Green Women and Green Beasts - The Maypole

Due to political and religious upheaval in England during the 16th and 17th centuries, festivities often became a focal point for dispute. As the most prominent symbol of May Day, the maypole itself was often targeted. Philip Stubbes was typical of the Puritan reformers who regarded it as a kind of pagan idol:

 

“But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration... Then fall they to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself” [1].


Under King Edward's Protestant regime of the 1540’s many seasonal festivities withered in the face of official hostility: in 1549 the Corporation of London even instructed property owners to prevent their servants from attending May games [2]. It was in this climate that the local Maypole in Wandsworth was sold off in 1547-8. It must have been replaced, because a century later it was destroyed once more, being dug up in 1640-1 shortly after the Long Parliament had dispensed the King's 'Book of Sports' which had given some protection to popular festivities against the puritan purge. In 1644, Parliament passed an ordinance banning maypoles which were described as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness” [3].

The maypoles of the Middle Ages seem to have usually been just stripped tree trunks. Maypoles with ribbons were however known in France and seem to have been introduced into England. Horace Walpole wrote of a 1749 visit to France that "in one quarter was a maypole dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabor and pipe and rustic music, all masked" [4].


The Victorians devised a series of maypole ribbon plaiting dances which were popularised through schools. Central to this was Whitelands College in Roehampton,  teachers were taught the dances as part of their teacher training. John Ruskin - art critic, philanthropist and Camberwell resident, played a prominent role. He was a friend of the College Principal, the Reverend Canon John Faunthorpe, and in 1881 helped organise the first May Day festival there. The rise of industry and urbanisation cherished a dream of a return to a rural idyll.

 

 

 

 

[1] Philip Stubbes (1583) 'The Anatomy of Abuses'

[2] Ronald Hutton (2001) 'Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual in Britain'

[3] Neil Transpotine (2013) 'May Days in South London: A History'

[4] Horace Walpole (1840) 'The Letters of Horace Walplole, Earl of Orford'