This May Day, villages up and down the country will celebrate the coming of summer. Some of Britain’s most enduring village traditions, such as May Queens and maypole dancing, will be on display. You could be forgiven for thinking that maypole dancing is a firmly rooted folk institution. However, the ribbon dances we see today are actually a remodelling of May Day by the Victorians, based on ideas of a bygone ‘golden age’.
Like all good traditions, there is some discrepancy as to the origins of maypole dancing. Some evidence suggests that it began in Roman Britain about 2,000 years ago, when soldiers celebrated the arrival of spring by dancing around decorated trees to thank the goddess Flora.
However, a link also exists to pagan folklore. The ancient Celts divided their year into four festivals, the most significant of which was Beltane – the first day of summer. The day was marked by traditional fertility rites, and a tree would be selected, stripped of its branches, then decorated with flower garlands.
The earliest reference to a maypole appears in a 15th-century poem attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer called Chaunce of the Dice, where reference was made to the permanent maypole at Cornhill in London.
Since May Day was often granted as a rest day to labourers in the Middle Ages, it is easy to imagine the potential for bawdy medieval revelry around the phallic symbol of the maypole. It was this image the Victorians were keen to clean up, sanitising it into the ‘rustic’ children’s dancing we see today.
The maypole also represented the sacred tree and its attendant spirits, who would bring a village good luck, but this often led to rival villages trying to remove each other’s poles.
The Derby Mercury in May 1772 reports one such incident in Leicestershire, where “a body of young fellows from Loughborough, who formed a plot to carry off the maypole, which they executed at night… may be the cause of mischief and bloodshed, for the heroes of Quarndon vow revenge and are forming alliances with their neighbours of Barrow and Sheepshead, and give out they will soon march in a body to retake their favourite maypole.”
The maypole was always the focal point of village dancing, but in its earliest incarnation the tradition involved no plaited ribbons.
Instead the pole was brightly decorated with spring flowers, and surviving illustrations show adult dancers holding hands in a circle around the pole.
In the Middle Ages the Church mostly turned a blind eye to the drunken bawdiness of May Day and the associated dancing, although the event was still used as a potent symbol of religious reform versus traditional cultural institutions.
Puritanical pamphleteer Philip Stubbes railed against popular culture in his tirade against immorality, The Anatomie of Abuses (1583).
His writings give a unique window into the May Day customs of the era, as well as the strength of feeling they provoked: “…there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports: namely, Satan Prince of Hell: But their chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their may-pole, which they bring home with great veneration… [the] oxen draw home this May-pole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings from top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it, with great devotion… And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as heathen people did, at the dedication of their idols.”
The Protestant Reformation put an abrupt end to the drinking and dancing that accompanied May Day. In 1644 maypoles were banned altogether in an Act of Parliament.
However, in 1660 the monarchy was restored and maypoles soon followed as ‘Merrie England’ was revived under Charles II.
Anthony Wood, a 17th-century Oxford diarist, recounts an incident in May 1660 where “a maypole… [was] set up on purpose to vex the Presbyterians and Independents”. According to Wood, attempts to saw it down were futile so it was left to stand as a symbol of Restoration triumph.
Maypole dancing and the May Queen often went hand in hand. These ‘traditions’ both underwent a renaissance in the Victorian period, and were reimagined as the ultimate representation of rustic peasantry.
The idea of the May Queen, usually a young girl dressed in robes and ‘crowned’ as part of the festivities, gathered pace throughout the 19th century, fuelled by the Victorians’ remodelling of British customs. Poems such as Alfred Tennyson’s The May Queen (1833) and George Daniel’s Merrie England in the Olden Time (1842) advocated the maypole as a symbol of social unity.
May Day festivities, 1891. Plaiting the maypole at St Mary Cray, London. From The Graphic (9 May 1891). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
These literary influences inspired other art forms such as theatrical performances. The first documented plaited-ribboned maypole appeared not on a village green, but on stage in JT Haine’s play Richard Plantagenet at the Victoria Theatre, London (the Old Vic), in 1836.
This new interpretation of the maypole dance was copied across the country, with regional variances including ‘well-dressing’ in Buxton – the decoration of springs and wells with pictures made from natural materials – and a ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ in Cheshire, where a pyramid or conical framework was decorated with spring foliage and worn as part of the May Day procession.
In 1881 writer and artist John Ruskin was a guest at the May Queen ceremony at Whitelands, a Church of England teacher-training college in Roehampton.
The ceremony, where female students chose one of their number to be May Queen, was disseminated countrywide in village schools. Ironically, Ruskin was rather disparaging about the winner, writing to the Whitelands principal: “She looks to me between 35 and 38, and rather as if she would bring back the inquisition and trial by the rack.”
Accounts from this period suggest that maypole dancing and the crowning of the May Queen were often controlled by the village elite, rather than occurring as a result of village folk customs.
The Staffordshire Sentinel in May 1878 recounts the proceedings at the May Day Festival in Hanley, where “the performance began by a procession of young girls, all dressed in white, singing a May Day song as they brought in the May Queen (the little daughter of the Rector of Shelton)… After this came the dance around the maypole, which was very well done, under the able direction of the Rev J Badnall.”
In the 1880s musician, pageant-master and self-styled ‘Old English Revivalist’ Richard D’Arcy Ferris devised a ‘medieval summer games’ in Cheltenham.
Unable to find any concrete descriptions of social pursuits from the period, D’Arcy Ferris simply invented an array of quasi-medieval activities, including morris dancers, lords of misrule, hobby horses, mummers and a host of other ‘authentic’ traditions that were unquestioningly accepted by all, and featured in the promotional literature of the day.
An 1885 poster advertising the Empress Rink in Piccadilly, held by the British Library, promotes “skating round the maypole” as an “Old English Sport”!
A South Devon Queen Of The May, On Monday, the last day of May, Miss Mabel Ripley was crowned Queen of the May at the picturesque South Devon fishing village of Inner Hope. A large crowd of residents and visitors watched a programme of maypole dancing and folk dancing, and a 600 year old custom of eating web apples was carried out. – The May Queen and her retinue photographed after the ceremony, Inner Hope, South Devon. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The modern maypole
The cleaned-up version of maypole dancing continued well into the 20th century, with Merrie England still very much in evidence in contemporary accounts. Sentimental stories in the local press about May Day did much to encourage public interest in ‘Ye Olde’ customs and traditions.
For example, in May 1934 the Buckingham Advertiser reported that the “May pageantry of Shakespeare’s ‘Merrie England’ was revived… [The] village has a wide and lengthy green, well-suited to performances such as those which characterised the days of good Queen Bess… the spacious sward is surrounded by thatched homesteads, with blossoming spring foliage, a setting which conspires to add romance to old English merry making.”
Earlier the Nottingham Journal, while lamenting the bad spring weather of May 1928, recounts the maypole dancing at Clifton as a “brief splash of sunbeams on a drab day”, with many people “appreciative of the niceness of preserving a link with old-fashioned England, and they were rewarded sweetly [with a] graceful and unobtrusively charming spectacle”.
In fact the weather is a common theme in accounts from this period, as well as reference to the changing technology used to play the maypole music. In 1937 at Winslow School in Buckinghamshire “a radiogram was used for accompanying the dancing”. The British Pathé website contains several May Day clips from between the world wars, such as The Merry Month of May (1923), which shows maypole dancing as well as the crowning of the May Queen.
The later May Day Festival in Elstow (1935) shows the maypole being carried ceremoniously through the Bedfordshire village with a procession of villagers carrying garlands and wreaths.
These give an interesting insight into how the tradition was observed, and seem to differ little from the written accounts from the Victorian era – or the maypole dancing we see today.
If we peel away the layers of history and tradition, it’s clear that the maypole has something of a chequered past – one that is rooted in politics, religion and collective nostalgia. Who would have thought that something so ostensibly innocuous could be quite so controversial?