Maypoles and the Puritans


Once upon a time most village greens in England boasted a maypole. This was a tall wooden pole in the ground about which danced the locals on May Day. It was a custom that probably went back to pre-Christian times. Women placed flowers in their hair and men drank cider and ale. It was the celebration of summer’s arrival and a farewell to winter’s frosty fingers.

Few are left. This is, in part, due to changing tastes in leisure activities and our independence from the seasons and agriculture. It’s also because the puritans waged war against them. To them it was a symbol of paganism. Some considered them phallic objects, on a par with the Asherah poles of Old Testament idolatry. To others, it was the atmosphere which they created: drunkenness, lewdness and revelry. Furthermore, they were most frequently used on a Sunday when the people were free from work. They therefore railed against them from the pulpits and had them torn down once they came to power.

When their power deserted them with Charles II’s restoration, back up they went. Adam Martindale, the Lancashire Presbyterian minister, then based at Rotherston in Cheshire, was greeted by Morris dancers and ‘The rabble of profane youths, and some doting old fools that took their part, were encouraged to affront me by setting up a maypole on my way to church’. In his sermon that morning he called it a ‘relic of the shameful worship of the strumpet Flora’, presumably some pagan goddess. He asked over another minister the following Sunday, Mr Brooks of Congleton, who ‘called them by most opprobrious names, as the scum, rabble and rife-rafe [sic] of the parish in so much as my words were smooth as oil in comparison to his, so full of salt and vinegar’.

Adam’s wife was more practically minded than her husband and got up in the night and cut it down, ’which made them almost mad’. They pieced it back together again ‘but it was such an ugly thing, so rough and crooked, that it proclaimed the folly and poverty of them that set it up’.

Henry Newcombe, one of the ministers of Manchester bemoaned ‘we found Maypoles in abundance. I saw a Morris-dance which I had not seen for twenty years before. It is a sad sign; the hearts of the people are poorly employed when they can play the fool as they do’.

Although I admire and love the puritans, a little part of me has some sympathy for these poor village labourers who craved a little merriment in their otherwise hard and dull lives. I therefore have no problem with surviving maypoles, such as that pictured at Long Preston; I even once considered joining a morris-troupe. I didn’t, on the grounds of time and bodily co-ordination. I’m sure Revs Martindale and Newcombe would be horrified at the prospect of a minister behaving in such a manner!