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May 1st - May Day In Holmsdale, Surrey

( Originally Published 1884 )

This is the day of Nature's universal joy, when the sylvan deities dance upon the May-morn sunbeam, to the sweet music of the grove, and the gardens of the valley are clothed in a rich profusion of variegated blossoms. It is the festival of Love, where Harmony and Mirth present the gay garlands of Spring. There was a time when this .annual festival even within my remembrance was a day of rural delight; and, in the age of rustic simplicity, our happy ancestors encircled the May-pole with hearts overflowing with boundless glee, and without the mean and repulsive distinctions of worldly rank to spoil the general enjoyment. "This was once," says a certain author, "the most delightful holiday in the year. The young used to get up early in the morning, and go out into the fields and woods, where they plucked flowers and flowering boughs, with which they returned triumphantly, singing, and adorned their houses and rooms. May holidays need no explanation they are the natural burst of joy for the Spring season."

To speak of the lofty May-pole, and of its gay garlands, in their original splendour, we must retrace the progress of Time through a whole century ; but I can testify that the ancient customs had not been entirely banished from Holmsdale (although it is only twenty miles from the refined Metropolis), when I first became a resident in that delightful scene. I well remember that the return of May-Day brought with it the loveliness of young cottage faces and the artless smiles of genuine simplicity. The delighted children paraded from house to house with fragrant garlands, eagerly vying with each other in the display of all the rich treasures of Spring; but even then had modern refinement levelled the May-pole, and forbidden the harmless enjoyment in which our more happy ancestors annually indulged. I am aware that the proud and the fastidious may and may therefore deride the idea of any complaint upon a subject apparently so unimportant. It will not, however, appear insignificant when we recollect that, in proportion as our ancient rural customs have been disregarded, the morals of the rustic people have become contaminated; and that the ties of simple friendship have thus ceased to exist among them, as they must have existed when the happy neighbours periodically met together, in harmony and good fellow-ship, upon Nature's carpet, and under the magnificent canopy of Heaven, to celebrate the various festivals of the passing year. In the merry days of the May-pole, we may fairly presume, the young peasant found amusement without resorting to the Public House and I will venture to state that punishment by transportation, for carrying a gun in the field of a neighbour, was totally unknown ! What good, then, has been done by the discontinuance of the old customs, and what harm would arise from their observance?


It was usual, on the first of May, for all the citizens who were able, to divert themselves in the woods and meadows with May-games ; diversions not confined to the lower class, but equally the entertainment of persons of the highest rank; a remarkable instance of which is inserted in Hall's Chronicle, under the year 1515, when that author observes that King Henry VIII. and Queen Catharine, accompanied by many lords and ladies, rode a maying from Greenwich to the high ground of Shooter's Hill, where, as they passed along, they saw a company of z00 tall yeomen, all clothed in green, with green hoods, and bows and arrows. One, who was their chieftain, was called Robin Hood, and desired the King and all his company to stay and see his men shoot; to which the King 'agreeing, he whistled, and all the two hundred discharged their arrows at once; which they repeated on his whistling again. Their arrows had something placed in the heads of them, that made them whistle as they flew, and altogether made a loud and very uncommon noise, at which the King and Queen were greatly delighted. The gentleman who assumed the character of Robin Hood then desired the King and Queen, with their retinue, to enter the green wood, where, in arbours made with boughs, intermixed with flowers, they were plentifully served with venison and wine by Robin Hood and his men.

About two years after, an event happened which occasioned the epithet of evil to be added to this day of rejoicing. The citizens, being extremely exasperated at the encouragement given to foreigners, a priest, named Bell, was persuaded to preach against them at the Spital ; and, in a very inflaming sermon, he invited the people to oppose all strangers : this occasioned frequent quarrels in the streets, for which some Englishmen were committed to prison.

Suddenly a rumour arose, that on May-day all the foreigners would be assassinated, and several strangers fled : this coming to the knowledge of the King's Council, Cardinal Wolsey sent for the Lord Mayor and several of the City Council, told them what he had heard, and exhorted them to preserve the peace. Upon this affair a Court of Common Council was assembled at Guildhall, on the evening before May-day, in which it was resolved to order every man to shut up his door, and keep his servants at home; and this advice being immediately communicated to the Cardinal, met with his approbation.

Upon this, every Alderman sent to inform his Ward, that no man should stir out of his house after nine o'clock, but keep his doors shut, and his servants within till nine in the morning. This order had not been long given, when one of the Aldermen, returning from his Ward, observed two young men at play in Cheapside, and many others looking at them. He would have sent them to the Compter, but they were soon rescued, and the cry raised of " Prentices ! Prentices ! Clubs ! Clubs !" Instantly the people arose : by eleven o'clock they amounted to six or seven hundred ; and the crowd still increasing, they rescued from Newgate and the Compter the prisoners committed for abusing the foreigners ; while the Mayor and Sheriffs, who were present, made proclamation in the King's name; but instead of obeying it, they broke open the houses of many Frenchmen and other foreigners, and continued plundering them till three in the morning ; when beginning to disperse, the Mayor and his attendants took three hundred of them, and committed them to the several prisons. While this riot lasted, the Lieutenant of the Tower discharged several pieces of ordnance against the city, but without doing much mischief ; and about five in the morning several of the nobility marched thither, with all the forces they could assemble.

On the 4th of May, the Lord Mayor, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Surrey, and others, sat upon the trial of the offenders at Guild-hall, the Duke of Norfolk entering the city with 1,300 men. That day several were indicted, and on the next thirteen were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered; for the execution of whom, ten gallowses were set up in several parts of the city, upon wheels, to be removed from street to street, and from door to door.

On the 7th of May, several others were found guilty, and received the same sentence as the former, and soon after were drawn upon hurdles to the Standard in Cheapside; but, when one was executed, and the rest about to be turned off, a respite came, and they were remanded back to prison.

After this, the soldiers who had kept watch in the city were with-drawn, which, making the citizens flatter themselves that the King's displeasure against them was not so great as they had imagined, the Lord Mayor, Recorder, and several Aldermen, went in mourning gowns to wait upon the King at Greenwich ; when, having attended for some time at the Privy Chamber door, his Majesty with several of the nobility came forth : upon which, all of them falling upon their knees, the Recorder, in the name of the rest, in the most humble and submissive terms, begged that he would have mercy on them for their negligence, and compassion on the offenders, whom he represented as a small number of light persons. His Majesty let them know that he was really displeased, and that they ought to wail and be sorry for it ;for, as they had not attempted to fight with those whom they pretended were so small a number of light persons, they must have winked at the matter : he therefore ordered them to repair to the Lord Chancellor, who would give them an answer. Upon which they retired, deeply mortified.

Being informed that the King was to be at Westminster Hall on the 22d of May, they resolved to repair thither; which they did with the consent of Cardinal Wolsey, Lord High Chancellor. The King sat at the upper end of the Hall, under a cloth of state, with the Cardinal and several of the nobility : and the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, Recorder, and several of the Common Council attended: the prisoners, who then amounted to about four hundred, were brought in their shirts, bound together with cords, and with halters about their necks ; and among them were eleven women. The Cardinal having sharply rebuked the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty for their negligence, told the prisoners that, for their offences against the laws of the realm, and against his Majesty's Crown and dignity, they had deserved death: upon which they all set up a piteous cry of " Mercy, gracious Lord ! mercy ;" which so moved the King, that at the earnest intreaty of the Lords, he pronounced them pardoned; upon which, giving a great shout, they threw up their halters towards the top of the Hall, crying, " God save the King t"

After this affair, the May-games were not so commonly used as before.


Given by Whitelocke, in the English Manner (during his Embassy from Oliver Cromwell), to Christina, Queen of Sweden, and some of her favourite Ladies and Courtiers.

This being May-day, Whitelocke, according to the invitation he had made to the Queen, put her in mind of it, that as she was his mistress, and this May-day, he was by the custom of England to wait upon her to take the air, and to treat her with some little Collation, as her servant.

The Queen said the weather was very cold, yet she was very willing to bear him company after the English mode.

With the Queen were Woolfeldt, Tott, and five of her ladies. Whitelocke brought them to his Collation, which he had commanded his servants to prepare in the best manner they could, and altogether after the English fashion.

At the table with the Queen sat La Belle Countesse, the Countesse Gabriel Oxenstierne, Woolfeldt, Tott, and Whitelocke ; the other ladies sat in another room. Their meat was such fowl as could be gotten, dressed after the English fashion, and with English sauces,creams, puddings, custards, tarts, tanseys, English apples, bon chrétien pears, cheese, butter, neats' tongues, potted venison, and sweet-meats, brought out of England, as his sacke and claret also was ; his beer was also brewed, and his bread made by his own servants, in his own house, after the English manner ; and the Queen and her company seemed highly pleased with this treatment; some of her company said she did eat and drink more at it, than she used to do in three or four days at her own table.

The entertainment was as full and noble as the place would afford, and as Whitelocke could make it, and so well ordered and contrived, that the Queen said she had never seen any like it : she was pleased so far to play the good housewife, as to enquire how the butter could be so fresh and sweet, and yet brought out of England ? Whitelocke, from his cooks, satisfied her Majesty's enquiry, that they put the salt butter into milk, where it lay all night, and the next day it would eat fresh and sweet as this did, and any butter new made, and commended her Majesty's good housewifery ; who, to express her contentment to this Collation, was full of pleasantness and gaiety of spirits, both in supper-time, and afterwards : among other frolicks, she commanded Whitelocke to teach her ladies the English salutation ; which, after some pretty defences, their lips obeyed, and Whitelocke most readily.

She highly commended Whitelocke's musick of the trumpets, which sounded all supper-time, and her discourse was all of mirth and drollery, wherein Whitelocke endeavoured to answer her, and the rest of the company did their parts.

It was late before she returned to the Castle, whither Whitelocke waited on her; and she discoursed a little with him about his business, and the time of his audience, and gave him many thanks for his noble treatment of her and her company.

Our author informs us, that two days after this entertainment, Mons. Woolfeldt, being invited by Whitelocke, told him that the Queen was extremely pleased with his treatment of her Whitelocke excused the meanness of it for her Majesty. Woolfeldt replied, that both the Queen and all the company esteemed it as the handsomest and noblest that they ever saw ; and the Queen, after that, would drink no other wine but Whitelocke's, and kindly accepted the neats' tongues, potted venison, and other cakes, which, upon her commenda tion of them, Whitelocke sent unto her Majesty.

Mr. Jamieson has favoured us with an excellent disquisition on the word Beltane; part of which shall, with your permission, be quoted, as an article worthy of appearing in the Gentleman's Magazine.

" BELTANE, BELTEIN, s. The name of a sort of Festival observed on the first day of May, O.S. ; hence used to denote the term of Whitsunday.

" ' At Beltane, quhen ilk bodie bownis

To Peblis to the Play,

To heir the singin and the soundis,

The solace, suth to say,

Be firth and forrest furth they found ;

Thay graythit thorn full gay.'

"Peblis to the Play,"

" On the first of May, O.S., a Festival called Beltan is annually held here. It is chiefly celebrated by the Cow-herds, who assemble by scores in the fields, to dress a dinner for themselves, of boiled milk and eggs. These dishes they eat with a sort of cakes baked for the occasion, and having small lumps in the form of nipples, raised all over the surface. The cake might, perhaps, be an offering to some Deity in the days of Druidism. P. Logierait, Perths. Statist.

" A town in Perthshire, on the borders of the Highlands, is called Tillie (or Tullie) Beltane, i.e., the eminence, or rising ground, of the fire of Baal. In the neighbourhood is a Druidical Temple of eight upright stones, where it is supposed the fire was kindled. At some distance from this, is another Temple of the same kind, but smaller, and near it a well still held in great veneration. On Beltane morning, superstitious people go to this well, and drink of it ; then they make a procession round it, as I am informed, nine times ; after this they in like manner go round the Temple. So deep-rooted is this heathenish superstition in the minds of many who reckon themselves good Protestants, that they will not neglect these rites, even when Beltane falls on Sabbath.

"The custom still remains (in the West of Scotland) amongst the Herds and young people, to kindle fires in the high grounds, in honour of Beltan. Beltan, which in Gaelic signifies Baal or Bels-fire, was anciently the time of this solemnity. It is now kept on St. Peter's Day. P. Loudoun, Statist.

"But the most particular and distinct narration of the superstitious rites observed at this period, which I have met with, is in the Statist. Ace. of the P. of Callander, Perths.

"The people of this district have two customs, which are fast wearing out, not only here, but all over the Highlands, and therefore ought to be taken notice of, while they remain. Upon the first day of May, which is called Beltan, or Beltein-day, all the boys in a township or hamlet, meet in the Moors. They cut a table in the green sod, of a round figure, by casting a trench in the ground, of such circumference as to hold the whole company. They kindle a fire, and dress a repast of eggs and milk in the consistence of a custard. They knead a calce of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone. After the custard is eaten up, they divide the cake into so many portions as similar to one another as possible in size and shape, as there are persons in the Company. They daub one of these portions all over with charcoal, till it be perfectly black. He who holds the bonnet is entitled to the last bit. Whoever draws the black bit is the devoted person who is to be sacrificed to Baal, whose favour they mean to implore, in rendering the year productive of the sustenance of man and beast. There is little doubt of these inhuman sacrifices having been once offered in this country, as well as in the East, although they now pass from the act of sacrificing, and only compel the devoted person to leap three times through the flames ; with which the ceremonies of this Festival are closed.

It would appear that some peculiar sanctity was also ascribed to the 8th of May, from the old Scottish Proverb, 'You have skill of man and beast, you were born between the Baltans;' i.e., 'the first and 8th of May.'

"Although the name of Beltein is unknown in Sweden, yet on the last day of 4—2 April, i.e., the evening preceding our Beltein, the country people light great fires on the hills, and spend the night in shooting" (qu. making much noise?) " The first of May is also observed."

The whole of this curious Article extends to several quarto pages, to which Mr. Urban's Readers are referred. Mr. J. might on this occasion have quoted the following lines from the second Battle of Hastings, where mention is made of Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge:

" Here did the Brutons adoration paye

To the false God whom they did Tauran name,

Dightynge hys altarre with greete fyres in Maie,

Roastynge theyr vyctualle round aboute the flame."

This is a pointed allusion to the ceremonies of Beltein, which it would be gross absurdity to believe that a boy of thirteen or fourteen years of age would have been likely to have introduced in so casual and incidental a manner. It can hardly be with propriety ascribed to the pen of any forger; although it must be admitted as a very natural allusion for Turgotus of the eleventh, or Rowley, in the 15th Century.

This passage is more worthy of notice, because Mr. Tyrwhitt, who was a stranger to the ceremonies of Beltane, proposed, instead of vyctualle, to read vyctymes; and I know a good Critick, a believer in the antiquity of the Poems, who was so well satisfied with the amendment as to express himself thus : "Notwithstanding there are accessible sources for the name of Tauran, the false God of the Britons, it is difficult to give Chatterton credit for any thing more than the very probable school-boy error in transcribing vyctualle for vyctymes." But it appears that Chatterton has here given us the exact word of his Author ; as he has also done in the other Battle of Hastings.

" Herreward born on Sarim's spreaddyng plaine, Where Thor's fam'd Temple many ages stoode ;

Where Druids, auncient Preests, did ryghtes ordaine, And in the middle shed the victymes bloude."

In one Poem, we find a correct allusion to the dressing of victuals, as described in the ceremonies of Beltane; and, in the other, to the sacrifices, perhaps of human victims, by the Druids.

In one of Mr. Jamieson's quotations, we are told that these great fires were lighted in Sweden, both on the first, and on the 8th of May; in another, that the entire month of May, in the Irish language, is, on account of these Pagan ceremonies, to this day, called, mi, na Beal-tine. Hence the Poems with propriety, say, " dightynge hys altarre with greete fyres in Maie," viz., on the 1st, the 8th, or any part of that month, and not on any one particular day. Mr. J. gives us a quotation also from an ancient Glossary, which asserts that the Druids lighted two great fires every year ;" and hence the farther propriety of Rowley's mentioning fire in the plural number.

Yours, etc., JOHN SHERWEN, M.D.

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