Sunday, 18 April 2010

Maypoles & “Merrie Recreation"

I met Susan Holloway Scott while I was on tour in the U.S. (One of the greatest pleasures of a book tour is meeting other authors.) I am very, very pleased to have her here—at last!—to give a guest post on Maypoles & “Merrie Recreation."

Susan is the author of over forty historical novels and novellas (forty!), and her bestselling books have received numerous awards and honors. With more than three million copies of her books in print, she has been published in nineteen foreign countries around the world.  Her most recent historical novels have been set in 17thcentury England, in the decadent, politically-charged royal court of King Charles II. She is a graduate of Brown University, and lives with her family in a book-filled house outside of Philadelphia, PA.

“Damn, this woman can write! Susan Holloway Scott is so intuitive with period language and so involved in the psyches of her characters,  that you are at all times there with them.” 
--Robin Maxwell, author of Mademoiselle Boleyn

Susan's titles include The Countess & the King: A Novel of the Countess of Dorchester & King James II and (her latest) The French Mistress: A Novel of the Duchess of Portsmouth & King Charles II. You may read about her and her work on her wonderful website (which includes a wealth of historical links).

Susan is also blogging with novelist Loretta Chase at Two Nerdy History Girls ( — a wonderful blog that I mentioned in "Dressing in Starlight," my last post here. You may also join her on Facebook.

And so, without further ado, Maypoles & “Merrie Recreation" by Susan Holloway Scott:

We’re almost in the season of May Day and Maypoles, and there’s no better symbol of the political and social extremes of 17th c. England than a towering May pole with ribbons fluttering.

May poles have pagan antecedents so distant that no one knows exactly where the first was planted. But there’s no mistaking their symbolism: a phallic pole firmly planted in Mother Earth, part of the annual celebration of fertility, procreation, and returning spring. Most May Rites celebrations were in that spirit, too, with much drinking and bawdy carousing. Pious Christians were appalled, as this description from Anatomy of Abuses (1583) by conservative pamphleteer Philip Stubbs (c.1555-1610) attests:
 “All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, grove, hills, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them…their Maypole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: they have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every oxe having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered allover with flowers and herbs, bound round with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometime painted with variable colours, with three hundred men, women and children following with great devotion. And thus being reared up…they fall to dance about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols….I have heard it credibly reported (viva voce)…that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled. These be the fruits which these cursed pastimes bring forth.”
Just in case his opinions left any doubters, Stubbs knew exactly who was behind all this mischief: “as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan, prince of hell.”

In Pasquil’s Palinodia, and his progresse to the taverne (1619), the Maypole represents good clean fun, when “Happy the age, and harmelesse were the dayes,/For then true love and amity was found,/When every village did a May-pole raise.”   Still, the author was aware of the threats to the “rod of peace”, hoping that the Maypole would stand:
Where no captritious Constables disturbe them,
Nor Justice of the peace did seeke to curbe them,
Nor peevish Puritan in rayling sort,
Nor other-wise Church-warden spoyl’d the sport.
But the “peevish Puritan” wasn’t far away. While both James I and Charles I explicitly permitted maypole dancing on Sundays, there was increasing objection to the drunkenness, mixed-gender dancing, and sexual shenanigans that accompanied Maypoles. They were singled out by the Long Parliament’s ordinance of 1644, which described Maypoles as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.” The image of grim-faced Puritans chopping down the Maypole is irresistible, but most scholars agree that it likely didn’t happen. Instead, most poles went “underground”,  stored away in sympathetic barns, or blatantly used as a gaudy symbol of popular resistance despite the Parliamentary decree.

It’s hardly surprising that when the monarchy was restored with Charles II that the Maypoles would triumphantly return as well. (Considering the reputed size of Charles’s manly self, it was boisterously appropriate, too.) While lesser Maypoles sprang up all over England, the grandest one was erected on the Strand, on the future site of St. Mary-le-Strand.  This Maypole is described in great detail in The Cities Loyalty Display’d, a tract from 1661.  Made from a “Stately Cedar”, the two parts of the pole were brought by the river to Scotland Yard, where it was assembled with an iron band, and then carried to the Strand to be erected in mid-April.

This really was an impressive Maypole, standing 134 feet high – so tall, in fact, that twelve sailors from the navy were brought in to steep it like a mast, with “Cables, Pullies, and other tacklins” under the command of the king’s brother James, Duke of York and Lord High Admiral.  At the top was a crown and vane with emblazoned with the “King’s Armes, richly gilded,” as well as a wreath, purple streamers, and lanterns to light the pole after dark as a kind of festive lighthouse.

The whole production took about four hours, accompanied by drums beating, trumpets sounding, “Musick” playing, and “great shouts and acclamations” from the “numerous multitudes of  people thronging the streets.” Once raised, Morris dancers, “finely deckt” with purple scarves, honored the Maypole with the first dance, with other revellers soon following.  His Majesty was pleased, as, apparently, was everyone else: “little children did much rejoyce, and ancient people did clap their hands, saying, golden dayes begin to appear….God preserve the King.” Within a hundred years, the Maypole had changed from a symbol of Satan to that of the King himself.  Not a bad transformation!


Note on the illustration: it is  not, regrettably, from the period. Susan adds,  " It really is amazing that no 17th c. artist painted or drew a Maypole -- esp. that huge one on the Strand. What a scene that must have been!"

1 comment:

Deborah Swift said...

Oh what a great post. I'm ashamed to say I have not read any of Susan's forty novels, they are not widely publicised in England. Thank goodness for the internet - I am certainly going to start now. I have come across information on the maypole on the Strand before - apparently it caused the worst sort of traffic jams in the 17th century, but was one of 'the' sights of London. Love the picture, Most people think of school maypoles and have no idea that they were actually gigantic trees in those days.