Titus Oakes flogged from Aldgate to Newgate  May 20th 1685

Popish Plot playing cards c1679 after a design by Francis Barlow

Titus Oakes was a con-man who accused leading Catholics, including the Queen, and the King’s Brother’s wife of participating in a plot to kill King Charles II and restore a Catholic monarchy. 

It is thought that 22 people were executed, some Hanged, Drawn and Quartered because of Oates’ baseless accusations.  Diarist, Samuel Pepys, was caught up in the controversy and the entire country was swept up in the anti-Catholic frenzy called the Popish Plot.

It was only with the accession of James II that the climate of opinion changed, and Oates was found guilty of perjury.  Perjury was not punishable with death, so Oakes’ punishment was a long-drawn-out affair instead. He was sentenced to be imprisoned for life, and ‘whipped through the streets of London for five days a year for the remainder of his life.’

Oates was put in the pillory at Westminster Hall where passers-by pelted him with eggs. He was again pilloried the next day in the City.  On the third day, stripped, tied to a cart, and whipped from Aldgate to Newgate. The following day he was whipped from Newgate to Tyburn. (Source Wikipedia)

However, when James II was deposed and replaced by the joint Protestants monarchs William and Mary in 1689, he was released and given a pension.  He died in 1705.

May 8th Helston Furry Dance

At the end of the May Day/Beltane Festival Helston in Cornwall holds its Furry (or Floral) Dance. It is normally on the 8th May, but it changes date if the 8th is a Sunday or a Monday (Helston’s market day) but it isn’t so the Floral Dance was held this year on Wednesday 8th 5th May.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels more of a ‘pagan’ festival, while Helston is a more sedate, gentlemanly, dance. Padstow is more fuelled by a belly full of ale, while Helston by a Pims No 1, or a Gin and Tonic?

Do, have a look at both youtube videos and watch the Padstow one until at least you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

Children born between the two days, May 1st and May 8th are considered to have been ‘born with the skill of man and beast and power over both.’

May the Bees be with you! May 5th

Swarm of Bees, Hackney (Photo Kevin Flude 30th May 2018)

Tusser’s ‘Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry’ published 1573 suggests we should:

take heed to thy Bees, that are ready to swarm, the loss thereof now, is a crown’s worth of harm.’ The loss was particularly hard in May or June as the country verse tells us:

A swarm in May
Is worth a load of hay
A swarm in June
Is worth a silver spoon
A swarm in July
Is not worth a fly.

In 2018, on 30th May, I was perturbed to find a swarm of Bees hanging outside my front door. Frightened of leaving my house, I rang a local Bee Keeper who came around to take possession of the Bees and take them to a new home.

Swarm of Bees having moved 20 yards to a new home, being 'rescued' by a bee keeper.
Swarm of Bees, having moved 20 yards to a second perch, being ‘rescued’ by a bee keeper. You can see the swarm above his head

According to Hillman’s ‘Tusser Redivus’ of 1710, swarming in May produces particularly good honey, and he advises following the bees to retrieve them. He says:

You are entitled by custom to follow them over anyone’s land and claim them … but only so long as you ‘ting-tang’ as you go, by beating some metal utensil – the sound whereof is also said to make your bees stop.’

Much of the above is from The Perpetual Almanac of Folklore by Charles Kightly.

Bees swarm when a new Queen Bee takes a proportion of the worker bees to form a new colony. They will latch unto a branch or a shrub, even a car’s wing mirror, while sending bees out searching for a suitable new home, such as a hollow tree. There may be hundreds or even thousands in the new colony, and this may be very alarming, as I found, as I could not go out without walking through a cloud of bees. But, at this point, they will not be aggressive as they do not have a hive to protect. Look here for more information on swarming.

An average hive will produce 25 lbs of honey, and the bees will fly 1,375,000 miles to produce it, which is flying 55 times around the world (according to the British beekeepers Association (and my maths)) https://www.bbka.org.uk/honey

Bees are still having a hard time as their habitats are diminishing and threats increasing. In July, DEFRA hosts ‘Bees Needs Week’ which aims to increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators.

They suggest we can help by these 5 simple actions

  1. Grow more nectar rich flowers, shrubs and trees. Using window or balcony boxes are good options if you don’t have a garden.
  2. Let patches of garden and land grow wild.
  3. Cut grass less often.
  4. Do not disturb insect nests and hibernation spots.
  5. Think carefully about whether to use pesticides.

For more above Bees Needs Week look here:

May the 4th be with you

Screenshot from Ebay (There is no link to ebay on this image)
Screenshot from Ebay (There is no link to ebay on this image)

Should have got this out yesterday because it was Star Wars Day. This is based on the flimsy premise that ‘May the 4th be with you’ is similar to ‘May the Force be with you’.

In the UK Census of 2011, 390,127 self-declared themselves as Jedi under the question about religion. However, ten years later, the number declined to a mere 1,600. The cause appears to be a call from the Humanists to use ‘No religion’ as rather than declare as a Jedi Knight.

To find out what went down on Happy Star Wars day, look at this website:

https://www.starwars.com/news/happy-star-wars-day

Roodmas, the True Cross and the Coronation May 3rd

Rood screen in St. Helen’s church, Ranworth, Norfolk by Maria CC BY-SA 3.0

Roodmas is celebrated on May 3rd and September 14th, although the Church of England aligned itself with the Catholic Church’s main celebration on September 14th.

Rood is another word for the Cross. Parish Churches used to have a Rood Screen separating the holy Choir from the more secular Nave. This screen was topped with a statue of the Crucified Jesus nailed to a Rood.

The two dates of Roodmas reflects that it commemorates two events:

The Discovery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in 326 by Queen Helena, wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great. In Jerusalem, Queen Helena found the Cross with the nails, and the crown of thorns. She authenticated the Cross by placing it in contact with a deathly sick woman who was revived by the touch of Cross. She had most of the Cross sent back to the care of her son, Constantine the Great.

The part of the Holy Cross that was left behind in Jerusalem was taken by Persians but recovered by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 in a peace treaty.

Over the years, the Cross was shivered into ever smaller pieces as Emperors, Kings, Queens, Dukes, Counts, Popes, Bishops, Abbots, and Abbesses swapped relics with each other. The fragments were cased in beautiful reliquaries and had enormous power for those of faith and those who could be helped by healing by faith.

The Duke of Buckingham had a piece in his collection, which he kept at York House in the early 17th Century. How he got it, I don’t know, but I think he must have acquired it from the aftermath of the destruction of the Reformation. John Tradescant, who looked after the Duke’s collection (before Buckingham was murdered), had a wonderful collection of curiosities which he kept in the UK’s first Museum in Lambeth. Tradescant’s Ark, as his museum was called, also had a piece of the True Cross. Again, I suspect (without any evidence) that he got it from Buckingham. Did he acquire it after the murder? Or shiver off a timber fragment hoping no one would notice?

The Chapel that Shakespeare’s Father controlled as Bailiff of Stratford on Avon, was dedicated to the Legend of the True Cross, to find out more click here:

cutting from the Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

Last year, I was just finishing this piece when I came across this astonishing story in the Shropshire News!

It seems two pieces of the True Cross were given to Charles III by the Pope! They have been put into a cross called the Welsh Cross which took part in the Coronation Procession, and then the King is giving the Cross (I assume with the pieces of the Holy Cross) to the Church in Wales. Let the Shropshire News tell the story:

Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Part 2 Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

This is quite extraordinarily medieval, and fits in with the news that we were encouraged to take an oath of allegiance to the new King.

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/royals/swearing-allegiance-king-charles-its-29861318

It is a clear reminder that we are subjects not citizens and news, as a nation, we still set store by superstitions.

First Written on May 3rd 2023, revised May 3rd 2024

This Stinking Idol & the End of May Day May 2nd

An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft
An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft

Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583, fired a broadside at the tradition of dancing around the Maypole when he wrote a vitriolic attack on pagan practices. He said they had ‘as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell’ as they erected ‘this stinking Idoll’. Stubbes suggested that of the maids that went out to the woods on May Eve less than one-third returned ‘undefiled’.

The Maypole was stored at St Andrew Cornhill, which became known as St Andrew Undershaft. In 1517, it was attacked during the ‘Evil May Day riot’, which the Recorder of the time, Thomas More, helped quell. (300 were arrested and one hanged). The shaft was returned to its place under the eves of the houses in Shaft Alley, but apparently banned from being raised.

But in 1549, the curate of nearby St Katharine Cree Church made an inflammatory speech which led to a Puritan mob cutting the shaft into pieces and burning it. I always imagine the Curate’s sermons to be along the same lines as Phillip Stubbes attack on the Maypole:

But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale,
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue
twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete
Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen
drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is
couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about
with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted
with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and
children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared

vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they
strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set
vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fa!
they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the

a Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this
is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it
crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity,
credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides,
going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.

Phillip Stubbes from ”A Critical Edition Of Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie Of Abuses‘ By Margaret Jane Kidnie.

The unraised pole seems to have survived until the beginning of the Civil War, (1644) when it was destroyed. But at the Restoration of Charles II a new and huge Maypole was joyously erected 134 ft high (41 metres) in the Strand. This was danced around till 1713 when it was replaced and the original sold to Isaac Newton who used it to support the biggest telescope in Europe which was erected in Wanstead by a friend.

And that, my friends, is how you get from Superstition to Science in one easy story.

Old Print of Isaac Newton
Old Print of Isaac Newton

Postscript. I have always said that the sermon that led to the destruction of the Shaft in 1549 was made at St Paul but cannot remember where I read this. The suggestion that the Maypole in Cornhill was not used after 1517 seems strange because why then would it rouse a crowd to riot in 1549? Of the sources I have at hand, the London Encyclopedia mentions the riot of 1517 in its entry on St Andrew Undershaft but doesn’t elaborate more. ‘Layers of London‘ says ‘It was last raised in 1517 when ensuing riots led to the celebration being banned.’ which is definitive sounding. But is it? I wonder if it was banned for a year or two, then allowed again, and finally stopped in 1549?

First written in 2023 and revised on May 2nd 2024.

May Day May 1st

Bringing the Maypole, Bedfordshire. Image from ‘Romantic Britain’

Maypoles were often stored during the year. A few days before May Day they were 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 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.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels very ‘pagan’ or do I mean it is fuelled by an enormous amount of drink?

Here is a video, watch until you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

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, but Dawn and Dusk are difficult to fix. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric, being half way between Dawn and Dusk.

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, and in places until the 20th 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 to 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 flower 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 chopped up 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. See my post for more on this subject.

Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be augmented 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 April became a popular choice for marriage.

After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, other flowering plants, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree, or from a new-made grave. The dew was said to improve their complexion and was also used for medical conditions such as gout and weak eyes. Thinking of one’s lover on May Day might bring marriage within the year.

May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.

Floralia. Old Goats and an extraordinary Elephant April 28th

Flora on a gold aureus of 43–39 BC Wikipedia photot by АНО Международный нумизматический клуб

On the 28th of April until the Kalends (15th) of May the Romans, according to Ovid in the ‘Fasti’ Book IV, celebrated the Florialia dedicated to Flora, the Goddess of Spring, flowering, blossoming, budding, planting and fertility. She was one of the 15 Roman Deities offered a state-financed Priest. Her home in Rome, was on the lower slopes of the Aventine Hill near the Circus Maximus.

The Circus Maximus is the large long arena in the middle of Rome. Model Musee Arte et Histoire, Brussels, photo Kevin Flude

Celebrations began with theatrical performances, at the end of which the audience were pelted with beans and lupins. Then there were competitive games, and spectacles. The latter, in the reign of Galba, including a tight-rope walking – wait for it – elephant!

Incidently, Galba only survived for 7 months as Emperor – a little longer than Liz Truss’s 44 days but then she was not murdered by a rampaging mob at the end of her reign. It was the year known to history as the year of the 4 Emperors. (great description by Tacitus here:)

Juvenal records that prostitutes were included in the celebration of Flora by dancing naked, and fighting in mock gladiatorial battles. (there is a raging debate about the existence of female gladiators: a burial in Southwark has been said to be one such and Natalie Haynes has her say on the subject here🙂

Hares and goats were released as part of the ceremonies, presumably because they are very fertile and have a ‘salacious’ reputation! (Satyrs were, famously, obsessed with sex and were half man half goat. A man can still be referred to, normally behind his back, as an ‘old goat’).

Written in 2023 revised April 2024

St Totteringham’s Day? 28th April

I newspaper heading

Today, might be St Totteringham’s Day.  The mythical Saint, born in North London in the Noughties, has a variable feast day, but normally, in March or April. Sometimes, there is no feast day for the Saint.

My own hope is that a miracle will take place this year and St Totteringham is denied his customary outing.  But it looks unlikely; the best I can hope for is that it is postponed for a few days.

Scholars find that the best predictor of the Saint’s Day is not the Moon but the results of Premier league results for arch North London rival football teams, Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) and Arsenal (the Gunners). 

So, St Totteringham’s Day is the day that Arsenal are so far ahead of Spurs in the Premier League Table that Spurs cannot possibly overtake them.  Today, Spurs are playing Arsenal and if Arsenal win, they will declare the celebrations of the North London’s Saint can begin.

Fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen.

Another neologism from North London is to be ‘Spursy’.   Espn.co.uk defines it as: (and it breaks my heart to tell you this).

‘The more modern meaning is to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory or to fall short with the prize in sight. This is because, over time, the club’s lack of silverware has come to influence the meaning of “Spursy.” That original 2014 entry reads: “To consistently and inevitably fail to live up to expectations.’

Next year, it will be different.

St George’s Day, Shakespeare’s Birthday  April 23rd

shakWilliam Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio
William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout from the 1st Folio

By tradition, Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day April 23rd 1564, 457 years ago. He died on the same day in 1616 at age 52. Cervantes died on the same day.

Shakespeare’s 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. So, we don’t actually know when he was born, but christening were held soon after birth for fear of the high infant mortality rates, so 23rd April has been assigned to be Shakespeare’s birthday.

Anne Shakespeare would have ‘taken to her chamber’ about four weeks before the due date. The windows or shutters were fastened, as fresh air was thought to be bad for the birthing process. Female friends and relatives came to visit; the room was decorated with fine carpets, hangings, silver plates and fine ornaments. It was held that external events could influence the birth, any shocks or horrors might cause 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 was 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 a 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 and feet 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.

Detail of tomb of Alexander Denton and his first wife Anne Willison, and her baby dressed in swaddling clothes Photo Wikipedia Hugh Llewelyn

Puerperal fever killed many women even 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 as it might be confused with a purification ceremony.

Breastfeeding would last a year or so but many high status women choose to use a wet-nurse, but there was a real concern to find a suitable wet nurse 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.

Thanks very much to Alison Sim’s book ‘The Tudor Household’ for a lot of the above.

First published in 2023 and republished in April 2024