‘Right well aloft, and high ye beare your head,
As ye would beare the great shaft of Cornhill’
So wrote Geoffrey Chaucer in reference to the maypole which used to be found at the church of St Andrew Undershaft in London. This pole was so well known in its day that the name of the church actually derives from the shaft of the pole which was set up opposite each May Day.
When not in use, the maypole was stored on hooks running along the fronts of the adjacent houses, under cover. The pole was destroyed in 1547 as a symbol of paganism, following a sermon preached against May games.
It was sawn into pieces, with each householder who had stored it being given a length in proportion to that of the front of their house. These pieces were then burned.
The maypole and its associated dances are certainly one of the quintessential representations of the festivities which bring in the month of May, although its early origins are not known for certain. Some claim Roman origins, but there is little hard evidence for this.
The first references to the maypole that we can identify for certain come from the 14th Century, although the pole itself was probably in use well before this. References become much more widespread in the 15th Century, both in parish accounts and also in the writings of reformers.
The earliest representation of a maypole in England, at least according to Chambers’ Book of Days, was published in the Variorum edition of Shakespeare and was to be found on a window in Staffordshire. The owner of the property at the time believed that the window was Tudor.
Just as there have been many ideas for the origin of the maypole, there have also been a number of suggestions as to what the symbolism represents.
The most common of these are from the remains of tree-worshipping religions, a phallic symbol and similar concepts connected to the spring and fertility. Once again, unfortunately, there is no evidence for any of these. What we can say is that the maypole had two real focuses. Firstly, it brought the community together in celebration. Secondly, it provided a place to hang garlands and greenery in decoration. This was a practice that was frequently undertaken at home at this time of year.
Most people readily associate the brightly coloured ribbons hanging from the top of the pole with the traditional maypole dance. Many readers will have images of primary school children weaving in and out of each other, plaiting the ribbons as they go. Maybe you have done this yourself. In fact, the addition of the ribbons was a very late one.
The earliest example seems to be from the 1830s, and it is not until the late 19th century that it is established as the usual appearance of the pole, being adopted into the popular view of ‘Merrie England’ which was developed by the Victorians and Edwardians such that it is now seen as the traditional representation. Prior to this, the choreography took the form of a circle dance, with the pole at its centre.
May Fairs are still found on Dartmoor and some are long running. Considered to be one of the best is the fair held in the village of Lustleigh, where maypole dancing is found alongside the crowning of a May Queen and performances by Morris Dance teams. The BBC archives have some excellent children’s newsreel footage of the Lustleigh fair. It was originally broadcast in 1961 but it features Miss Mabel Bunclark who was the May Queen in 1905. You can watch it online at
In my Folkmoor column at this time last year, I wrote about the tradition of the May Dolls, which were made on 30th April, and taken door to door on 1st May, where they would be shown to the occupants for a small price. This is a similar practice to the ‘Penny for the Guy’ tradition associated with November the Fifth. One rhyme which was collected as being used as part of the May Doll visits references the maypoles found at this time:
Round the Maypole, trit, trit, trot;
See what maypole we have got;
Fine and gay,
Happy is our New May-Day.
Some areas of Dartmoor had variations on the idea of the maypole for their May Day festivities.
In Moretonhampstead, celebrations took place around the ‘Dancing Tree’ – the massive elm which used to stand in the centre of the village.
An attendee at the 1801 gathering recorded
the tree as being: ‘floored and seated around, with a platform, railed on each side, from the top of the adjoining wall to the tree, and a flight of steps in the garden for the company to ascend. […] There is sufficient room for thirty persons to sit around, and six couples to dance, besides the orchestra.’
In Tavistock, a pyramid of greenery and
flowers was built. This whole ‘costume’ was worn by a man who would dance as part of the May procession.
This is not so much a variation on the maypole (although it does sport similar foliage) as a version of the ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ which derived from chimney sweep’s May Day celebrations.
In Tavistock the character was called ‘Jack-in-the-Bush’. It has been suggested many times that this symbol is connected with, or derives from, the foliate heads commonly called ‘Green Men’ found in so many of our churches in Devon.
This is a complete misnomer … but that is a discussion for another time!