And a chance (huzza!) to have a dig at those old miseryguts the Puritans – like Philip Stubbes:
Against May, Whitsonday [the seventh Sunday after Easter: around May 31 or June 1] or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils & mountains, where they spend all the night in plesant pastimes, & in the morning they return bringing w[ith] them birch & branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall, and no mervaile, for there is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sportes, namely, Sathan prince of hel: But the cheifest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie or fortie yoke of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweet nose-gay of floures placed on the tip of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with floures, and hearbs bound round about with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with two handkercheefs and flags hovering on the top, they straw the ground round about, binde green boughes about it, set up sommer haules, bowers and arbors hard by it. And then fall they to daunce about like as the heathen people did at the dedication of the Idols, where of this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself. I have heard it credibly reported (and that, viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of fortie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scaresly the third part of them returned home againe undefiled.
These be the frutes which these cursed pastimes bring forth. Neither the Jewes, the Turcks, Sarasins, nor pagans, nor any other nations how wicked, or barbarous soever, have ever used such devilish exercises as these, nay they would have been ashamed once to have named them, much lesse, have used them. Yet wee that would be Christians, think them not amisse. The Lord forgive us, and remoove them from us.
(From The Anatomie of Abuses (1583). Also here, and well, all over the web, really.)
Bah humbug, etc. (There’s nothing like a bit of stereotypical Puritanism to reinforce our prejudices, is there now?)
I don’t know if Stubbes had heard of a custom in parts of the Welsh borders involving maypoles (the bedwen haf or literally ‘summer birch’), known as ‘the defence of the summer birch’. But somehow, I don’t think he’d have approved of that either. What was it? Let’s start with a document. John Powell, examined before JPs in July 1686:
… saith that ye reason of his & severall other persons of Holt aforesaid their assembling together in greate multitudes in the night season & makeing of a watch in the said town of Holt (without ye appointment or direction of any magistrate) was to keepe their birch from being stolen away by ye people of ye town of Farndon & this examinat saith yt he himselfe was one of them yt kept ye aforesaid watch & being askd who they were yt joyn’d them selves with him in the keepeing of ye said watch, confesseth that John Apleton & Charles Apleton, John Whittingham junior, Samuell Crew; John Howell & Richard Howell, Edward Edge; and William Edge; were ye persons yt concernd & joynd themselves with this examinat in ye keepeing of ye aforesaid watch, which watch they keept for ye space of a fortnight or thereabouts untill ye above named Edward Brereton [one of the JPs] put a stop to their irregularityes. & saith that they began their watch before night & continued it all night. … [from NLW Great Sessions gaolfiles]
It’s not perfectly clear when these ‘irregularityes’ began and ended from this document. A petitioner to the next session of the court stated that he was involved in setting up the birch at May Day. However, the summer birch ritual was not only or perhaps even primarily a May Day ritual. It’s also connected with Midsummer, and Powell and his associates were in fact indicted for a riot in which they took down a maypole from the parish of Gresford and re-erected it in Holt on 23 May 1686. In fact, I think that’s probably a completely different maypole from the one originally set up in Holt for May Day. (If you look on a map, you will find that Holt and Farndon are close neighbours on the Denbighshire/Cheshire border, separated merely by a bridge. Holt is on the Welsh side, Farndon on the English side. Gresford is a nearby Denbighshire parish.)
But you’re still wondering what’s going on. It’s been usefully analysed by Richard Suggett in the context of competitive and antagonistic relationships between Welsh parishes in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, expressed in a number of popular festivals of the period.* Like English maypoles, the birch would be set up and decorated in villages by the local youth. But then it would be a point of village honour to defend the birch from neighbouring parishes’ attempts to steal it away. The strongest young men would gang together to guard their birch for several days and nights; and apparently if a parish lost its own birch, it could not set up another of its own until it had succeeded in stealing one from a neighbour. So perhaps at some point between 1 May and 23 May the people of Holt did lose their birch (to Farndon?)… and went to Gresford to steal a replacement.
So there you go: maypoles weren’t all about sex. Sometimes there was violence too.
*Richard Suggett, ‘Festivals and social structure in early modern Wales’, Past & Present 152 (1996).