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Sunday, 1 May 2016

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 Royal Oak at around 7.00am. 

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 However, this prohibition was soon repealed after the restoration of Charles II in 1660.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."

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