Ritual, Customs and Festivals

Ritual, Customs and Festivals

English Cultural Traditions

Court of the Rochester Oyster and Floating Fisheries

The national association of the ‘Freemen of England & Wales’ recognise the customary functions of several ancient enterprises that are still in operation today. For example, the Free Pasture Masters of Beverley, the Rochester Oyster and Floating Fisheries, the Free-Miners of the Forest of Dean and the custom of the Freemen of the Cinque Ports. Of course, there are other traditional guilds and companies that operate through custom in various parts elsewhere in the British Isles.

Sudbury weekly Market

Associated with these customary freedoms or liberties, are the many early ‘chartered’ markets and annual fairs. Ancient markets and fairs were connected with the old borough towns and larger manorial villages and a good number continue to flourish, albeit in a much-modernised form.

Also worthy of a mention are the great number of parades and processions connected with various traditions. Such customary activities are a colourful attraction and provide an everlasting interest in our national heritage. Customary ‘Folkright’ and ‘Court-Leets’ have defined the foundations of English law. In a similar way, the ancient ‘socio-folk-customs’ well portray our ‘English’ cultural heritage.

Court Leet (Henley, Warks)

Throughout the year, there are local activities that commemorate the past. The popularity of traditional festivals is testament to the wishes of the people to retain age-old rituals. Simply, from the eating of ‘hot-cross buns’ on Good Friday, hanging mistletoe at Christmas and giving a Halloween party, we all connect with these ancient traditions. They bond us as a nation.

Much of the origins of folk-custom comes from early pagan beliefs, some of which may date back to Palaeolithic times. Festivals may be considered to begin in Spring with ‘May Day’. This celebration has its origin in ancient Rome. Dedicated to Flora, goddess of flowers and fruit. In the past a lad would be dressed as ‘Queen of the May’ decorated with ribbons and flowers. A ‘Lord of the May’ was also beribboned and carried a sword. ‘Spring’ was ‘Jack-in-Green’ (Green Man).

May-pole Dancers

The ‘May-Pole’ originated as a tall slim tree with branches removed. It was decked with garlands and flowers. Most London parishes had a maypole for the younger people to dance around in May. This was and is also the time when the ‘Morris Dancers’ make their appearances in early Spring. Particularly in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Lancashire. They come out again at Whitsuntide and follow at intervals through the summertime.

Morris Dancers

Few traces of Morris dancing can be found before Tudor times. Its roots may go back to the Moors from which the name Morris may have derived. It is generally believed to have begun in Northern Europe.  Associated with these activities is the ‘Hobby-horse’, a Celtic May Day custom. This may be accompanied by a ‘Teaser’ or ‘Clubman’ wielding a spade shaped club. At Minehead, the Hobby-horse or ‘ship’ comes out in the evening of 30th April and at sunrise on 1st May.

‘Oak-apple Day’ 29th May, commemorates the restoration of the Monarchy. It attaches to the adventure in the famous Oak Tree at Boscobel after the Battle of Worcester 1651.

Well-dressing occurs on Ascension Day, with the decoration of wells with elaborate floral pictures in the ancient belief that the ‘spirits’ could be appeased by sacrificial rites.  This goes back to ancient pre-Christian Rome.

At Whitsuntide there are ‘Mystery Plays’ or ‘Miracle Plays’. Twenty-five guilds at Chester in 1600 covered the whole story of the ‘Creation of the World to the Last Judgement’.  Various ‘miracle plays’ continue to be enacted in various parts of the country today. Whit-Sunday is celebrated at St Briavels, in Gloucestershire, with the ‘bread and cheese dole’ and at Cooper’s Hill, Birdlip with the ‘Cheese-rolling’. At Kingsteignton in Devon, is a Ram Fair that is linked with pre-Christian animal rites. A carcase of a young ram is decked with ribbons and flowers and paraded through the town.

Mystery Play at York

On Whit Monday at Dunmow in Essex there is a ‘Flitch Trial’. A flitch of bacon is awarded to any couple who can prove that they have not quarrelled for a year and a day. It dates back to 1445.

‘Wassailing the Apple Trees’ on 17th January, the old ‘Twelfth Night’ was a pagan custom to drive away evil spirits. This was to encourage a bumper crop from the cider apple orchards in Somerset.

‘Pancake-Day Races on Shrove Tuesday comes from the old Roman Catholic practice of confessing sins and being ‘shriven’ for absolution, carried out on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Shrove-tide Football took place in many places.

On 6th January, Royal Epiphany gifts are issued that commemorate the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus. At Easter-time, there has been a distribution of cakes on Palm Sunday to the poor, and of Maundy money on the Thursday dating back to Edward III, that is Britain’s oldest charity.

February 3rd is ‘St Blaise’s Day’ (Patron Saint of throats, wool-combers and wild animals) He is commemorated at St Etheldreda’s Church, Holborn, with the ‘Blessing of the Throats’ where two candles are tied in a cross and a priest holds the lighted candles under the chins of sufferers with throat afflictions. At the same time, he is chanting special incantations.

Also, in London, on 20th February, the Sir John Cass Service is held at St Botolph’s Church to commemorate the wealthy Alderman (1661-1718) whose interest in the education of children provided a school in Aldgate. It is attended annually by the staff and pupils of the Sir John Cass College and the School when the girls wear a red quill in their berets. In April, a service called the ‘John Stow Quill Pen Ceremony’ is held at St Andrew Undershaft Church where it is attended by the Lord Mayor, two Sheriffs and other City dignitaries. In the church is an effigy of John Stow with quill in hand. After the service the Lord Mayor replaces the old quill with a new one.

‘April Fool’s Day’ on 1st April has been a custom widely spread, involving a victim in a harmless practical joke dating back to the 18th century.

23rd April is ‘St George’s Day’ when throughout the nation we celebrate our patron Saint. The ‘Red Cross’ flag of St George can be seen on many a tower and flagstaff.

St George’s Day

In May there is a ‘Ceremony of the Lilies and the Roses’ in the ‘Wakefield Tower’ of the Tower of London in recognition of Henry VI who was murdered in the tower on 21st May 1471. During his reign he had founded Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, and representatives of both seats process to the Tower where lilies and roses are placed on the spot where the king was killed.

On the second Saturday in June, there is a ‘Trooping of the Colour’ in Horse Guards Parade first held in 1755 as a tribute to George II. The Queen’s Household Brigade take part in the display.

Election of the Sheriffs of London takes place in the Great Hall of the Guildhall on Midsummer Day when the freemen of the City Companies meet at Common Hall to elect two Sheriffs and other high officers.

The ‘Vintners Procession’ takes place on the Thursday after 4th July along Upper Thames Street to the Church of St James, Garlickhythe . This is after they have elected their new Master and Wardens at the Vintners Hall. The procession is preceded by two wine porters who sweep the street with birch brooms to prevent ‘slipping on any foulness’. The Vintners carry posies of herbs and flowers, the scent of which was to counter any noxious vapours. In the procession are included the Company’s Swan Markers and Barge Master, a reminder that between them, the Vintners and the Dyers and the Queen own all the swans on the Thames between London Bridge and Henley.

This is closely followed by the ‘River Thames Swan Upping’ when the two Livery Companies round up all the swans and cygnets and mark the birds accordingly. A convoy is commanded by the Queens Swan Keeper wearing scarlet livery, the Dyers wear blue livery and the Vintners green.

On or near 1st August, between London Bridge and Chelsea Bridge is the oldest annual rowing race in the world. This is a race for the ‘Doggett’s Coat and Badge’. It is held under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. Six ‘Thames Watermen’ race in honour of the accession to the throne of George I. The champion receives a scarlet livery (originally orange) with silver buttons and a large distinctive silver badge on the left arm. The other competitors get a silver cup. All the competitors will have completed their apprenticeship before taking part.

At St Matthew’s Day, on around 21st September, ‘Christ’s Hospital Boys march from Newgate to the Mansion House. Three hundred Bluecoat boys from Horsham, and twenty-five girls from Hertford School, led by their own band, walk through the City of London to St Sepulchre’s Church. A service attended by the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen later proceed to Mansion House where each boy and girl receives a newly-minted silver coin.  The boys all wear a traditional Tudor uniform, slightly modified.

Election of the Lord Mayor of London takes place on 29th September, in the Guildhall. It is an annual election (since 1546) when he or she is chosen by the votes of the City’s Livery Companies from 1715. Two eligible candidates are chosen from the Aldermen who have served a term of office as Sheriff. The installation of the Lord Mayor takes place on the eve of London’s Lord Mayor’s Day.

The ‘Horseshoes and Nails Rent’ at the Royal Courts of Justice, Strand is one of London’s oldest customs. At some time between Martinmas and Michaelmas since the early 13th century, an Annual Quit Rent Service is conducted by the Queen’s Remembrancer.

There are many strange and wonderful customs relating to Harvest-time and I am pleased to say there are still many elderly folks skilled in making ‘corn dollies’ and who may remember a mummer play or the steps of a Morris dance.

Fairs have played a most interesting and important part in the English socio-culture. They were particularly important in the Middle Ages when holidays were few and far between. Many fairs are much older than the charters that give them official recognition. The great season for fairs has been Autumn.

Mop Fair (Marlborough)

Throughout the Country were the ‘Mop Fairs’ of which there are many still represented today.  These were the Hiring fairs for contracting house servants, farm labourers and the like. Originally a potential hireling would carry a mop or other symbol for recognition of their trade. This form of short-term contract is very similar to the practice still in operation in Denmark today, when agricultural labour is dealt with by seasonal contracts. Sometimes a ‘Runaway Mop Fair’ was held a week or two after the Mop Fait to give an opportunity to those still requiring a position.

Nottingham Goose Fair

Some fairs, such as the ‘Nottingham Goose Fair’ were noted for their specific sales.  This fair lives on but does not specialise in the sale of geese. Similarly, the ‘Stow-on-the-Wold Fair’ that began as a Sheep fair is now recognised as a ‘Horse Fair’ particularly frequented by the Gypsy fraternity.

Individuality of some fairs relate to the specific history of their locality. The names and numbers of local fairs are simply too numerous to cover within this short appraisal of our socio-cultural heritage.


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