in the summer of 1711, when the people of Rame became so dissatisfied with their corrupt and ineffectual mayor—a sorry gentleman named Robert de Verley—that they drummed him out of town in an embarrassing debacle known as ‘dancing the stang’.
A ‘stang’ is a thick wooden pole or beam, and back in the eighteenth century ‘dancing the stang’ was a kind of protest, or mock procession, in which a crowd would hoist some unpopular soul aloft on two of these ‘stangs’, from where he could be paraded through the streets while the rest of the townspeople laughed at him, pelted him with mud and rotten vegetables, and just generally took the piss. Songs would be sung, pots and pans would be clattered together, effigies would be made and burnt, and the entire procession would usually end with the hapless victim being unceremoniously dumped in a stream on the outskirts of the village.
And so endeth the reign of Robert de Verley. But that left the people of Rame without a mayor—and (somewhat understandably, having just witnessed the wrath of the people) without anyone interested in taking his place.
But de Verley had been so useless a leader, the townspeople wagered, that surely anything had to be better than him? So, seeing the opportunity for some, ahem, horseplay, some wiseacre in the crowd picked up a chalk-covered straw horse with an oddly phallic horn in the middle of its forehead—one of the crude effigies that had been used to ‘dance’ de Verley out of town—and took it to the village hall. There, much to the hilarity of the crowd, it was promptly installed as mayor in de Verley’s place.
What started as a joke, however, soon became reality: the straw unicorn went on to preside over the town for the next twelve months, at which point it was decided that the will of the people needed to be tested again. So on the anniversary of de Verley’s fall from grace, a new poll was held—and the people of Rame voted, by a landslide, to ‘re-elect’ the unicorn for another year.
The joke quickly established itself as a proud local tradition, and the ‘election of the unicorn’ took place in Rame every year for the next 200 years.
Sadly, the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, and the political upheaval of the early twentieth century, eventually made the need for an actual working local authority ever-more necessary, and the Rame Unicorn was elected for the 222nd and final time in 1933.