May is an important month in the British folklore calendar, falling as it does midway between spring equinox and summer solstice. It is the month when the rising sap reaches its culmination; buds become blooms, lambs are in the field, and chicks are in the nest. The Old English name for the month was Þrimilci-mōnaþ (“month of three milkings”) while the modern name is thought by some to derive from the pre-Christian goddess Maia to whom a pregnant sow would be ritually sacrificed on the first of the month. Associations with fertility and with plenty are abundantly clear in both cases.
Although many surviving customs such as the crowning of May Queens (young women picked for their beauty and virtue to act as May personified for the day), dancing around the Maypole (a relic of pre-historic dendrolatry, or phallic pagan fertility symbol, depending on who you ask/believe), and so on, chiefly take place on May Day there are many varied traditions spread throughout the month. As we approach May’s end we come upon a curious cluster of events centred upon today’s date – the 29th.
In 1660 British Parliament declared the 29th of May a public holiday in commemoration Charles II’s escape after the Battle of Worcester nine years earlier. Charles II is said to have evaded capture by Parliamentarians by climbing an oak tree (The Royal Oak in Boscobel Wood, Shropshire) and hiding amongst its leaves, so the holiday came to be nicknamed Oak Apple Day.
Around Dorset, Oak Apple Day was once known as Shit-Sack Day or Shick-Sack Day. There was a custom of adorning the door of one’s home with oak leaves on the day and Oak Apple loyalists would visit any undecorated house and place a wreath of stinging nettles on the door singing:
“Shit Sack, penny a rag
Bang his head in Cromwell’s bag
All done up in a bundle”
Similarly, people not seen to be wearing a sprig of oak themselves were sometimes beaten with nettles or pelted with eggs.
At All Saints Church, Northampton (www.allsaintsnorthampton.co.uk) a statue of King Charles II which sits on the parapet of the portico is garlanded with oak leaves at noon every Oak Apple day. Underneath the statue is the inscription This Statue was erected in memory of King Charles II who gave a thousand tun of timber towards the rebuilding of this church and to this town seven years chimney money collected in it.
During the English Civil War, Northampton – with an already long history of religious dissent – supported the Parliamentarians; even providing boots for Cromwell’s New Model Army. After regaining the throne, Charles II went so far as to take revenge upon Northampton by ordering the destruction of the town walls and the partial demolition of its castle. Despite all this, the Earl of Northampton had remained a friend and confident of Charles’ throughout the interregnum and it was he who persuaded the King to contribute the timber and repeal seven year’s chimney tax in order to build the church. The decoration of Charles’ statue is followed by a celebration of the Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer – a book whose use was famously outlawed under Cromwell.
Traditional May Day celebrations had very much fallen out of favour during the interregnum of England, Scotland and Ireland – a period of which began with the execution of Charles I in January 1649 and was ended in July 1660 Charles II, took to the throne. During this period maypole dancing was outlawed, denounced as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness” by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans. So it was that many of the former May Day customs came to be re-adopted and incorporated as part of the new Oak Apple Day celebrations.
In Castleton, Derbyshire (www.castleton.co.uk) the 29th is Garland King Day. The Garland King rides a cart-horse wearing a large wooden frame completely covered in flowers and greenery so that only his legs are visible. At the apex of the King’s floral finery is fixed a posy of especially fine flowers and this is known as the Queen. Following the King is a second Queen, on horseback like himself. Up until 1956 the Queen (or ‘the Woman’ as she was then) was always a man in female dress. The Garland King leads a procession which makes its way through the village, via the six public houses (naturally), into the churchyard. There the great garland is hoisted up on ropes to the top of the church tower, and the Queen posy is laid at the foot of the village War Memorial.
In Aston on Clun, Shropshire, May 29th is Arbour Day (www.arbordayuk.co.uk). A Black Poplar tree which stands at the centre of the village is dressed with flags each Arbour Day. The ceremony’s origins are claimed by the village to have their roots in ancient tree-dressing rites dedicated to Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of Fertility. On Arbor Day in Aston on Clun in 1786, local Squire John Marston of the Oaker Estate married Mary Carter of Sibdon. They arrived back at the Arbor Tree to see it dressed with flags, and the villagers having fun. The Marstons were so taken with the joy of the celebrations that they set up a trust to pay for the care of the tree and the flags, until the mid 1950’s, when Hopesay Parish Council took up the task. In 1995, the 300+ year old Black Poplar tree was toppled in a fierce storm. It was replaced by a sapling which had been taken from the tree twenty years earlier, and it is this thirty-nine year old tree which now takes centre stage.
On the 29th villagers of Wishford in Wiltshire celebrate the right to collect wood from the nearby Forest of Grovely which was granted in the Middle Ages, and confirmed by the Forest Court in 1603. An oak bough is taken, decorated and then hanged from the tower of Saint Giles’ Church. In order to maintain their charter, the villagers must proclaim their right at a special ceremony in Salisbury Cathedral, where they repeat the ancient refrain: “Grovely, Grovely and all Grovely!“. A banner emblazoned with the same slogan is paraded through the village before dancing, drinking and feasting take place.
So, praise Bridgid the exalted one! All hail the mighty trees and their spirits! God Save the King! And a very happy Shit-Sack Day to you, one and all!