Samuel Johnson in his Notes to Shakespeare (1765) wrote: “I have been informed by an anonymous correspondent, that crants is the German word for garlands, and I suppose it was retained by us from the Saxons. To carry garlands before the bier of a maiden, and to hang them over her grave, is still the practice in rural parishes.”
I had no idea that such things might survive, but I recently visited the church of St Stephen in Fylingdales, North Yorkshire and found some there, hanging ghostly in a glass enclosure. (Photographs above and below. Unfortunately the glass enclosure made it impossible to avoid some reflections.)
A maiden garland was made by the friends of a virgin and carried at her funeral procession, or placed on the bier. It was then hung in the church over her usual seat until it finally disintegrated. The frame was made of willow and it was covered in yards of ribbon – one of the Fylingdales examples contains over 100 feet (30.5 metres). Strips of dress fabric were also used – perhaps from the deceased’s best gowns. In 1747 the Gentleman’s Magazine described how ‘The lower rim, or circlet, was a broad hoop of wood, whereunto were fix’d, at the sides thereof, part of two other hoops, crossing each other at the top at right angles, which formed the upper part, being about one third longer than the width; these hoops were wholly covered with artificial flowers of paper, dy’d horn, or silk, and more or less beauteous, according to the skill or ingenuity of the performer. In the vacancy of the inside, from the top, hung white paper, cut in the form of gloves, whereon was wrote the deceased’s name, age, etc. together with long slips of various-colour’d paper, or ribbons. These were many times intermix’d with gilded or painted empty shells of blown eggs, as farther ornaments; or, it may be, as emblems of the bubbles or bitterness of this life; whilst other garlands had only a solitary hour-glass hanging therein, as a more significant symbol of mortality.’
The oldest surviving garland is at St Mary’s church in Beverley, Yorkshire and dates to 1680. The Fylingdales examples are all early-mid 19th century – the last one is for Jane Levitt who died aged 20 in 1859.
In June 1790 John Byng, Viscount Torrington, a great traveller on horseback, called at the church in Tideswell, Derbyshire. ‘After dinner, I enter’d the church, which, without, is beautiful; (quite a model); and within, of excellent architecture… They here continue to hang up maiden garlands, which, however laudable, as of tendency to virtue, will soon be laugh’d out of practice.’ Certainly many clerics disapproved of the garland as unfitting – possibly suspecting pagan survivals or ‘Popish’ practices – and forbade or discouraged them. In some cases they were removed for practical reasons. In 1749 the parish register of Hope in the Peak District records that the church wardens were paid to clear away all the garlands from the beams of the church because they were blocking the daylight from the clerestory windows.
However, they continued to be made and the custom still survives in one parish – St Mary the Virgin, Abbots Ann, Hampshire. Not only does that church have the largest surviving collection but, in theory, they can still be awarded to people of either sex who die unmarried – provided the recipient was born, baptised and confirmed in the parish, continued to live there and was of unblemished reputation. Their earliest example dates from 1740 and the most recent 1973.
Old St Stephen’s church in Fylingdales is still consecrated but was replaced in 1870 by a new church. It is preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust and is open to the public.
This modern example of a maiden garland made for demonstration purposes at Fylingdales shows how the colours might have looked on an original.