Green Women and Green Beasts - characters

May Queen


Abundant fertility is the main theme. In older traditions, the goddess, the manifestation of growth and renewal, Flora, the Goddess of Spring, the May Queen falls in love with the Young Oak King as the Green Man and he wins her hand.


While there were still some surviving May Day customs in the 19th century, Victorians took their lead from accounts of Tudor celebrations and romanticised poems such as Tennyson's “The May Queen” (1830) Significantly, the May Queen, an apparently marginal figure in the Middle Ages, came to be the focal point of the Victorian May Day. Also, while previously May Day had been celebrated by adults, the Victorians and Edwardians increasingly saw it as a children's festival.


A feature of the May festivities was sometimes the crowning of a king. Stubbes (1583) describes it best:


 “the wild heads of the parish conventing together, chose themselves a grand captain (of mischief) whom they ennoble with the title of my Lord of Misrule... they have their hobby horses, dragons and other antiques, together with their bawdy pipes and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devil's Dance withal, then march those heathen company towards the Church and churchyard, their pipers piping, drummers thundering, their stumps dancing, their bells jingling, their handkerchieves swinging above their heads like madmen, their hobby horses and other monsters skirmishing among the throng”

The May King or Lord was sometimes accompanied by a female counterpart - an instance is recorded at Kingston but often not. The importance of the May Queen seems to have initially been a literary invention of seventeenth century London-based poets such as Michael Drayton and William Brown. Hutton (1996) remarks that “their difference in priorities from genuine rustics is shown in their constant descriptions of pretty May Queens in preference to the more common village lords”.

In 2002, the May Queen Society in Mitcham agreed to discontinue its event that had started in 1949: 'The crowning of Mitcham May Queen, one of the borough's best-loved traditions, could be consigned to history after more than 50 years because organisers cannot drum up enough support to keep the event running' (Wimbledon Guardian, 1 May 2002).


Elsewhere though the Wallington May Queen was going 100 years later in 2003, and the Beckenham May Queen was crowned in Croydon Road Recreation Ground in 2010.


The Green Man/Green lady


The Green Man is an ancient symbol and can represent many things, from vegetation and the sins of the flesh to the breath of the Holy Spirit. The green man is usually a carving in wood or stone. Some view the Green Man as a heroic figure, emerging from the collective unconscious as a result of the planet being under ecological threat and has become “the perennial symbol of our unity with the natural world.” 




On May 1st 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary: “Thence to Westminster; in the way meeting many milk-maids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them”.


The milkmaids' 'garland' consisted of (often borrowed) silver plate decorated with flowers and ribbons which they carried on their heads. Accompanied by musicians they would go dancing through the streets collecting donations. As time progressed the headdresses became more complex and trades began to take part, especially chimney sweeps.


Either due to suppression, or changes in propriety (the celebrations included alcohol), May games in London fell away by the eighteenth century. The tradition was thought to be kept alive by certain occupations, particularly milkmaids.


This custom was seemingly in decline by the time Hone's Every-Day Book was published in 1826, with its lament that


 “In London thirty years ago, When pretty milkmaids went about It was a goodly sight to see/Their May-day pageant all drawn out/ Such scenes and sounds once blest my eye/ And charm'd my ears; but all have vanish'd,/ On May-day now no garlands go/ For milkmaids and their dance are banish'd'”


As well as the milkmaids there are also references in the 18th century to 'bunters' May Day - bunter being a term for a prostitute. According to Judge (2000), “The Bunters were, in fact, a kind of parody of the Milkmaids' custom, with their pewter in place of silver... giving a deliberately grotesque show as public entertainment”.


A 1770 print purporting to depict this includes the verse“What Frolicks are here /So droll and so queer/ How joyful appeareth the day/ E'en Bunter and Bawd Unite to applaud /And celebrate first of the May”

Chimney Sweep


By the beginning of the 19th century, May Day was associated increasingly with Chimney Sweeps. Robert Southey (1836). commented that “The first days of May are the Saturnalia of these people, a wretched class of men, who exist in no other country than England”In his 'Sports and pastimes of the people of England' published in 1801, Joseph Strutt, describes the chimney sweeps' May Day:


“The chimney-sweepers of London have also singled out the first of May for their festival; at which time they parade the streets in companies, disguised in various manners. Their dresses are usually decorated with gilt paper and other mock fineries; they have their shovels and brushes in their hands which they rattle one upon the other; and to this rough music they jump about in imitation of dancing. Some of the larger companies have a fiddler with them, and a Jack-in-the-Green, as well as a Lord and Lady of the May, who follow the minstrel with great stateliness, and dance as occasion requires.”


The chimney sweeps' May Day seems to have been in steady decline from the middle of the 19th century and had more or less disappeared by the end of the century. Acts of Parliament in 1842 and 1875 had prohibited the use of the child labour of 'climbing boys' whose attendance elicited sympathy and also charity on May Day.


Neil Transpontine believes it's important not to romanticise the Chimney Sweeps' May Day, for behind the Jack in the Green and the dancing there was real poverty. May marked the end of the busy season for sweeps, meaning extra income through ritualised begging became essential. As William Blake wrote in his poem 'The Chimney Sweeper': “And because I am happy, & dance & sing/They think they have done me no injury/And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King/Who make up a heaven of our misery”.


Jack in the Green


Jack in the Green is a different character from the Green Man, though they are often confused with each other. There are numerous theories about Jack. That he represents and ancient pagan tree god, a nature spirit, emerging from a rural background. The folklorist Roy Judge (2000)rejects the notion that the Jack in the Green represents some kind of pagan survival from ancient times of a Green Man figure, pointing out that the first descriptions of a Jack on May Day date from the late 18th century.


Chimney sweeps in need of supplementing their income during the warmer months, became part of the May Day procession, wearing ever larger garlands in competition with each other and other trades until eventually the whole body was covered, which is how the Jack In The Green came into being:


“The Jack-in-the-Green consisted of a frame of wood or wicker work, made in the form of a sugarloaf, but open at the bottom, and sufficiently large and high to accommodate a man. The frame is covered with green leaves and bunches of flowers interwoven with each other, so that the person within may be completely concealed, who dances with his companions, and the populace are mightily pleased with the oddity of the moving pyramid”.

An observer of this custom complained: “Unfortunately, the apparently innocent and somewhat child-like capers of the Jack-in-the-green and his jovial troop engender and increase the vice of drinking. At each halt, more refreshments are produced, and sobriety is not a distinctive quality of the poor in general, or of chimney-sweeps in particular” (Thomson & Smith, 1877).


A photograph survives of the Deptford Jack in the Green on the back of which is a note from the photographer, Thankful Sturdee, believed to have been written in about 1934, which reads: “Jack in the Green. Fowlers troop of Mayday revellers. 'Jack in the Green' was an old institution in Deptford and regularly kept up until about twenty years ago, when the police stopped all such customs” (see Crofts, 2002).

The Jack in the Green fell out of favour, as the celebrations became increasingly rowdy and frowned upon. By the late 1880's, Jack was seen as “a relic of old times stranded on a shore where he attracts little attention and less sympathy”, as noted by South Bucks Free Press in 1888. He had disappeared completely from the streets by the arrival of the 20th century. However, Jack has now been revived as a custom, finding a new relevance within the communities who celebrate him.




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 (1583) 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”.

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 (Hutton 1994). 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”.

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' (Walpole, 1840).

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.