British Popular Customs Present And Past - online book

A calendar of the traditional customs, practices & rituals of the British Isles.

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228                                      may day.                              [May i.
Maypoles.—The earliest representation of an English maypole is that published in the Variorum Shakespeare, and depicted on a window at Betley in Staffordshire, then the property of Mr. Toilet, and which he was disposed to think as old as the time of Henry VIII. The pole is planted in a mound of earth, and has affixed to it St. George's red-cross banner, and a white pennon or streamer with a forked end. The shaft of the pole is painted in a diagonal line of black colour upon a yellow ground, a characteristic decoration of all these ancient maypoles, as alluded to by Shakespeare in his Midsummer Height's Dream, where it gives point to Hermia's allusion to her rival Helena as, " a painted may­pole."—Book of Days, vol. i. p. 575.—See Brand's Pop. Antiq. 1849, pp. 234-247.
It was, says Hone (Every Day Book, vol. i. p. 556), a great object with some of the more rigid reformers to suppress amusements, especially maypoles; and these idols of the people were taken down as zeal grew fierce, and put up as it grew cool, till, after various ups and downs, the favourites of the populace were by the Parliament, on the 6th April, 1644, thus provided against: " The Lords and Commons do further order and ordain that, all and singular maypoles that are or shall be erected, shall be taken down and re­moved by the constables, bossholders, tithing-men, petty con­stables, and churchwardens of the parishes where the same be, and that no maypole be hereafter set up, erected, or suffered to be set up within this kingdom of England or dominion of Wales; the said officers to be fined five shillings weekly till the said maypole be taken down." Ac­cordingly down went all the maypoles that were left. The restoration of Charles II. however was the signal for their revival. On the very 1st of May afterwards, in 1661, the maypole in the Strand was reared with great ceremony and rejoicing. A contemporary writer (in Cities Loyalty Displayed, 1661, 4to) speaking of it, says, " This tree was a most choice and remarkable piece ; 'twas made below Bridge, and brought in two parts up to Scotland Yard, near the King's Palace, and from thence it was conveyed, April 14th, to the Strand to be erected [nearly opposite Somerset House], It was brought with a streamer flourishing before it, drums
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