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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

On this Day: May 19th 1935 - T. E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia died after his motorcycle accident near Bovington

T. E. Lawrence
Probably the most famous of all Dorset's road ghosts is that of Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, alias Lawrence of Arabia, who was involved in fatal motorcycle accident on 13th May 1935.

On that ill-fated day, Lawrence was riding back on his favourite motorcycle the Brough Superior (which he nicked-named Boa, short for Boanerges, the sons of thunder) to his home at Clouds Hill from Bovington Camp when he came upon two errand boys, riding bicycles hidden from his view.

As he came upon them at great speed, he swerved violently to avoid them. Losing control of his motorcycle, Lawrence was thrown over the handlebars, receiving severe injuries to the brain.

His physical strength was so great that he lay unconscious for nearly five days before he died of congestion of the lungs and heart failure.
T. E. Lawrence's Brough Superior SS100

The evidence at the inquest revealed a curious contradiction. Corporal Catchpole of the Royal Army Ordnance Corp was standing about hundred yards from the road, near Clouds Hill, when he saw Lawrence on his motor-cycle, travelling at about fifty or sixty miles an hour, pass a black private car, going in the opposite direction, just before he heard the crash. The two boys, whose evidence about times was confused, had no memory of a car passing them.
Lawrence was laid to rest in St. Nicholas Church cemetery, Moreton on May 21st 1935 and a memorial plaque was later erected by the roadside to mark the spot in which he fell.

Since his death, it is said that local farmers and people have often heard the haunting roar of his Brough Superior motorcycle just before sunrise. However, reports say the noise abruptly ceases before anything is seen.

Nearby is the tiny isolated brick and tile cottage at Clouds Hill, bought in 1925 by T. E. Lawrence as a retreat. The austere rooms inside are much as he left them and reflect his complex personality and close links with the Middle East.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Ascension Day and the custom of 'Beating of the Bounds'

School children beat the parish bounds
The custom of "Beating the Bounds" is to recognise the importance of the parish boundary. A tradition that has its roots in Terminalia, a May time Roman festival , which includes punishments of beatings and sacrifices to honour their boundary god Terminus.

The ritual of "Beating the Bounds" was adopted by Christianity and is traditionally held during Rogationtide, - the fifth week after Easter, which consists of Rogation Sunday and the three days following up to Ascension Day or Holy Thursday (The traditional day on which Jesus ascended to Heaven)

Boundary Rods

The Casket contains 17 rods, each numbered and with
the name of a parish, and a scroll, showing the boundaries.
The rods were used on the occassion of the beating of the
bounds on 18th July 1933 by school children, by whom
they were handed to the Prince of Wales on 13th July 1933.
The Prince signed a record of the ceremony which is also
contained in the casket now displayed at the
Weymouth  Museum.

In essence the custom involves the local inhabitants of a Manor or village perambulating their parish boundary to bless the crops, pray and at certain points, which denote the extent of the boundary (usually a gatepost, wall, tree or boundary stone) to ritually beat the certain landmark with sticks, switches and birches. However, more often or not it was the girls and boys of the parish who would have their backsides ritually tanned by birch over or up against the boundary marker.

Although these beatings were often harsh, they were considered necessary to ensure the imprinting of the exact location of the parish boundary on successive generations and thus serve to ensure any neighbouring parish did not encroach upon the boundaries.

Before the Reformation these annual processions were highly important and ceremonial affairs with Lords of the Manor, their bailiffs, reeves and stewards being present, as well as the clergy and the parish officials.

Knowing ones parish boundaries has little significance these days and therefore the importance of the custom has not surprisingly diminished over the years. Even so the Beating of the Bounds custom still continues in some places though in a much diluted form.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of 'Beating the Bounds' on Holy Thurday (Ascension Day) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Beating the Bounds.—It was the general custom in olden days, and is still observed in many parishes in Dorsetshire, for certain persons to go round, or perambulate the boundaries or limits of their own particular parish in Rogation Week, or,—to be more precise,—on one of the three days before Holy Thursday or Ascension Day, though more often, I think, on Holy Thursday itself. Upon these occasions, as Brand (i, 168) tells us, " the minister, accompanied by his churchwardens and parishioners, were wont to deprecate the vengeance of God, beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish."
In Dorsetshire the last of these objects would seem to be the one principally or solely considered at the present day. This perambulation is known as "Beating the Bounds".

Before I proceed to the " perambulations" of particular parishes, I would like to produce in full the most amusing account of this interesting and useful custom contributed by William Barnes to Hone's Year Book (p. 589) as existing in Dorsetshire in his younger days. He says :—

"A Perambulation, or, as it might be more correctly called, a circumambulation, is the custom of going round the boundaries of a manor or parish, with witnesses, to determine and preserve recollection of its extent, and to see that no encroachments have been made upon it, and that the landmarks have not been taken away. It is a proceeding commonly regulated by the steward, who takes with him a few men and several boys who are required to particularly observe the boundaries traced out, and thereby qualify themselves for witnesses in the event of any dispute about the landmarks or extent of the manor at a future day. In order that they may not forget the lines and marks of separation they ' take pains y at almost every turning. For instance, if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; if a broad ditch, the boys are offered money to jump over it, in which they, of course, fail, and pitch into the mud, where they stick as firmly as if they had been rooted there for the season ; if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting that part of their bodies upon which they rest in the posture between standing and lying; if a wall, they are to have a race on the top of it, when, in trying to pass each other, they fall over on each side, some descending, perhaps, into the still stygian waters of a ditch, and others thrusting the 'human face divine ' into a bed of nettles ; if the boundary be a sunny bank, they sit down upon it and get a treat of beer and bread and cheese, and, perhaps, a glass of spirits.

When these boys grow up to be men, if it happens that one of them should be asked if a particular stream were the boundary of the manor he had perambulated, he would be sure to say, in the manner of Sancho Panza ' Ees, that 'tis, I'm sure o't, by the same token that I were tossed into't, and paddled about there lik' a water-rot till I wor hafe dead.' If he should be asked whether the aforesaid pleasant bank were ,a boundary : ' O, ees it be, ' he would say, 'that's where we squat down and tucked in a skinvull of vittles and drink.
With regard to any boundary perambulation after that he would most likely declare, ' I won't be sartin; I got zo muddled up top o' the banks, that don' know where we ambulated arter that.'"

Melcombe Regis.—The late Mr. H. J. Moule, sometime curator of the Dorset County Museum at Dorchester, and a learned writer upon the county's antiquities, in his account of the " Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Borough Records ", which he edited in 1883, gives (p. 9) several extracts from a small folio volume, chiefly of law minutes, comprising depositions taken about the middle of the seventeenth century, recording a " perambulation " of the parish of Melcombe Regis about that time, in which one of the deponents, an old woman of 82 years of age, speaks of having joined in a " Procession" round the bounds of Melcombe Regis nearly three-quarters of a century previously, and deposes to an " old elderne stubb " (stump) at Washford as having been one of the boundaries.

Radipole.—The same deponent also testified that the minister of the adjoining parish of Radipole, with his parishioners, used to go round their bounds on the same day; and at a pound on the bounds ("in the place of which pound a dairy house was sithence builded ") he read a chapter and " alsoe a psalm there to be sung ". After this the perambulation was continued, the villagers on the west side of some rails then standing and the townsmen on the east side.

West Lulworth.—There is also in the same volume (C. p. 232) a reference to still earlier depositions (Elizabethan), in which an old man gives evidence as to his having often " after he was of remembrance " gone on procession, as the custom then was, with the minister and parishioners to take " view" of the boundaries of the parish of West Lulworth. The witness describes the route, ending at Furzeymill Pitt, " where they had usuall Beere and Cake-bread."

Chideock.—A very complete account of the " perambulation " of the bounds of a parish and manor as entered in old records is that of Chideock, in West Dorset, which took place before the steward of the manor and many inhabitants of the parish. It is given by the Rev. T. Worthington in his History of Chideock, and copied by the late H. N. Cox in his account of that parish, contributed in a series of papers to the Southern Times in 1886. Mr. Cox also, like Mr. Barnes, alludes to the various steps that were sometimes taken to impress upon the memory of the boys who accompanied the perambulation the exact situation of the boundaries.

Bridport.— Although the main incidents of these several " perambulations " may have been very much the same, yet occasionally they have been varied by others of a more interesting or amusing character. A modern instance of the latter, fortunately attended by no serious result, occurred on the occasion of "beating the bounds " of the borough of Bridport in 1891, which was reported in several West Country papers. The following account, taken from the Bath Daily Chronicle of 24th October, 1891, appears in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for December, 1891 (vol. ii, p. 305) :—
"The historic function of walking the boundaries of the Borough of Bridport by the Mayor and Corporation and the principal inhabitants was the occasion of an amusing contretemps. In the course of the perambulation the city fathers came to a large millpond, which marked the boundary of the town. It was necessary to the performance of the ceremony that the pond should be crossed, and the Mayor, the Borough Surveyor, and another embarked on a large raft, on which they were to be towed across. They had not been long afloat when the raft was submerged by their weight, and the trio were standing up to their knees in water. When half-way over, to make matters worse, the rope became entangled, and, amid the laughter of the townspeople, the Mayor toppled over into the pond, and his two fellow-citizens were also precipitated into the water. They quickly regained the raft, but were as quickly thrown again into the muddy pool. The Mayor promptly described the boundary by swimming ashore, and his example was followed by one of his companions, but the Borough Surveyor remained alone on the raft, and was eventually towed to land completely drenched."
Marnhull.—The Rev. Canon Mayo publishes in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (vol. xv, pp. 19-21 and 29-31), 1917, a long account of a perambulation held for the Manor of Marnhull on 7th and 8th June, 1808, and made by the then Lord of the Manor, John Hussey, Esq., his steward, and the principal inhabitants of the parish. A copy had been furnished to the Dorset editor of that periodical of the perambulation contained in a MS. book of Rentals and Quit Rents relating to the Manor.

As Canon Mayo says : "It has a value as being a record of local boundaries, and illustrates a custom which at one time was universal in our county."

"Bound Stone" which marks the
northern boundary of the Royal Manor
of Portland. Every seven years, on
Ascension Day the Islanders re-establish
their boundaries by ceremoniously beating
two senior pupils from the Royal Manor School with
the Reeve Staff; which was once used in the
collection of the islanders rent. The last occasion on
which this ceremony was Ascension Day May 21st 2009.
Wyke Regis.— The Bound Stone.—The following account of the annual visit paid by Portlanders to "The Bound Stone" on the Chesil Beach at the Fleet appeared in the Bridport News in May, 1893, under the heading of " Wyke Regis : The Bound Stone " :—
"The Portlanders seem determined to keep up their rights, which they annually maintain by an official visit to the well-known ' bound stone ' on the Chesil Beach. Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, is, as by custom, the day on which the ceremony takes place. This year the number attending seems to have been augmented for some reason or other ; perhaps the fact of a new stone being used added importance to the affair. Be that as it may, there were many visitors, both by sea and land.

"It is said the rights of the Portlanders extend to the new bound stone opposite Fleet, but the public would like to be enlightened as to the nature of those rights. There is one right at all events which does not extend beyond the Portland side of the stone, that is, we are informed that the lord of the manor of Abbotsbury, or rather the Earl of Ilchester, does not interfere with or claim the foreshore. Not that such a right would be of any use whatever, seeing the difficulty of telling where it is. The shingle shifts with the weather, and with it the foreshore, if ever such existed except in fertile imagination."

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days May 2nd 1864, details the traditions of Beating the Bounds.

The ancient custom of perambulating parishes in Rogation week had a two-fold object. It was designed to supplicate the Divine blessing on the fruits of the earth; and to preserve in all classes of the community a correct knowledge of, and due respect for, the bounds of parochial and individual property. It appears to have been derived from a still older custom among the ancient Romans, called Terminalia, and Ambarvalia, which were festivals in honour of the god Terminus and the goddess Ceres. On becoming a Christian custom the heathen rites and ceremonies were of course discarded, and those of Christianity substituted. It was appointed to be observed on one of the Rogation days which were the three days next before Ascension Day. These days were so called from having been appropriated in the fifth century by Mamercus, Bishop of Vienna, to special prayer and fasting on account of the frequent earthquakes which had destroyed, or greatly injured vegetation.
Beating the Bounds in London
Before the Reformation parochial perambulations were conducted with great ceremony. The lord of the manor, with a large banner, priests in surplices and with crosses, and other persons with hand-bells, banners and staves, followed by most of the parishioners, walked in procession round the parish, stopping at crosses, forming crosses on the ground, 'saying or singing gospels to the corn,' and allowing 'drinkings and good cheer; 'which was remarkable, as the Rogation days were appointed fasts. From the different practices observed on the occasion the custom received the various names of processioning, rogationing, perambulating, and ganging the boundaries; and the week in which it was observed was called Rogation week; Cross week, because crosses were borne in the processions; and Grass week, because the Rogation days being fasts, vegetables formed the chief portion of diet.

At the Reformation, the ceremonies and practices deemed objectionable were abolished, and only 'the useful and harmless part of the custom retained. 'Yet its observance was considered so desirable, that a homily was prepared for the occasion; and injunctions were issued requiring that for 'the perambulation of the circuits of parishes, the people should once in the year, at the time accustomed, with the rector, vicar, or curate, and the substantial men of the parish, walk about the parishes, as they were accustomed, and at their return to the church make their common prayer. And the curate, in their said common perambulations, was at certain convenient places to admonish the people to give thanks to God (while beholding of his benefits), and for the increase and abundance of his fruits upon the face of the earth, with the saying of the 103rd Psalm. At which time also the said minister was required to inculcate these, or such like sentences, Cursed be he which translateth the bounds and doles of his neighbour; or such other order of prayers as should be lawfully appointed.'

In strict accordance with these directions, we find that 'the judicious Richard Hooker,' who is allowed by all parties to be a faithful exemplar of a true English Churchman, duly observed the custom of perambulation. 'He would by no means,' says his biographer, 'omit the customary time of procession, persuading all, both rich and poor, if they desired the preservation of love, and their parish rights and liberties, to accompany him in his perambulation, and most did so; in which perambulation he would usually express more pleasant discourse than at other times, and would then always drop some loving and facetious observations to be remembered against the next year, especially by the boys and young people; still inclining them and all his present parishioners to meekness, and mutual kindnesses, and love; because love thinks not evil, but covers a multitude of infirmities.'

Those engaged in the processions usually had refreshments provided for them at certain parts of the parish, which, from the extent of the circuit of some parishes, was necessary; yet the cost of such refreshment was not to be defrayed by the parish, nor could such refreshment be claimed as a custom from any particular house or family. But small annuities were often bequeathed to provide such refreshments. In the parish of Edgcott, Buckinghamshire, there was about an acre of land, let at £3 a year, called 'Gang Monday Land,' which was left to the parish officers to provide cakes and beer for those who took part in the annual perambulation of the parish. At Clifton Reynes, in the same county, a bequest of land for a similar purpose directs that 'one small loaf, a piece of cheese, and a pint of ale, should be given to every married person, and half a pint of ale to every unmarried person, resident in Clifton, when they walked the parish boundaries in Rogation week.' A certain estate in Husborne Crawley, Bedfordshire, has to pay £4 on Rogation Day, once in seven years, to defray the expense of perambulating, and keeping up the boundaries of the parish.

Although perambulations were not to be at the cost of parishes, yet they were justified in maintaining the ancient circuit, though opposed by the owners of property over which they proceeded. Burns cites an instance in which this case was tried against the parishioners of Rudham, who, in their perambulation, had broken down two gates and a fence; and the court decided in favour of the parishioners, stating: 'parishioners may well justify the going over any man's land in the perambulation, according to their usage, and abate all nuisances in their way.'

This necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents. If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water. Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places. If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it. A house in Buckinghamshire, still existing, has an oven only passing over the boundary line. It was customary in the perambulations to put a boy into this recess to preserve the integrity of the boundary line.

It was considered a good joke by the village lads, who, therefore, became ambitious of the honour, and, as they approached the house, generally settled by lot who should be the hero for the year. On one occasion, as the procession entered the house, they found the mistress just about to bake, and the oven full of blazing fagots. The boys, on seeing the flame issuing from the oven-mouth, exclaimed Tom Smith is the boy to go into the oven!' Poor Tom, expecting to be baked alive, uttered a fearful scream, and ran off home as fast as his legs could carry him. Another boy was made to scramble over the roof of the oven, and the boundary right was thus deemed sufficiently maintained.

A more ludicrous scene occurred in London about the beginning of the present century. As the procession of churchwardens, parish officers, etc., followed by a concourse of cads, were perambulating the parish of St. George's, Hanover-square, they came to the part of a street where a nobleman' s coach was standing just across the boundary line. The carriage was empty, waiting for the owner, who was in the opposite house. The principal churchwarden, therefore, himself a nobleman, desired the coachman to drive out of their way. 'I won't!' said the sturdy coachman; 'my lord told me to wait here, and here I'll wait, till his lordship tells me to move!' The churchwarden coolly opened the carriage door, entered it, passed out through the opposite door, and was followed by the whole procession, cads, sweeps, and scavengers.

The last perambulation I witnessed was in 1818, at a small village in Derbyshire. It was of rather a degenerate character. There was no clergyman present, nor anything of a religious nature in the proceedings. The very name processioning had been transmuted (and not inaptly) into possessioning. The constable, with a few labourers, and a crowd of boys, constituted the procession, if such an irregular company could be so called. An axe, a mattock, and an iron crow, were carried by the labourers, for the purpose of demolishing any building or fence which had been raised without permission on the 'waste ground,' or for which the 'acknowledgment' to the lord of the manor had not been paid. At a small hamlet, rejoicing in the name of 'Wicked Nook,' some unfortunate rustic had unduly built a pig-sty. Poor grunty was turned adrift, and his luckless shed levelled to the ground. A new cottage, or mud hut, not much better than the pig's shed, was allowed to remain, on the cottager' s wife proffering the 'acknowledgment.' At various parts of the parish boundaries, two or three of the village boys were 'bumped' —that is, a certain part of the person was swung against a stone wall, a tree, a post, or any other hard object which happened to be near the parish boundary. This, it will scarcely be doubted, was an effectual method of recording the boundaries in the memory of these battering-rams, and of those who witnessed this curious mode of registration.

The custom of perambulating parishes continued in some parts of the kingdom to a late period, but the religious portion of it was generally, if not universally, omitted. The custom has, however, of late years been revived in its integrity in many parishes, and certainly such a perambulation among the bounties of creation affords a Christian minister a most favourable opportunity for awakening in his parishioners a due sense of gratitude towards Him who maketh the 'sun to shine, and the rains to descend upon the earth, so that it may bring forth its fruit in due season.' 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Herald the spring its Garland Day - the custom of Abbotsbury's Garland

The painting of
"Garland Day, Dorsetshire Coast" by P. R. Morris,
exhibited at the 1893 Royal Academy summer show
and since lost to view
Held on 13th May (Old May Day) each year, the Garland Day celebrations have taken place in the Dorset village of Abbotsbury since about the early 19th century. They were first described in Hutchins' History of Dorset published in 1867. The custom involves the making of garlands by the children of the village. Originally only the children of local fishermen took part. The garlands were blessed in a church service and some were then rowed out to sea to be tossed into the water, a donation to the local sea god. This marked the opening of the fishing season, and then the children whould dance and play games on the beach to celebrate. From around the time of the First World War the custom changed somewhat in that children of non-fishermen started to take part. This was probably due to the decline of the local fishing industry.

Herald the spring its Garland Day
So please remember the garland.
We don't come here but once a year,
So please remember the garland.
The village school gave the children a day's holiday and they would set about constructing two garlands, one of wild flowers and the other of garden flowers. These were held aloft on poles and paraded from house to house in the village with the intention of collecting money which the children would keep. Later in the day older children who had been at school in nearby Weymouth would arrive home and make a more elaborate garland which would also be taken around the houses. From after the First World War two garlands would be placed on the local war memorial.

The Abbotsbury village school closed in 1981 and the children no longer get a day's holiday. This has led to the celebrations taking place in the evening or on the nearest Saturday.

On 14th May 1954, The Daily Express reported that the village constable of Abbotsbury had stopped the children's Garland-Day Procession as it danced its way through the fishing village to the sea, on the ground that it was "begging" and was against the law. He also confiscated the collection amounting to £1 1s. 7 1/2d. The uproar reached Mr. John Fox-Strangways, Chairman of the parish council and son of the Earl of Ilchester, lord of the manor. He rang up a solicitor and said that the village would take steps to preserve its ancient and picturesque custom. The Thanksgiving Garland is blessed annually and thrown into the sea from whence comes their livelihood. In the evening the children put the Garland on its pole and again danced down to the sea, while the police were busy preparing a legal action.

On 20th May, The Times announced that the Chief Constable of Dorset had expressed his sincere apologies for the "unfortunate occurrence" to the Abbotsbury parish council and said that the constable had acted on his own initiative, without the knowledge of the divisional superintendent. "It is no part of my policy to interfere with old village customs," he stated. Mr. Fox-Strangways was authorised to take any necessary action to establish the legality of the Garland Day custom.

However, a determination amongst the villagers has ensured that this English tradition survives, albeit in a form slightly different from the original.

Below: The procession of the Abbotsbury Garland, 13th May 2005

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about the Abbotsbury Garland Day custom:

"Flower Custom (Garland Day). — They refer to a pleasing custom which still obtains on Old May Day (13th May). The children belonging to the crew of each boat build up a large garland of handsome flowers upon a frame, and carry it from house to house, usually getting a few pence apiece from those who can afford it. The people throng the beach, weather permitting, in the afternoon, when the garlands are taken out in boats and thrown into the sea. The late Lord Ilchester, the lord of the manor, had of late years provided an entertainment for the children, often close upon 200 in number, and was accustomed to attend them to the beach, where the vicar read a suitable portion of scripture, a psalm was sung, and prayer offered for the general welfare.

This custom is alluded to at somewhat greater length by Canon Mayo in a communication to Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, vol. iii, p. 231 (1893), entitled " Garland Day ", in which he states that it is also observed in the neighbouring villages of Swyre and Puncknoll, but that in them only one garland is provided, not one for each boat.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Maypoles and Mayhem - The Traditions of May Day

Wessex Morris Men at Sunrise on Giant Hill, Cerne Abbas
Beltane, or May Day (1st of May) is the fertility festival marking the beginning of summer.   Every May Day morning at dawn, The Wessex Morris Men climb up to the top of Giant Hill, above the famous chalk figure and fertility symbol 'The Cerne Abbas Giant', to welcome in the coming of Summer with a set of traditional morris dances. This is also the one time of year when the horned Dorset Ooser is brought out from the Dorset County Museum to make its annual appearance. The magical Dorset Ooser is a representation of a bull or Wild Man which by tradition was believed to be a potent source of fertility.
The Wessex Morris Men will perform their annual ritual dance at the Trendle or Giant's Enclosure, above the Cerne Abbas Giant. At sunrise (approx 5.15am) on the site of an ancient maypole high on the hill above the village. They will then process into the village to dance in the square outside the Red Lion at around 7.30am. 

Below: The Wessex Morris Men perform on May Day morning at Cerne Abbas in 2009.

The most well known symbol of May Day is the Maypole. The custom of dancing around the maypole is an ancient fertility rite, which is still performed today on village greens and at spring fetes.

The Maypole
The origins of the maypole hark back to ancient times when tree spirits were worshiped and indeed the first maypoles were tall slender trees, usually birch, which had their branches lopped off, leaving just a few at the top to be adorned with garlands and blossom: a far cry from the more elaborate designs of today.

The maypole itself is a phallic symbol representing the planting of the god's phallus into the mother earth's womb, there by illustrating the bringing forth of new life. The sexual symbolism of the maypole and all the immoral revelry that went along with it led the Puritans to out-law the maypole custom in 1644. However, this prohibition was soon repealed after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Many towns and parishes erected permanent maypoles in celebration, some boasting 80 or 90 feet! These permanent poles were left to stand throughout the year but only decorated and danced around on May Day.

Dancing around the maypole was once a very merry and frivolous affair, yet today's maypole dancing with its colourful ribbons is a relatively modern dance, only dating back to the nineteenth century. However, this new adaptation is now accepted as a very important aspect of the maypole dance. By taking two ribbons and weaving them together the dancers make a new element, thus two makes three representing the sexual union and the offspring.

The village of Sturminster Marshal still retains its permanent maypole. A commemorative plaque beside it reads:

"In the year of 1101, the Lord of the Manor the Earl of Pembroke, granted permission for a fare to be held on this site and it is probable that the first maypole was erected at the time. Known restorations took place in year 1669, 1867 and 1897. The present maypole follows the design of the 1897 pole and stands thirty-five foot high with a static ring four foot in diameter fixed five foot from the top. A new innovation is the weathervane in the shape of a water rat - the village emblem. The pole weighs three and a half tons. The 1986 restoration was made possible by subscriptions from residents of the village, local organisations and firms. On the adjacent green a replica of the village stocks last known to have been used in 1861 has been erected."

Below: local school children dance around the Maypole at Sturminster Marshal in 2004

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about May Day customs and traditions:

“It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a-Maying early on the first of May” says Brand; but I do not think that there exist now in Dorsetshire many traces of the old merry dances and games, such as the Maypole dance, the Morris dancers, the milkmaids, the chimney-sweeps, the maidens' garland or flower dances and processions, which used to be so prevalent in many parts of England on May Day.

Flower and Maypole Dance, Chardstock.— In some parts of Dorsetshire, however, some few such observances still take place. For instance, in the parish of Chardstock, on the Somerset and Devon border, according to the Dorset County Chronicle in May, 1884, the children of the parish brought round garlands as usual on May Day; in the afternoon upwards of seventy of them sat down to a feast at which the local squire, the vicar, and other gentlemen and ladies were present. “Dancing round the Maypole concluded the keeping up of this old English custom'

Crowning the May Queen and Maypole Dance (Bridport).— The Dorset County Chronicle, in June, 1918, gives a very recent instance of this as occurring in the West Dorset town of Bridport:—

“On Thursday the girls of the National Schools had their annual festival of crowning the May Queen and dancing round the Maypole. There was a very good attendance of the general public, the ceremony taking place in the school-yard. Favoured with fine weather, the scene was a very picturesque one, and the proceedings were watched with the greatest interest and pleasure. The children, as is their custom, were dressed in white, and with their Queen (Vera Meech), who is elected by the votes of her schoolmates, they paraded the Rope Walks, St. Michael's Lane, and Gundry Lane, and returned to the playground. Here the Maypole was set up and the Queen was then enthroned. She recited a verse of Tennyson's May Queen, and then the Rector ' crowned ' her with a wreath of flowers. Some very pretty Maypole dances were then gone through, and some nicely rendered songs gave variety to the programme, while at the close a collection, which realized £4, was made to defray the cost of a new set of strings for the Maypole."

I have since been told that this is not a genuine folk-lore survival, but rather a sham revival, having been introduced from Whitelands College by the National Society of School teachers, taught by Ruskin. The recitation of Tennyson's May Queen would seem to confirm this ; but even if this be so, it is a decided improvement upon the usual School Board methods of recent years, which tend to destroy all traces of local folk-lore in the young people of the present age.

Maypole: Cattistock. — There is an interesting reference in H. N. Cox's serial History of Cattistock, published in the Southern Times in 1886, to the " old custom of the Maypole ", which would appear to have been regularly kept up in that village until 1835. Mr. Cox alludes to a decree of Parliament in 1644, which ordered every Maypole in England and Wales to be taken down and none afterwards to be erected. Presumably Cattistock obeyed the mandate, at all events until the Restoration. Mr. Cox goes on to say that probably as time passed on the Maypole festivities were bereft of many of their ancient customs, but even at the last there was an immense assemblage of people, and the merry dance around the gaily decked pole with its thousands of May flowers was indulged in by all parties. He remembers on one occasion the Maypole being  "set up " in the open space near to the main entrance to the church and rectory, but that generally it was opposite " The Fox ", no doubt one of the principal hostelries in the village. Cattistock is still to this day an important hunting centre. Mr. Cox is of opinion that the custom was permitted to die out, not because the people disapproved of it, but that the expense of getting good music for the dance was not met by the subscriptions.

Maypole: Cerne Abbas. — Dr. Collcy March, F.S.A., in his paper on " The Giant and the Maypole of Cerne " in the Dorset Field Club's Proceedings (1901), vol. xxii, p. 105, speaks of the ordinance of the Long Parliament in April, 1644, whereby all maypoles were to be taken down and removed by the constables, churchwardens, and other parish officers; but it met with no little resistance.(Dr. March states, p. 105 (n.), that the Cerne maypole was destroyed in 1635) After the advent of Charles II the Maypole was set up again, and had a long life. Dr. March quotes from an old sexton at Cerne, who well remembered it:—

“It was made," he said,” every year from a fir-bole, and was raised in a night. It was erected in the ring just above the Giant. It was decorated, and the villagers went up the hill and danced round the pole on the 1st of May.”

This hill was Trendle Hill, situated about half a mile from the town, upon the steep southern declivity of which the famous figure of the giant was cut in the chalk.

According to authorities cited by Dr. March, “the festival of the maypole” was not unattended by scenes that “called forth ample invective". Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomic of Abuses, 1583, refers to a custom when "hundreds of men, women, and children go off to the woods and groves and spend all the night in pastimes, and in the morning they would return with birche boughes and branches of trees to deck their assembles withal. And they bring home with great veneration the Maie-pole, their stinking idol rather, covered all over with flowers and herbes, and then fall they to leaping and dancing about it, as the heathen people did. I have heard it crediblie reported by men of great gravity that, of an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again as they went.”

Maypole: Shillingston.—William Barnes in his Fore-say (ante) speaks of this decline in the old maypole customs. He says: “Dorset formerly had its maypoles, but Shillingston, clustering round its softly rising knap, may now be the only Dorset village which keeps up the tall token of a merry May Day.”

In the Life of William Barnes, by his daughter, Mrs. Lucy E. Baxter, published in 1887 under the pseudonym of “Leader Scott ", she gives (p. 150) a poem of her father's, hitherto unpublished, called " Our Early Landscape ",—in which the poet alludes to the maypole at Shillingston in the following lines :—

"And Shillingston, that on her height
Shows up her tower to op'ning day,
And high-shot Maypole, yearly dight
With flow'ry wreaths of merry May."

Stocking of Poundbury Field, Dorchester. — William Barnes in the above Fore-say also refers to the annual stocking of Poundbury Field, near Dorchester, on May Day under the head of customs at set times or given days of the year. The field is now enclosed, but " Dorchester folk were wont in olden time, it is said, to go forth to its flowery and airy sward a-maying and to drink syllybub of fresh milk".

Flower Service: Bridport. — The town of Bridport in West Dorset has for many years been prominent in keeping up an old flower custom on May Sunday—the first Sunday in May. The Bridport News in May, 1885, gave an interesting account of the ceremony, where on “May Sunday " the children, to the number of 312, assembled at the schools in Gundry Lane, and having been duly marshalled in procession, marched to the parish church, carrying flowers. They came up South Street as far as the old castle, and going down the east side of the street crossed again by the rectory, and entered the church by the west door, occupying seats in the nave, which were given up to them for the occasion by the parishioners who generally used them. The children were accompanied by their superintendent and also by their teachers. Divine service followed, and in the afternoon the usual children's service was held. The bells were rung spiritedly at intervals during the day and a flag was hoisted, as usual, on the church tower.

Again, in May, 1890, the Bridport News recorded that, in accordance with the usual custom, the first Sunday in May was kept by the scholars of the Bridport Parish Church Sunday Schools by the usual special and joyous services. Shortly after 7 a.m. the bells of the parish church (St. Mary's) pealed forth to herald in the school anniversary, and at 8 o'clock there was a full choral celebration of the Holy Communion. In his sermon the Rector, the Rev. E. J. B. Henslowe, alluded to the origin of May Sunday celebrations in Bridport, and to the fact that it was an institution not celebrated to his knowledge in any other town, but was peculiar to Bridport. He said that years ago there was no proper school, but classes were held by different people in their own houses'; these classes used to meet once a year, and have a procession and go to church.

In the afternoon the usual flower service was held.  The scholars formed in procession and again marched to the church. The rector officiated.  The service commenced with a hymn, and then the scholars passed up to the chancel steps and presented their floral offerings.   While another hymn was being sung flowers were presented by members of the congregation. The service was then proceeded with.   The flowers were afterwards packed and forwarded to London for some of the hospitals. Again, in May, 1905, the Bridport News contributed a long leading article on the subject which it styled " May Sunday : A Link with the Past".    It dealt fully with the origin of the present flower-custom in Bridport, and referred to the institution of Sunday Schools in Bridport in connexion with St. Mary's Church in 1788.   At that time the procession formed almost a complete “perambulation” of the parish boundaries, and many visitors would come in from the country “to see the children walk”.   The writer of the article thinks that this " walking " may have been but a survival of a much older custom — that of “beating the bounds " — which prevailed in many parishes at Rogation-tide ;   and that “May Sunday” occurring near the same time of the year the one custom had at the end of the eighteenth century merged into the other.    As we have seen, the custom of “walking” still continues, but only to a very limited extent."
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days May 1st 1864, details the traditions of May Day.


The outbreak into beauty which Nature makes at the end of April and beginning of May excites so joyful and admiring a feeling in the human breast, that there is no wonder the event should have at all times been celebrated in some way. The first emotion is a desire to seize some part of that profusion of flower and blossom which spreads around us, to set it up in decorative fashion, pay it a sort of homage, and let the pleasure it excites find expression in dance and song. A mad happiness goes abroad over the earth, that Nature, long dead and cold, lives and smiles again. Doubtless there is mingled with this, too, in bosoms of any reflection, a grateful sense of the Divine goodness, which makes the promise of seasons so stable and so sure.

Amongst the Romans, the feeling of the time found vent in their Floralia, or Floral Games, which began on the 28th of April, and lasted a few days. Nations taking more or less their origin from Rome have settled upon the 1st of May as the special time for fetes of the same kind. With ancients and moderns alike it was one instinctive rush to the fields, to revel in the bloom which was newly presented on the meadows and the trees; the more city-pent the population, the more eager apparently the desire to get among the flowers, and bring away samples of them; the more sordidly drudging the life, the more hearty the relish for this one day of communion with things pure and beautiful. Among the barbarous Celtic populations of Europe, there was a heathen festival on the same day, but it does not seem to have been connected with flowers. It was called Beltein, and found expression in the kindling of fires on hill tops by night. Amongst the peasantry of Ireland, of the Isle of Man, and of the Scottish Highlands, such doings were kept up till within the recollection of living people. We can see no identity of character in the two festivals; but the subject is an obscure one, and we must not speak on this point with too much confidence.

In England we have to go back several generations to find the observances of May-day in their fullest development. In the sixteenth century it was still customary for the middle and humbler classes to go forth at an early hour of the morning, in order to gather flowers and hawthorn branches, which they brought home about sunrise, with accompaniments of horn and tabor, and all possible signs of; joy and merriment. With these spoils they would decorate every door and window in the village. By a natural transition of ideas, they gave to the hawthorn bloom the name of the May; they called this ceremony 'the bringing home the May;' they spoke of the expedition to the woods as 'going a-Maying.' The fairest maid of the village was crowned with flowers, as the 'Queen of the May;' the lads and lasses met, danced and sang together, with a freedom which we would fain think of as bespeaking comparative innocence as well as simplicity.

In a somewhat earlier age, ladies and gentlemen were accustomed to join in the Maying festivities. Even the king and queen condescended to mingle on this occasion with their subjects. In Chaucer's Court of Love, we read that early on May-day 'Forth goeth all the court, both most and least, to fetch the flowers fresh.' And we know, as one illustrative fact, that, in the reign of Henry VIII the heads of the corporation of London went out into the high grounds of Kent to gather the May, the king and his queen, Catherine of Arragon, coming from their palace of Greenwich, and meeting these respected dignitaries on Shooter's Hill. Such festal doings we cannot look back upon without a regret that they are no more. They give us the notion that our ancestors, while wanting many advantages which. an advanced civilization has given to us, were freer from monotonous drudgeries, and more open to pleasurable impressions from outward nature. They seem somehow to have been more ready than we to allow themselves to be happy, and to have often been merrier upon little than we can be upon much.

The contemporary poets are full of joyous references to the May festivities. How fresh and sparkling is Spenser's description of the going out for the May:

‘Siker this morrow, no longer ago,
I saw a shole of shepherds outgo
With singing, and shouting, and jolly cheer;
Before them yode a lusty Tabrere,
That to the many a horn-pipe play'd,
Where to they dance each one with his maid.
To see these folks make such jouissance,
Made my heart after the pipe to dance.
Then to the greenwood they speeden them all,
To fetchen home May with their musical:
And home they bring him in a royal throne
Crowned as king; and his queen attone
Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend
A fair flock of fairies, and a fresh bend
Of lovely nymphs—0 that I were there
To helpen the ladies their May-bush to bear!

Shepherd's Calendar, Eclogue 5.

Herrick, of course, could never have overlooked a custom so full of a living poetry. 'Come, my Corinna,' says he,

‘------- Come, and coming mark
flow each field turns a street, and each street a park,
Made green and trimmed with trees: see how
Devotion gives each house a bough
Or branch; each porch, each door, ere this
An ark, a tabernacle is
Made up of white-thorn neatly interwove.

‘A deal of youth ere this is come
Back, and with white-thorn laden home.
Some have dispatched their cakes and cream,
Before that we have left to dream.'

Not content with a garlanding of their brows, of their doors and windows, these merry people of the old days had in every town, or considerable district of a town, and in every village, a fixed pole, as high as the mast of a vessel of a hundred tons, on which each May morning they suspended wreaths of flowers, and round which. they danced in rings pretty nearly the whole day.

Rasing the May PoleThe May-pole, as it was called, had its place equally with the parish church or the parish stocks; or, if anywhere one was wanting, the people selected a suitable tree, fashioned it, brought it in triumphantly, and erected it in the proper place, there from year to year to remain. The Puritans—those most respectable people, always so unpleasantly shown as the enemies of mirth and good humour—caused May-poles to be uprooted, and a stop put to all their jollities; but after the Restoration they rites re-commenced. Now, alas! in the course of were everywhere re-erected, and the appropriate the mere gradual change of manners, the May-pole has again vanished. They must now be pretty old people who remember ever seeing one.

Washington Irving, who visited England early in this century, records in his Sketch Book, that he had seen one:

'I shall never,' he says, 'forget the delight I felt on first seeing a May-pole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester. I had already been carried back into former days by the antiquities of that venerable place, the examination of which is equal to turning over the pages of a black-letter volume, or gazing on the pictures in Froissart. The May-pole on the margin of that poetic stream completed the illusion. My fancy adorned it with wreaths of flowers, and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May-day. The mere sight of this May-pole gave a glow to my feelings, and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day; and as I traversed a part of the fair plains of Cheshire, and the beautiful borders of Wales, and looked from among swelling hills down a long green valley, through which "the Deva wound its wizard stream," my imagination turned all into a perfect Arcadia. I value every custom that tends to infuse poetical feeling into the common people, and to sweeten and soften the rudeness of rustic manners, without destroying their simplicity.

Indeed, it is to the decline of this happy simplicity that the decline of this custom may be traced; and the rural dance on the green, and the homely May-day pageant, have gradually disappeared, in proportion as the peasantry have become expensive and artificial in their pleasures, and too knowing for simple enjoyment. Some attempts, indeed, have been made of late years by men of both taste and learning to rally back the popular feeling to these standards of primitive simplicity; but the time has gone by—the feeling has become chilled by habits of gain and traffic --the country apes the manners and amusements of the town, and little is heard of May-day at present, except from the lamentations of authors, who sigh after it from among the brick walls of the city.'

The custom of having a Queen of the May, or May Queen, looks like a relic of the heathen celebration of the day: this flower-crowned maid appears as a living representative of the goddess Flora, whom the Romans worshipped on this day. Be it observed, the May Queen did not join in the revelries of her subjects. She was placed in a sort of bower or arbour, near the May-pole, there to sit in pretty state, an object of admiration to the whole village. She herself was half covered with flowers, and her shrine was wholly composed of them. It must have been rather a dull office, but doubtless to the female heart had its compensations. In our country, the enthronization of the May Queen has been longer obsolete than even the May-pole; but it will be found that the custom still survives in France. The only relic of the custom now surviving is to be found among the children of a few out-lying places, who, on May-day, go about with a finely-dressed doll, which they call the Lady of the May, and with a few small semblances of May-poles, modestly presenting these objects to the gentlefolks they meet, as a claim for halfpence, to be employed in purchasing sweetmeats. Our artist has given a very pretty picture of this infantine representation of the ancient festival.

May day clothesIn London there are, and have long been, a few forms of May-day festivity in a great measure peculiar. The day is still marked by a celebration, well known to every resident in the metropolis, in which the chimney-sweeps play the sole part. What we usually see is a small band, composed of two or three men in fantastic dresses, one smartly dressed female glittering with spangles, and a strange figure called Jack-in-the-green, being a man concealed within a tall frame of herbs and flowers, decorated with a flag at top. All of these figures or persons stop here and there in the course of their rounds, and dance to the music of a drum and fife, expecting of course to be remunerated by halfpence from the onlookers. It is now generally a rather poor show, and does not attract much regard; but many persons who have a love for old sports and day-observances, can never see the little troop without a feeling of interest, or allow it to pass without a silver remembrance. How this black profession should have been the last sustainers of the old rites of May-day in the metropolis does not appear.

Mayday DanceAt no very remote time—certainly within the present century—there was a somewhat similar demonstration from the milk-maids. In the course of the morning the eyes of the house-holders would be greeted with the sight of a milch-cow, all garlanded with flowers, led along by a small group of dairy-women, who, in light and fantastic dresses, and with heads wreathed in flowers, would dance around the animal to the sound of a violin or clarinet. At an earlier time, there was a curious addition to this choral troop, in the form of a man bearing a frame which covered the whole upper half of his person, on which were hung a cluster of silver flagons and dishes, each set in a bed of flowers. With this extraordinary burden, the legs, which alone were seen, would join in the dance,—rather clumsily, as might be expected, but much to the mirth of the spectators,—while the strange pile above floated and flaunted about with an air of heavy decorum, that added not a little to the general amusement. We are introduced to the prose of this old custom, when we are informed that the silver articles were regularly lent out for the purpose at so much an hour by pawn-brokers, and that one set would serve for a succession of groups of milk-maids during the day. In Vauxhall, there used to be a picture representing the May-day dance of the London milk-maids: from an engraving of it the accompanying cut is taken. It will be observed that the scene includes one or two chimney-sweeps as side figures.

In Scotland there are few relics of the old May-day observances--we might rather say none, beyond a lingering propensity in the young of the female sex to go out at an early hour, and wash their faces with dew. At Edinburgh this custom is kept up with considerable vigour, the favourite scene of the lavation being Arthur's Seat. On a fine May morning, the appearance of so many gay groups perambulating the hill sides and the intermediate valleys, searching for dew, and rousing the echoes with their harmless mirth, has an indescribably cheerful effect.

The fond imaginings which we entertain regarding the 1st of May—alas! so often disappointed—are beautifully embodied in a short Latin lyric of George Buchanan, which the late Archdeacon Wrangham thus rendered in English:


'Hail! sacred thou to sacred joy,
To mirth and wine, sweet first of May!
To sports, which no grave cares alloy,
The sprightly dance, the festive play!

Hail! thou of ever circling time,
That gracest still the ceaseless flow!
Bright blossom of the season's prime
Age, hastening on to winter's snow!

When first young Spring his angel face
On earth unveiled, and years of gold
Gilt with pure ray man's guileless race,
By law's stern terrors uncontrolled:

Such was the soft and genial breeze,
Mild Zephyr breathed on all around;
With grateful glee, to airs like these
Yielded its wealth th' unlaboured ground.

So fresh, so fragrant is the gale,
Which o'er thc islands of the blest
Sweeps; where nor aches the limbs assail,
Nor age's peevish pains infest.

Where thy hushed groves, Elysium, sleep,
Such winds with whispered murmurs blow;
So where dull Lethe's waters creep,
They heave, scarce heave the cypress-bough.

And such when heaven, with penal flame,
Shall purge the globe, that golden day
Restoring, o'er man's brightened frame
Haply such gale again shall play.

Hail, thou, the fleet year's pride and prime!
Hail! day which Fame should bid to bloom!
Hail! image of primeval time!
Hail! sample of a world to come!


One of the London parishes takes its distinctive name from the May-pole which in olden times overtopped its steeple. The parish is that of St. Andrew Undershaft, and its May-pole is celebrated by the father of English poetry, Geoffry Chaucer, who speaks of an empty braggart:--

'Right well aloft, and high ye beare your head,
As ye would beare the great shaft of Cornhill.'

Stow, who is buried in this church, tells us that in his time the shaft was set up 'every year, on May-day in the morning,' by the exulting Londoners, 'in the midst of the street before the south door of the said church; which shaft, when it was set on end, and fixed in the ground, was higher than the church steeple.' During the rest of the year this pole was hung upon iron hooks above the doors of the neighbouring houses, and immediately beneath the projecting penthouses which kept the rain from their doors. It was destroyed in a fit of Puritanism in the third year of Edward VI, after a sermon preached at St. Paul's Cross against May games, when the inhabitants of these houses 'sawed it in pieces, everie man taking for his share as much as had layne over his doore and stall, the length of his house, and they of the alley divided amongst them so much as had lain over their alley gate.'

The earliest representation of an English May-pole is that published in the variorum Shakspeare, and depicted on a window at Betley, in Staffordshire, then the property of Mr. Tollett, and which he was disposed to think as old as the time of Henry VIII. The pole is planted in a mound of earth, and has affixed to it St. George's reel-cross banner, and a white pennon or streamer with a forked end. The shaft of the pole is painted in a diagonal line of black colour, upon a yellow ground, a characteristic decoration of all these ancient May-poles, as alluded to by Shakspeare in his Midsummer Night's Dream, where it gives point to Hermia's allusion to her rival Helena as a 'painted May-pole.'

The fifth volume of Halliwell's folio edition of Shakspeare has a curious coloured frontispiece of a May-pole, painted in continuous vertical stripes of white, red, and blue, which stands in the centre of the village of Welford, in Gloucestershire, about five miles from Stratford-on-Avon. It may be an exact copy and legitimate successor of one standing there in the days when the bard himself visited the village. It is of great height, and is planted in the centre of a raised mound, to which there is an ascent by three stone steps: on this mound probably the dancers performed their gyrations. Stubbes, in his Anatomie of Abuses, 1584, speaks of May-poles 'covered all over with flowers and hearbes, bounde rounde aboute with stringes, from the top to the bottom, and some tyme painted with variable colours.' The London citizen, Machyn, in his Diary, 1552, tells of one brought at that time into the parish of Fenchurch; 'a goodly May-pole as you have seene; it was painted Whyte and green.'

In the illuminations which decorate the manuscript 'Hours' once used by Anne of Brittany and now preserved in the Bibliotheque Royale at Paris, and which are believed to have been painted about 1499, the month of May is illustrated by figures bearing flower-garlands, and behind them the curious May-pole here copied,which is also decorated by colours on the shaft, and ornamented by garlands arranged on hoops, from which hang small gilded pendents. The pole is planted on a triple grass-covered mound, embanked and strengthened by timber-work.

That this custom of painting and decorating the May-pole was very general until a comparatively recent period, is easy of proof. A Dutch picture, bearing date 1625, furnishes our third specimen; here the pole is surmounted by a flower-pot containing a tree, stuck all round with gaily-coloured flags; three hoops with garlands are suspended below it, from which hang gilded balls, after the fashion of the pendent decorations of the older French example. The shaft of the pole is painted white and blue.

London boasted several May-poles before the days of Puritanism. Many parishes vied with each other in the height and adornment of their own. One famed pole stood in Basing-lane, near St. Paul's Cathedral, and was in the time of Stow kept in the hostelry called Gerard's Hall. 'In the high-roofed hall of this house,' says he, 'sometime stood a large fir pole, which reached to the roof thereof,—a pole of forty feet long, and fifteen inches about, fabled to be the justing staff of Gerard the Giant.' A carved wooden figure of this giant, pole in hand, stood over the gate of this old inn, until March 1852, when the whole building was demolished for city improvements.

The most renowned London May-pole, and the latest in existence, was that erected in the Strand, immediately after the Restoration. Its history is altogether curious. The Parliament of 1644 had ordained that 'all and singular May-poles that are or shall be erected, shall be taken down,' and had enforced their decree by penalties that effectually carried out their gloomy desires. When the populace gave again vent to their May-day jollity in 1661, they determined on planting the tallest of these poles in the most conspicuous part of the Strand, bringing it in triumph, with drums beating, flags flying, and music playing, from Scotland Yard to the opening of Little Drury Lane, opposite Somerset House, where it was erected, and which lane was after termed 'May-pole Alley' in consequence. 'That stately cedar erected in the Strand, 134 feet high,' as it is glowingly termed by a contemporary author, was considered as a type of 'golden days' about to return with the Stuarts. It was raised by seamen, expressly sent for the purpose by the Duke of York, and decorated with three gilt crowns and other enrichments. It is frequently alluded to by authors. Pope wrote--

'Where the tall May-pole once o'erlooked the Strand.'

Our cut, exhibiting its features a short while before its demolition, is a portion of a long print by Vertue representing the procession of the members of both Houses of Parliament to St. Paul's Cathedral to render thanks for the Peace of Utrecht, July 7th, 1713. On this occasion the London charity children were ranged on scaffolds, erected on the north side of the Strand, and the cut represents a portion of one of these scaffolds, terminating at the opening to Little Drury Lane, and including the pole, which is surmounted by a globe, and has a long streamer floating beneath it. Four years after-wards, this famed pole, having grown old and decayed, was taken down. Sir Isaac Newton arranged for its purchase with the parish, and it was carried to Wanstead, in Essex, and used as a support to the great telescope (124 feet in length), which had been presented to the Royal Society by the French astronomer, M. Hugon. Its celebrity rendered its memory to be popularly preserved longer than falls to the lot of such relics of old London, and an anonymous author, in the year 1800, humorously asks:--

'What's not destroy'd by Time's relentless hand?
Where's Troy?—and where's the May-pole in the Strand?'

Scattered in some of the more remote English villages are a few of the old May-poles. One still does duty as the supporter of a weathercock in the churchyard at Pendleton, Manchester; others might be cited, serving more ignoble uses than they were originally intended for. The custom of dressing them with May garlands, and dancing around them, has departed from utilitarian England, and the jollity of old country customs given way to the ceaseless labouring monotony of commercial town life. The same thing occurs abroad as at home, except in lonely districts as yet unbroken by railways, and our concluding illustration is derived from such a locality. Between Munich and Salzburg are many quiet villages, each rejoicing in its May-pole; that we have selected for engraving is in the middle of the little village of St. Egydien, near Salzburg. It is encircled by garlands, and crowned with a May-bush and flags. Beneath the garlands are figures dressed in the ordinary peasant costume, as if ascending the pole; they are large wooden dolls, dressed in linen and cloth clothing, and nailed by hands and knees to the pole. It is the custom here to place such figures, as well as birds, stags, &c., up the poles. In one instance a stag-hunt is so represented. The pole thus decorated remains to adorn the village green, until a renovation of these decorations takes place on the yearly May festival.


Our mediaeval forefathers seem to have cherished a deep admiration for nature in all her forms; they loved the beauty of her flowers, and the song of her birds, and, whenever they could, they made their dwellings among her most picturesque and pleasant scenery. May was their favourite month in the year, not only because it was the time at which all nature seemed to spring into new life, but because a host of superstitions, dating from remote antiquity, were attached to it, and had given rise to many popular festivals and observances. The poets especially loved to dwell on the charms of the month of May. 'In the season of April and May,' says the minstrel who sang the history of the Fitz-Warines, 'when fields and plants become green again, and everything living recovers virtue, beauty, and force, hills and vales resound with the sweet songs of birds, and the hearts of all people, for the beauty of the weather and the season, rise up and gladden themselves.' The month of May is celebrated in the earliest attempts at English lyric poetry (Wright's Specimens of Lyric Poetry of the Reign of Edward 1, p. 45), as the season when 'it is pleasant at daybreak,'--

‘In May hit murgeth when hit dawes;'


'Blosmes bredeth on the bowes.'

The 'Romance of Kyng Alisaunder,' as old, apparently, as the beginning of the fourteenth century, similarly speaks of the pleasantness of May (for it must be kept in mind that the old meaning of the word merry was pleasant)--

‘Mery time it is in May;
The foules syngeth her lay;
The knighttes loveth the tornay;
Maydens so dauncen and thay play.'

(l. 5,210, in Weber.)

And the same poet alludes in another place (1. 2,547) to the melody of the birds--

‘In tyme of May, the nyghtyngale
In wode makith miry gale (pleasant melody);
So doth the foules grete and smale,
Som on hulle, som on dale.'

Much in the same tone is the 'merry' month celebrated in the celebrated 'Romance of the Rose,' which we will quote in the translation made by our own poet Chaucer. After alluding to the pleasure and joy which seemed to pervade all nature, after its recovery from the rigours of winter, now that May had brought in the summer season, the poet goes on to say that--

'—than bycometh the ground so proude,
That it wole have a newe shroude,
And makith so quaynt his robe and faire,
That it had hewes an hundred payre
Of gras and flouris, ynde (blue) and pers (grey),
And many hewes ful dyvers:
That is the robe I mene, iwis (truly),
Through which the ground to preisen is.
The briddes, that haven lefte her song,
While thei han suffrid cold so strong
In weeres gryl and derk to sight,
Ben in May for the sonne bright
So glade, that they shewe in syngyng
That in her hertis is such lykyng ( pleasure),
That they mote syngen and be light.
Than doth the nyghtyngale hir myght
To make noyse and syngen blythe,
Than is blisful many sithe (times)
The chelaundre (goldfinch) and the papyngay
Than young folk entenden ay
For to ben gay and amorous;
The tyme is than so saverous.
Hard is his hart that loveth nought
In May, whan al this mirth is wrought;
Whan he may on these braunches here
The smale briddes syngen clere.'

The whole spirit of the poetry of mediaeval England is embodied in the writings of Chaucer, and it is no wonder if we often find him singing the praises of May. The daisy, in Chaucer's estimate, was the prettiest flower in that engaging month–

'How have I thanne suche a condition,
That of al the floures in the mede
Thanne love I most these floures white and redo,
Suche as men callen daysyes in our tonne.
To hem have I so grete affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whanne comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth (dawns) me no day
That I nam (am not) uppe and walkyng in the merle,
To seen this floure ayein (against) the sunne sprede
Whan it up-ryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sight softeneth al my sorwe.'

Prologue to Legend of Goode Women.

Chaucer more than once introduces the feathered minstrels welcoming and worshipping the month of May; as, for an instance, in his 'Court of Love,' where robin redbreast is introduced at the 'lectern,' chaunting his devotions–-

'"Hail now," quoth he, "o fresh sason of May,
Our moneth glad that singen on the spray!
Hail to the floures, red, and white, and blewe,
Which by their vertue maketh our lust newe I"'

And so again in 'The Cuckow and the Nightingale,' when the poet sought the fields and groves on a May morning–

'There sat I downe among the faire floures,
And sawe the birdes trippe out of hir boures,
There as they rested hem alle the night;
They were so joyful of the dayes light,
They gan of May for to done honoures.'

It is the season which puts in motion people's hearts and spirits, and makes them active with life. 'For,' as we are told in the same poem–

'—every true gentle herte free,
That with him is, or thinketh for to be,
Againe May now shal have some stering (stirring)
Or to joye, or elles to some mourning,
In no season so muche, as thinketh me.
For whan they may here the birdes singe,
And see the floures and the leaves springe,
That bringeth into hertes remembraunce
A manner ease, medled (mixed) with grevaunce,
And lustie thoughtes full of grete longinge.'

May, in fact, was the season which was to last for ever in heaven, according to the idea expressed in the inscription on the gate of Chaucer's happy ‘park'--

'Through me men gon into the blisful place
Of hertes, hele and dedly, woundes cure;
Through me men gon into the welle of grace,
There grene and lusty May shal ever endure.

Chaucer's Assembly of Foules

In the 'Court of Love,' when the birds have concluded their devotional service in honour of the month, they separate to gather flowers and branches, and weave them into garlands--

'Thus sange they alle the service of the feste,
And that was done right early, to my dome (as I judged);
And forth goeth al the court, both moste and leste,
To feche the floures freshe, and braunche, and biome;
And namely (especially) hawthorn brought both page and grome,
With freshe garlandes party blew and white;
And than rejoysen in their grete delight,
Eek eche at other threw the floures bright,
The primerose, the violete, and the gold' (the marigold).

The practice of going into the woods to gather flowers and green boughs, and make them into garlands on May morning, is hardly yet quite obsolete, and it is often mentioned by the other old poets, as well as by Chaucer. At the period when we learn more of the domestic manners of our kings and queens, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we find even royalty following the same custom, and rambling in the fields and woods at daybreak to fetch home 'the May.' So in Chaucer's 'Knightes Tale,' it was on a May morning that–

'Arcite, that is in the court ryal
With Theseus, his squyer principal,
Is risen, and loketh on the mery day.
And for to doon his observance to May,
Remembryng of the poynt of his desire,
He on his courser, stertyng as the fire,
Is riden into feeldes him to pleye,
Out of the court, were it a mile or tweye.
And to the grove, of which that I yow tolde,
By aventure his wey he gan to holde,
To make him a garland of the greves,
Were it of woodewynde or hawthorn leves;
And lowde he song agens the sonne scheene.'


Two or three years ago we obtained the following song or carol from the mouths of several parties of little girls in the parish of Debden, in Essex, who on May morning go about from house to house, carrying garlands of different sizes, some large, with a doll dressed in white in the middle, which no doubt represents what was once the Virgin Mary. All who sing it, do so with various readings, or rather with corruptions, and it was only by comparing a certain number of these different versions, that we could make it out as intelligible as it appears in this text:

'I, been a rambling all this night,
And sometime of this day;
And now returning back again,
I brought you a garland gay.

A garland gay I brought you here,
And at your door I stand;
'Tis nothing but a sprout, but 'tis well budded out,
The works of our Lord's hand.

So dear, so dear as Christ lov'd us,
And for our sins was slain,
Christ bids us turn from wickedness,
And turn to the Lord again.'

Sometimes a sort of refrain is sung after each verse, in the following words:

'Why don't you do as we have done,
The very first day of May;
And from my parents I have come,
And would no longer stay.'

This is evidently a very old ballad, dating probably from as far back as the time of Elizabeth, when, according to the puritanical moralists, it was the custom for the youths of both sexes to go into the fields and woods on May eve, and remain out all night, returning early in the morning with green branches and garlands of flowers. The doll representing the Virgin Mary perhaps refers us back to a still older period. The puritans have evidently left their mark upon it, and their influence is still more visible in a longer version of it, preserved in a neighbouring parish, that of Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, which was communicated to Hone's Every Day Book, as sung in 1823 by the men in that parish. This also was, we believe, the case a few years ago in Debenham parish, where the girls have only taken it up at a comparatively recent period. The following is the Hitchin version:

'Remember us poor Mayers all,
And thus we do begin
To lead our lives in righteousness,
Or else we die in sin.

We have been rambling all this night,
And almost all this day,
And now returned back again,
We have brought you a branch of May.

A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands;
It is but a sprout, but it's well budded out
By the work of our Lord's hands.

The hedges and trees they are so green,
As green as any leek,
Our Heavenly Father he watered them
With heavenly dew so sweet.

The heavenly gates are open wide,
Our paths are beaten plain,
And, if a man be not too far gone,
He may return again.

The life of man is but a span,
It flourishes like a flower;
We are here to-day, and gone to-morrow,
And we are dead in one hour.

The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day;
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May!'

The same song is sung in some other parishes in the neighbourhood of Debenham, with further variations, which show us, in a curious and interesting manner, the changes which such popular records undergo in passing from one generation to another. At Thaxted, the girls wave branches before the doors of the inhabit-ants, but they seem to have forgotten the song altogether."

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Walpurgisnacht - The Springtime Halloween

Walpurgisnacht - An Old German Postcard
The 30th April is the eve of St. Walpurgis or as it is known traditionally in Germany Walpurgisnacht.

Described by Bram Stoker in his short story ' Dracula's Guest '.

'Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad - when the graves were opened and the dead come forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.'

So who is St. Walpurgis? And why has this springtime equivalent to Halloween been honoured in this saint's name?

St. Walpurgis or St. Walburga as she is often known, was an eighth century English nun. Born in Devonshire around 710AD, she was the only daughter of a Saxon chief, King Richard and of Winna (sister of St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany). She also had two brothers, Winibald and Willibald.

Wimborne Minster
In 721AD, her father and two brothers travelled on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, while Walburga was entrusted to the Abbess of the Convent of St. Cuthberga now the site of the present day Minster at Wimborne, Dorset, England (Pictured Left). Where she spent twenty-seven years intensive training and study.

During her schooling at St. Cuthberga, her uncle and Boniface (later martyred in Germany) and her two brothers were sent as missionaries to Germany to convert the heathen races of Europe. As Boniface began to establish churches, he appealed to the Abbess Tetta of the convent of St. Cuthberga to send him some nuns to assist in his work. The Abbess selected a party of ten to embark on a voyage to join him, two of whom were Walburga and Boniface's cousin Lioba.

As they sailed across the channel a terrible and violent tempest arose. In an act of faith Walburga knelt upon the deck of the ship and prayed, where upon the storm seized and became calm once again. When the ship arrived in Germany the sailors proclaimed the miracle they had witnessed at sea, that were ever she went, she was received with joy and veneration.

St. Walburga
On eventually reaching Mainz, she was warmly welcomed by her uncle and brother Willibald. Her two brothers had already established a double monastery for both men and women in Heidenheim. After living for some time in Bischofsheim, Walburga was appointed Abbess to support her brother Winibald at Heidenheim, who already served as first Abbot. When her brother Winibald died, the Bishop of Eichstadt once again appointed her as Abbess of the whole monastery.

The Legends of her life tells of her gentleness, humility and charity, as well as her power to heal the sick through prayer. After a long time of devoted service Walburga died in 777AD and was laid to rest beside her brother Winibald. Her surviving brother Willibald continued her work until his death in 786AD.

When the devotion to Walburga declined, the monastery and church at Heidenheim soon began to decay, and fall into ruin. It wasn't until around 870AD, that the Bishop of Eichstadt, Otkar, decided to restore the Monastery to its former glory.

One night during the renovation, an apparition of Walburga appeared to the Bishop reproaching and threatening him, as the workmen had already discovered her tomb and desecrated it. This encounter led to prompt action the next day on the 21st September 870AD, in the removal of her remains to be taken to Eichstadt and placed in the church of Holy Cross, now called St. Walburga.

Twenty-three years later, the shrine of St. Walburga was opened by Otkar's successor the Bishop Erchanbold, to remove some portions of the remains to give as relics to Liubula, Abbess of Monheim. It was at this point that the Bishop first discovered that the body of the saint was immersed in a oily substance, which from that day forth has continued to flow from the stone slab and surrounding metal plate on which the relics of the saint rest. The fluid or `Walburgis oleum' is collected in a silver cup, placed beneath the slab to catch the fluid, so the nuns of St Walburga can distribute it all over the world to those who wish to benefit from St Walburga's influence of healing.

Due to its divine proprieties many portions of her relics have been taken to other churches and monasteries in other parts of Europe. This has resulted in a diversity of feasts in honour of the saint. In the Roman Martyrology her feast day is commemorated on the 1st May, the day in which she is believed to been declared a saint by the Pope in the 9th Century.

As her feast day also coincided with a much older pagan festival of Beltane when the Celts marked the beginning of summer. The eve of Beltane 30th April - 1st May became also known as Walpurgisnacht, perhaps originally in an attempt to Christianise the festival. Like Halloween, it was also the night in which spirits wandered and witches favoured, as it was an auspicious time for holding their midnight sabbats and for conjuring spells. The most famous of all sabbats held on Walpurgisnacht was supposed to take place on the summit of the Brocken in the Harz Mountains of Germany as mentioned in Goethe's 'Faust'.

(Above) F.W. Murnau, 1926 silent film 'Faust'

On Walpurgisnacht it was customary for local folk to ring the bells of the church at night, cutting sprigs of blossom from the May bush (Hawthorn) and hung outside or inside the house as deterrent of witchcraft. The burning of Need-Fires and life size straw effigies of men or women which were made prior to burning and cursed with ill-health and ill-luck of the old year. Creating lots of noise by banging on drums, wood or firing of shotguns were all considered effective ways of ridding the area of witchcraft, evil spirits and dark forces. The very name St. Walburga (or Walpurgis, Waltpurde, Gauburge, Vaubourg, Falbourg, as known in other parts of Europe) and her image were also used as protective charms against witchcraft, plague, famine and storms.

Later the church moved St. Walburga's feast day to the 25th February in an attempt by the authorities to banish the Walpurgisnacht witches revelry.

However, in Germany and other parts of Europe the tradition of Walpurgisnacht still continues to this day but taken less seriously by local people and especially children as a harmless celebration and a excuse to dress up as witches, ghosts and goblins and play pranks on unsuspecting victims after dark similar to Halloween's Trick or Treat.

Source: This article was featured in Bite Me Magazine - Issue 16
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