Maypoles were often stored during the year. They were then repainted, and bedecked with May Garlands – mostly made from Hawthorn. The Maypole used in London in 1660 was 134 feet high. Tall straight trees were used, sometimes of Larch, and they might be spliced together to get the requisite height. John Stow says that each parish in London had their own Maypole, or combined with a neighbouring Parish. The main Maypole was on the top of the Cornhill, in Leadenhall Street, and it was stored under the eves of St Andrew’s Church which became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft as a result.
The celebrations begin on May Eve because the Celtic calendar starts the day at Dusk. This seems strange to us even though we perversely ‘start’ our day at Midnight just after everyone has gone to bed! The other choice, and maybe the most logical is, Dawn. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric. Dawn and Dusk vary and are difficult to precisely fix. Midnight is half way between Dawn and Dusk, and a fixed point.
Celebrations centred around the Bonfire, and for the Celts was sacred to the fire God Belinus, and May Day was called Beltane. Bonfires continued to be a part of the celebration into the 16th Century. According to folklore tradition, the bonfire should be made of nine types of wood, collected by nine teams of married men (or first born men). They must not carry any metal with them and the fire has to be lit by rubbing oak sticks together or a wooden awl twisted in a wooden log. The people have to run sunwise around the fire, and oatcakes are distributed with one being marked with a black spot. The one who collects it has to jump through the fire three times. Bonfires would have been on the top of hills, or in the streets in London.
May celebrations have a similarity of Halloween which was also a fire festival and both are uncanny times when sprites and spirits abound. Hawthorn was a favoured wood not only because of its beautiful may flowers but also because it was said to be the wood the crown of thorns was made from. It had the power of resisting supernatural forces, so was used to protect doors, cribs, cow sheds and other places from witches. Witches, it was said, got their power to fly from potions made from infants. The best protection was christening and the custom was that christening took place as early as possible and normally three days after birth. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, so we celebrate his birthday on 23rd April. Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be helped by a bible, rowan, and garlic. Babies born between May 1 and 8 were thought to be special children destined to have power over man and beast. Weddings were frowned upon in Lent and in May, so a lot of people married in April.
After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree. Thinking of one’s lover might bring marriage within the year.
May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.
By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on April 23rd 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day. The death date is given by the burial register at the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford on Avon where he was buried. His baptismal record also survives at the same church and is on April 26th 1564. but we don’t actually know when he was born.
Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters would have been fastened as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives would come round, and the room would be decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was felt that external events could influence the birth, and any shocks or horrors were thought to be the cause of deformities and anomalies, so a calm lying-in room was clearly a good idea.
When labour began female friends, relatives and the midwife were called to help out. A caudle of spiced wine or beer would be given to the mother to strengthen her through the process. Today the maternal mortality rate is 7 per 100,000. An estimate for the 16th Century is 1500 per 100,000. So most women would have heard of or attended the birth of women who had died during or following children birth. There were also no forceps so if a baby were stuck and could not be manually manipulated out, then the only way forward was to get a surgeon to use hooks to dismember the baby to save the life of the mother. Doctors were not normally in attendance, but could be called in emergency,
Immediately after washing the baby was swaddled. The swaddling was often very tight and could affect the baby’s growth, and might have affected the learning process as movement of hands are now considered very important in the early learning process. Swaddling lasted eight to nine months, and only went out of fashion after Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote against the practice.
Puerperal fever killed many women after successful childbirth for example Queen Jane Seymour who died after 5 days. During these dangerous early days the mother was kept in a dark room, and then, perhaps three days after birth friends were invited to celebrate ‘upsitting’ when the mother was no longer confined to bed. This is when christening would take place.
Edward VI was christened to a huge audience in the chapel at Hampton Court three days after his birth. Licensed midwives could baptise newborn babies provided they used the correct wording and informed the Church so that the registration could be properly reported. Thomas Cromwell was responsible for the law in 1538 which insisted on a parish register to record weddings, christenings, and funerals. The law was reaffirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1558 and registers had to be stored in a locked chest in the Church. (In 1597, the records had to be on parchment not paper, and in 1603 the chest had to have three locks!).
If the Christening were in the church the mother might not be there as she was expected to stay in her chamber for another week or so.
A week or a few weeks later the mother would be ‘churched.’ This was a thanks-giving ceremony, although Puritans did not like the idea that it could be considered a purification ceremony.
Breast feeding would last a year or so and many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern that the wet nurse was suitable as it was believed that the breast milk was important for the babies development both physically and temperamentally. Poor children who lost their mothers were very unlikely to survive as, without breast milk, the baby would be fed pap – bread soaked in cow’s milk.
‘RRRRRare Chelsea Buns’ as Jonathan Swift called them in a letter to Stella in 1711.
T!he tradition was that on Good Friday Georgian period Londoners would go to Chelsea to buy Chelsea Buns. Thousands of people would turn up at the Five Fields which stretched from Belgravia to what is now Royal Hospital Street. There were swings, drinking booths, nine pins and ‘vicious events that disgraced the metropolis’. The Bun House was on Jew’s Row as Royal Hospital Street was then called. As several King Georges visited the Bun House it became known as the Royal Chelsea Bun House. It was run by the Hands family. They were said to sell 50,000 Buns on the day. Stromboli tea garden was nearby.
Fragrant as honey and sweeter in taste As flaky and white as if baked by the light As the flesh of an infant soft, doughy and slight.
The buns were made from eggs, butter, sugar, lemon and spices. Inside the Chelsea Bun House was a collection of curiosities. Chelsea became known for its collection of curiosities in the 18th Century. Of course, there was the great Hans Sloane’s collection which was the founding collection of the British Museum, And then there was Don Saltero’s which was a coffee house that had curiosities on the wall. The Bun house displayed clocks, curiosities, models, paintings and statues on display to attract a discerning Public.
Me. I love a Chelsea Bun above all buns, But can you get them any more? The British Library Cafe was the last place I found that sold them. And that was 5 years ago I reckon. If you see any let me know.
The first sunny day of the year inviting enough to eat in the garden, partly because is is north facing, and its only now getting a decent time in the sun; and partly because it was a stonking warm sun. The Haggerston Rivera in the background is full of people deciding that this is the day to get it all out out in the sun. But also there is still a small proportion of people dressed ready just in case a chill north wind arrives unexpectedly.
Its also the death of the daffodils day – at least in my garden. Still a few tulips and even one or two yet to bloom. But the star of my garden at the moment is Honesty, which you can see to the left of the table (an old door repurposed). I first grew it on the balcony and it has now spread down and appeared in three places, and is rather lovely.
Its latin name is Lunaria annua because the silver seed pods look like a full moon, but they also look like silver coins. Therefore it symbolises wealth. It’s name Honesty is said to come from the translucent pod revealing the seeds beneath, honestly.
The book you see on the table s written by a friend from my Museum of London days who has recently published a book on Shakespeare’s time living in the Parish of St Helen’s near Bishopsgate.
Now is the time to make that Nettle Soup. According to William Coles in Adam in Eden (1657) it will ‘consume the Phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of the winter have left behind.’ He also suggest that it is said that the juice of the roots mixed with ale and beer and given to one who is suspected of losing her maidenhead ‘if it remain with her she is a maid, but if she spew it forth she is not’.
The Egyptians used them to treat lower back pain, the hardy Romans used it to keep themselves warm. Some suggest it is useful for treating enlarged prostate, and for lowing blood pressure and generally very rich in all things good for you. Just don’t eat them raw! The suggested benefits of eating Nettles are listed on this web site. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/stinging-nettle
The caption above tells two of his alleged puns, but in between the one about Angles/Angels and AElla/Alleluia he also punned on the name of Aella’s kingdom – Deira in Northumberland,saying he would save them from the wroth of God (de ira in Latin).
He sent St Augustine to Canterbury to convert the English. It is possible to argue that this encounter is why we are called English, because St Augustine was sent to set up the Church of the Angles, or the Anglish/English Church, not the Saxon Church. Eventually, the term became a relatively neutral term that the various shades of Germanic peoples in Britain could unite under.
The mission was sent in AD 597 and Pope Gregory died in AD 604.
The text from the Kalendar gives a great description of the nature of March as seen in the Jacobean era. We are still in Pisces
The next section of the Kalendar gives a comparison between the ages of man and the months of the year. Twelve months in a year, Twelve ages of man in six year blocks. So March represents ages twelve to eighteen, as it says time to learn doctrine and science.
I introduce the Kalendar of Shepherds on this page.
Named after Mars, the God of War, March was the beginning of the campaign season, and the army was prepared, and ceremonies held to Mars. The Salii, twelve youths dressed in archaic fighting costumes led a procession singing the Carmen Saliare. Ovid reports in his poem Fasti (3.259–392).
The illustration shows that in Pisces and early Ares preparation was still the main order of the farming day, clearing out the moats, and preparing the fruit trees. Lambing is also increasing in number.
It is also the Feast of St David, the patron saint of Wales, who lived in the sixth century AD. Little that is known about him is contemporary but he was an abbot-bishop and important for the independence of the Welsh Christian tradition.
This year it is also Shrove Tuesday, the day we eat up all our surplus food so that we can begin out lenten fast and turn out mind to repentance. Traditionally, pancakes with lemon and sugar but a day of excess before the 40 days of restraint.
Shrove Tuesday was traditional for football games in the days before football had any rules to speak of. It was a wild game in which teams tried to get a bladder from one end of town to the other, or one side of a field to the other. At Chester the Mayor created the Chester Races on the Roodee, the island where the Shrove Tuesday game was held , specifically to stop the rowdy game.