Thursday, 6 February 2014

Merry England before the Modern Age.

The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700
Charting the progress from the communal year and it's festivals both sacred and secular towards a more centralised control and ensuing decline of festival times, holy days, rituals and revels.
The Protestant Reformation and its austere Puritanism is clearly the largest single cause which drew to a close earlier 'Papist' traditions of the Catholic imbued culture that had supported spiritual ritual and secular pagentry for hundreds of years.

Lammas Festival - John Barleycorn

To set the context, the English Reformation under Henry VIII had broken the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and Roman Catholic Church. From 1553, under the reign of Henry's Roman Catholic daughter, Mary I, Henry's Reformation legislation was repealed and Mary sought to achieve the reunion with Rome. Following Mary's childless death, her half-sister Elizabeth inherited the throne. As Elizabeth could not be Catholic, that church considered her illegitimate, communion with the Catholic Church was again severed by Elizabeth.
Elizabeth's reign saw the emergence of Puritanism, which encompassed those Protestants who felt that the church had been but insuficciently reformed. Puritanism ranged from hostility to the content of the Prayer Book and "popish" ceremony, to a desire for church governance and inded for society at large to be radically reformed.

The English Civil War broke out less than fifty years after the death of Elizabeth I of England in 1603. The civil war was far from just a conflict between two religious faiths, it had much more to do with divisions within the one Protestant religion. The austere, fundamentalist Puritanism on the one side was opposed to what it saw as the crypto-Catholic decadence of the Anglican church on the other. Divisions also formed along the lines of the common people and the gentry, and between the country and city dwellers.

In this politically charged and religiously swaying environment, alternately pushing an oppresive new religious austerity or inclusively reinstalling the traditional milieu of sacred and secular traditions of British life, the festive, communal culture and its traditions waned and dwindled. Each fresh onslaught of punitive policy and legal measures gradually depleted the social enthusiasm which had bound the culture together in earlier times.

Charles Landseer - Cromwell Battle of Naseby

Among the church rituals and communal activities considered innapropriate by the changing authorities, was the ornamentation of churches with garlands at festival times such as holy and ivy at christmas, the lighting of candles below icons, boy bishops and their processions, church ales which collected money for the church rituals, rogation or blessing of fields at spring, appointment of lords of misrule to preside over festivities, morris dancers, musicians and dancing at may poles. 

The pulpit, with pew-end candle stands wound with holly and ivy.

The Ancient Custom of Blessing the Fields on Rogation Sunday at Hever, Kent


A chimney sweeps' Jack in the Green dances with the "Lord and Lady of the May
The earlier potent mixture of rituals and revels, pagentry, music and costumes, wholesome earthy fun and good humour which had been accepted as such by the long interwoven traditions of populace with Catholic church, was uprooted and destroyed by the ardent and extreemly keen Protestants to such an extent that various of the ensuing Crowns sought to ammeliorate on behalf of the people and their traditions but with little success.

Village fair by Flemish artist Gillis Mostaert 1590

The time afforded such holy days and communal activities had also afforded an ocassion to gather in dissorder and this sometimes developed into protests against government restrictions and taxations.

The jester-like fellow leading the celebrants is the Lord of Misrule.
The decline continued under the fervant Protestant condemnation of such frivolities and lewdness as dancing, singing and even laughing - quelle horror! Protestant authors and clergy persued their 'souless' and mirtless New World Order replacing a sacral Catholic yearly cycle with secular and anti Catholic new Protestant celebrations such as of Nov 5th (Guy Fawkes night), and Royal birthdays/Accessions etc. The dissolution continued under the rising agrarian capitalism and nascent industrialism.

The first commercially viable steam engines were designed by the Scottish inventor James Watt and manufactured at the Soho Foundry near Birmingham in the late 18th century

Highly recommended reading for any who are interested in the cultural connections between the 'old religion' (which actually meant the all embracing 'magical Catholicism' of early medieval England - and amongst these traditions were many pre Christian survivors ) and the Protestant modified puritanical exegesis and transformation of a formerly Merry England into a more dour, serious, self effacing, God fearing nation, under the varying vagaries of the Parlaiment and it's often relentless officers.  

It may be hard for us now to imagine the full extent of a medieval and earlier pagentry imbued Britain, alternately revelling and worshiping its way through the sacred year, with churches drawing on hundreds of years of iconography decoration to embellish and add impact to the many sacred days and rituals which were widely observed. Town and merchant guilds hosting processions of costumed and robed actors, with giants, dragons and unicorns represented in huge models animated by their wearers.

Chester Midsummer Watch Parade co Mark Carline

 The Burry Man, Queensferry co Simon Costin

 Oak Apple Day!
Individuals taking part in group as well as singular traditions from the milk maids dances and green men in spring (the chimney sweeps as it happens) to finding (or capturing) a maypole for dancing, to say nothing of seasonal feasts provided by local landowners and gentry for their tenants and neighbours. I offer for comparison the more widely known religious traditions of Tibet as they until recently held communal religious and social activities which comprised thousands at a gathering, with elaborate ritualised dramas and with embroderies as large as hills, with weeks long events of one sort or another. Similar in commitment if not form were many among the earlier traditions of Merry England.

A modern, neo-pagan celebration in Hampshire.

nb book priced at ₤50 pprbk is doubtless worth it for the extensive research alone, but I got my copy well thumbed from a second hand book dealer.


  1. Yes the war between the Protestants and Catholics in the UK was not pretty, and many people died and many beautiful old cathedrals were burned, looted and destroyed. I was raised Methodist but as least we had communion but not transubstantiation and we were know for our great loud hymn singing which i remember to this day, especially on Easter morning, and our Christmas eve candlelight services. I think if i was raised Catholic at least i would have been introduced to the Goddess in the form of Mary, but in Protestantism there is no such feminine element i remember.. All i know is our good old tall almost blind minister was a "good man" and i was devoted and preached in church, led the youth fellowship, taught vacation bible school, etc, until i went to college and read "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse which taught one to listen to one's inner voice, not some outside authority, so in three short days Christianity sloughed off me like the skin of a snake. From there i became a hippie n hitchhiked around the country visiting communes and national parks. I lived for a bit as an ordained monk in a Korean Zen small monastery then in a Hindu ashram, then into western Magicke and Witchcraft, also into Tibetan tantra, then read Carl Jung who said westerners can't really practice eastern paths the way they do, which is correct, but now in this time east has come west. I look back as the conflicts you wrote about, and the crusades, and the present USA vs radical Islam, and the conflict between Sunni and Shiite and just shake my head. More people have been killed over "who is God" than any plague or war. Even Buddhists and Hindus fight over old temple sites disputing which came first. I will link this will my weekly Serpents Scales link roundup later. Thank you as always for your insightful posts. Blessings.

    1. Great book Siddartha was for me also, thanks for your lovely response and yes some priests of all sorts are always inspired and inspiring, and tragic conflicts happen all over.
      By nurturing some understanding I hope we may more of us find and share our common humanity, moving together from human kind to simply kind.