Crowning the May Queen – origins of a folk tradition

Inspired by our seminar series earlier this year, MERL Curator, Isabel Hughes, reflects on a timely example of intangible heritage from her childhood.

Earlier this year, MERL hosted a series of seminars under the banner of Untouchable England.   Inspired by the fact that the MERL collections may soon be packed away temporarily as part of the Our Country Lives project, we were exploring the less material facets of life in rural England.  The series covered dance, craft skills, dialects, magic and folklore.  Here is another example of intangible heritage from my childhood.

A few weeks ago I happened to meet my old primary school teacher.  She came from Ireland and mine was the first class she taught on arriving at the school. Whenever we meet she tells me what marvellous children we were and this time she had a photograph to show me.  It was of a group of girls crowning the Virgin Mary as Queen of the May.  I can remember being the one who did the crowning with a garland of flowers.  We all wore our white first Holy Communion dresses and one girl was a pillow bearer, carrying the garland destined for our statue of Mary.

May queen Isabel

I mentioned this to Ollie Douglas, Assistant Curator at MERL, as an example of old folk traditions maintained by Catholics.  He was highly sceptical that this ceremony was any older than 19th century and produced Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore that described such “Merrie England” reinvented traditions as evidence.  I was convinced that this crowning came from Catholic Europe and was much older.  It seems we were both right and both wrong.

The English tradition of crowning the May Queen does indeed seem to have its roots in the 19th century and was fuelled by the popularity of Tennyson’s poem “The May Queen.”  It seems to have evolved from a practice of selecting a “Lord and Lady” or “King and Queen” for a festival, carnival or just for the day.  Gradually women and girls became the focus and the May Queen celebration, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, involved the coronation of a local girl or young woman who would preside over events with a group of “ladies’ to support her.

May Queen P DX323 PH1_M28_127
An image from the Collier collection held in the MERL archives

My ceremony at school was rather different.  The focus here was to honour the Virgin Mary.  She was the one to be crowned Queen of the May.  The Virgin Mary has held a special place amongst Catholics from the early days of the Church and crowning ceremonies go back centuries in the Eastern Church with the decoration of icons.  However, the May crowning from my photograph seems to go back to a rite first practised in 1837 by Pope Gregory XVI.  Honouring the Virgin Mary during the month of May does seem to be more of a 19th century tradition too.  Devotion to the Virgin has always been linked with keeping Catholics on the straight and narrow and I read that the May devotion to Mary was promoted by the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits) in Rome to discourage immorality amongst its students.

There is obviously some link here – different ceremonies with different roots but looking suspiciously alike.  Growing up in West London it was certainly the closest I came to any sort of rural tradition.

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3 thoughts on “Crowning the May Queen – origins of a folk tradition”

  1. Very interesting post – many thanks, Isabel. I hadn’t appreciate the Catholic dimension to the May Queen tradition. There seems to have been quite a lot going on in relation to May Day in the late c.19th – it must have been around then that May Day became a great festival of the left, and I suspect that traditions like choral singing from the top of Magdalen College Oxford became much more popular then. The Queen of the May was of course strongly associated with John Ruskin – there is an interesting although rather unsympathetic blog on this at http://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/rite-of-spring-mr-ruskins-may-queen/

  2. Thank you for signposting more May Queen pictures, Jeremy. As you know, we have spent the last year collaborating with Reading Museum digitising local photography holdings. There are some splendid ones available there too which are soon to go online.

  3. Thanks for your comments Jeremy. I am now wondering whether Ruskin had any part to play in the Magdalen College traditions. Holman Hunt certainly painted them (http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/picture-of-month/displayPicture.asp?id=117&venue=7).

    I think there is a also an interesting broader question to be addressed here: Why is there a tendency for us to associate tradition (whether in the Hobsbawmian ‘invented’ sense or otherwise) with things rural? Isabel attributes a degree of rurality to her West London school ceremony. The Magdalen event takes place is an urban context and the Ruskin-inspired pageant explored in the post that you provided a link to is also an urban phenomenon. I think many of us (myself included) are inclined towards seeing things folksy or traditional as indelibly connected with things rustic and countrified. I assume this emerges from a sense that our origins all lie in a pre-urban and agricultural past but perhaps this is overly simplifying things. Have you given much thought to these ideas before? I’d like to explore them further. Any thoughts of good texts on the subject…

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