Category Archives: Traditions

Ophelia’s Maiden Strewments in an English church

In Hamlet the priest says of the burial of Ophelia –

Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

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.

 

 

 

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May Day

May DayHappy May Day! This is such a lovely image that I am reposting a 2015 blog. Above is one of Cruickshank’s great monthly images of London streets showing a May Day procession, led by a clown and followed by a couple – he is carrying a sword, she appears to have a large wooden spoon. Behind them comes an extraordinary character, disguised as a pile of greenery shaped into a crown at the top, and followed by a motley crowd led by a drummer and fife player. Suitably they are passing the shop of Budd, Florist.

To try and make some sense of the picture I turned to Brand’s “Observations on Popular Antiquities…Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions.” (1813) He records that, “It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a Maying early on the first of May…both sexes were wont to rise a little after midnight on the morning of that day, and walk to some neighbouring wood, accompanied with musick (sic) and the blowing of horns, where they broke down branches from trees and adorned them with nosegays and crowns of flowers. This done, they returned home with the booty, about the time of sunrise, and made their doors and windows triumph in the flowery spoil.”

He records, “In the Morning Post, Monday, May 2nd, 1791, it was mentioned, ‘that yesterday, being the first of May, according to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful.’ I remember too, that in walking that same morning between Hounslow and Brentford, I was met by two distinct parties of girls with garlands of flowers, who begged money of me, saying, ‘Pray, Sir, remember the Garland.'”

The strange foliage figure in the print is presumably a walking May Day garland of branches and greenery and perhaps the procession is on its way to dance around a Maypole. He quotes a Mr Strutt: “The Mayings are in some sort yet kept up by the milk-maids at London, who go about the streets with their garlands and musick, dancing; but this tracing is a very imperfect shadow of the original sports; for May-poles were set up in the streets, with various martial shows, morris-dancing and other devices, with which, and revelling, and good cheer, the day was passed away.”

I wonder whether the wooden spoon the young lady is holding is some kind of dairy implement – a cream skimmer, perhaps – symbolic of the milk maids? The small boy just behind her may be a chimney sweep’s boy, holding his brush and dust pan. Brand records that, “The young chimney-sweepers, some of whom are fantastically dressed in girls’ clothes, with a great profusion of brick dust by way of paint, gilt paper etc, making a noise with their shovels and brushes, are now the most striking objects in the celebration of May Day in the streets of London.” This lad’s hat certainly seems to be decorated.

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A Ceremony Never Omitted Among the Vulgar

letter-on-balcony

“It is the ceremony…never omitted among the vulgar, to draw lots, which they term Valentines, on the eve before Valentine Day. The names of a select number of one sex are, by an equal number of the other, put into some vessel; and after that, everyone draws a name, for the present called their Valentine, and is look’d upon as a good omen of their being man and wife afterwards.” (Bourne Antiquitates Vulgares 1725)

lottery

By “the vulgar” Bourne means the common people, but Valentine’s Day customs appear to have appealed to all levels of society – and nations. In this French fan of the end of the 18th century young women have lots drawn by cherubs for the name of their lovers, each of which has a list of their virtues attached – one young man has none (hence the weeping female in the centre!), one has one virtue and so forth. The luckiest young lady – whose name is Clemence – scoops the jackpot and her lover will be handsome, brave, honourable, true… I found the fan at auction at the same time as I was writing The Piratical Miss Ravenhurst – the heroine of which is called Clemence. Naturally, the hero has to find the same fan in a shop and buy it for her.

John Brand in his Observations on Popular Antiquities (1813) quotes examples of names being drawn for Valentines and also of various ways of divining who your lover will be – for example taking five bay leaves, pining one to each corner of your pillow and one to the middle the night before the 14th and you would then dream of your beloved. The  sending of written Valentines or cards appears to have developed as the postal service improved at the end of the 18th century and the unimaginative male could turn to The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1792) and copy out one of the sickly-sweet verses it contained.

small-kiss-biggerWhether you picked your bay leaves, sent a card or received a delightful verse – happy Valentine’s Day!

(The little detail of the kissing couple and the naughty young lady at the top of this post are from the French series of prints Modes et Manieres)

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Pray Remember Guy Fawkes!

 

Pyne Guy Fawkes

 

The 5th November is the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 when a group attempted to blow up the House of Lords, along with King James I, during the State Opening of Parliament. The aim was to install James’s nine year old daughter Elizabeth as a Catholic head of state, but the conspirators were betrayed and Guy Fawkes, who had been guarding the thirty six barrels of gunpowder stacked in the cellars under the Lords’ Chamber, was captured.

Most of the conspirators managed to get out of London but were found and, after a fight, some were killed and the others captured. At their trial in January 1606 the eight survivors, including Guy Fawkes, were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. With the popular feeling so strong against Roman Catholics at the time, celebrations on the  anniversary of the discovery of the plot rapidly became a fixed part of the calendar and persisted nationally. Bishop Robert Sanderson (d.1663) preached, “God grant that we nor ours ever live to see November 5th forgotten, or the solemnity of it silenced.” By 1677 Poor Robin’s Almanac had the verse:

“Now boys with

Squibs and crackers play.

And bonfires blaze

Turns night to day.”

By the early 19th century the visible elements of the celebration – the bonfire, the effigy of the “guy” with small boys parading their own homemade versions and begging for “A penny for the guy” and the setting-off of fire crackers – were still as popular as ever. The idea of a bonfire, fireworks and the opportunity for a party was doubtless as appealing then as it is now and perhaps few people thought about what was being represented and the horrors of either the planned explosion or the hideous end of the conspirators.

I love the detail in the picture at the top of this post. It is from Pyne’s The Costumes of Great Britain, 1805 and shows urchins parading their guy. He is dressed in old clothes with a handful of firecrackers pushed into his coat front. in the background another guy has been hung over the bonfire with his hands full of firecrackers. In the right foreground are a group of tradespeople. A man carries a joint of meat in a wooden hod on his shoulder, too preoccupied to look up, but a girl selling something from her basket, a cooper with barrel hoops over his shoulder and his tools tucked into the front of his apron and a woman blacking boots look on in amusement. The shoe-black is wearing a soldier’s uniform jacket, two scarves over a white cap and a voluminous black skirt. Her pot of blacking is on the stool beside her and she is rubbing it into a boot with a small brush.

My copy of Observations on Popular Antiquities: chiefly illustrating the origin of our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions by John Brand has the following for November 5th: “It is still customary in London and its vicinity for the boys to dress up an image of the infamous conspirator Guy Fawkes, holding in one hand a dark lanthorn, and in the other a bundle of matches, and to carry it about the streets begging money in these words, “Pray remember Guy Fawkes!” In the evening there are bon-fires , and these frightful figures are burnt in the midst of them.” The original edition was 1795, but the editor of the 1813 edition has added “Mr Brand was mistaken in supposing the celebration of the fifth of November to have been confined to London and its neighbourhood. The celebration of it was general.”

Cruickshank guy

Almost thirty years after the print by Pyne was published Cruickshank’s little image for November in London shows a very similar guy, although this one has a clay pipe in his mouth. Another guy is being carried in the distance on the right and he is wearing a tall white dunce’s cap which may be intended to represent the hats worn by heretics burnt at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition.

It is obviously November – fog is swirling in the street, the figure in the centre has his nose and mouth muffled and the advertisements pasted to the boarded-up window are for cloaks, greatcoats and furs. There is also an advert for fireworks.

 

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Bartholomew’s Fair

The George Cruickshank monthly print for September is a lively image of the Bartholomew fair, held at Smithfield from 1133 until Victorian moral outrage finally suppressed it in 1855.

Barth fair
Its origins were in the cloth fair which provided much of the income for the priory and hospice dedicated to St Bartholomew that eventually became today’s Bartholomew’s Hospital (“Barts”). The fair, one of the largest in the country, was held for three days from the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August). With the change of calendars in the 18th century the date slipped to 3rd September.
At the same time as the cloth fair the Corporation of London held a cattle fair at the same site and eventually, after many wrangles and the Dissolution of the monasteries, the Corporation took over the whole event.
By the 17th century the fair was more a vast funfair than a cloth or cattle sale and even the Puritans did not try and shut it down. By the time Charles II was on the throne it lasted for three weeks of carnival and downright disorder.
Everyone, rich or poor, went to the Fair, including Samuel Pepys who records numerous visits over the years. On September 2nd 1664 he watched the rope-dancing and bought combs for his wife and her maids.
Entertainments included theatrical performances, jugglers, magicians, stalls selling every kind of trinket, animal shows, food stalls, freaks and vast amounts of drink. The print for a fan dated 1721 shows a rather tidy and sedate fair, but does illustrate some of the activities – rope dancers, Faux the conjuror, rides in a dog cart, an early form of Ferris wheel, a peepshow of the Siege of Gibraltar and a stall selling “toys” – not children’s playthings but adult novelties and trinkets. Dolls known as Bartholomew Babies were one of the most popular souvenirs.

V0014666 Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, pictured in 1721. Aquatint with etching, c. 1800. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

V0014666 Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Bartholomew Fair, site of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, pictured in 1721. Aquatint with etching, c. 1800.
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

By the later 18th century Richardson’s booth was considered to have the best theatrical entertainments. He charged 6d admission (most others only charged a penny) and the tent was lined with green baize, illuminated by 2,000 lamps and the ushers were dressed as beefeaters. One can be seen to the right of Cruickshank’s print.
A visitor in 1825 records seeing “four lively little crocodiles hatched from eggs at Peckham by steam, Wombwell and his menageries [and] a glass blower in a glass wig blowing tea cups for 3d each.” An account of the money made by stallholders in 1828 gives an idea of the type of sideshows – the Pig-Faced Lady earned £150 (at 1d a time), the Panorama of the Battle of Navarino, £60 and the Chinese Juggler, £50. Wombwell’s Menagere made £1,500.
Cruickshank’s image shows a daytime scene with many children in the crowd – although even then the place is crowded and the bull-baiting appears to have got completely out of control. The coloured image by Pugin and Rowlandson for the Microcosm of London in 1801 shows a much darker, night-time scene, hinting at danger, debauchery and sin.

Microcosm Barth Fair
The Victorians certainly did not approve. In 1840 a committee regulated the booths and increased the rents and forbade “giants and dwarfs”. City notables ceased their support and by 1850 it was so reduced that it was no longer worth having an opening ceremony. In 1855 it ceased to exist, leaving only its name as a bye-word for uncontrolled fun for every class.

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All About April – Fools and Showers

April showers

These days April is famous for its showers and its fools, and I love this illustration by Cruickshank showing two ladies caught out in the rain while everyone else is either sheltering under an archway or buying a new umbrella from J. Gingham, Umbrella Depot. I’m not sure what the three lads are doing – possibly they are up to some kind of April Fool’s Day prank. As always with these tiny Cruickshank drawings the fun is in the details – behind the pieman with his basket is a shower bath standing outside T. Brass, Ironmonger. And, of course, the scene is set in St Swithin’s Lane. There is a real lane of that name in London, running between Cannon Street and Lombard Street in the City. St Swithin’s Day is July 15th, but the connection with rain was obviously too much for the artist to ignore.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare.

For April Fool’s Day in the Georgian era I turned to Observations on Popular Antiquities, Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions by John Brand (1813). They don’t write titles like that any more. Brand considered it to be of Druidical origin (but then he considered a great deal was) and comments that it was observed from ancient times all over the kingdom, and in France. “The wit chiefly consists in sending persons on what are called sleeveless errands, for The History of Eve’s Mother, for Pigeon’s Milk, with similar absurdities. ” He quotes rather a charming little love poem, dated 1798:

To  A Lady, who threatened to make the Author an April Fool

Why strive, dear Girl, to make a Fool,

Of one not wise before;

Yet having ‘scaped from Folly’s School,

Would fain go there no more.

Ah! if I must to school again,

Wilt though my teacher be?

I’m sure no lesson will be vain

Which though canst give to me?

And finally, as we are buffeted here in England with a windy beginning to the month, I’ll leave you with this delightful little watercolour sketch. It isn’t signed or dated, unfortunately.

Windy weather

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