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May Queen 1857

May Queen 1857 Glatton

On reverse of Print is this extract from The London Illustrated News 1857:

“Notwithstanding the fact that the “times are altered” from what they were in Goldsmith’s day, and that “trade’s unfeeling train” has “usurped the land.” And put to flight many of the picturesque old customs that won for our country the name of “Merry England,” yet the May-day festival is still observed in some of the nooks and corners of our isle. Its ceremonials vary according to local customers. In Cornwall it is the “dripping-day”, when those who do not sport a piece of “May” in their hats or button-holes are squirted upon with syringes, or visited with an impromptu douch bath. In a few – a very few – villages they retain the true May-day merrymaking, so dear to poets and painters, and Dance about the maypole, and in the hazel corpse, Till Charles’s Wain comes out above the tall white chimney-tops.


Our Illustration represents May-day as it is observed in the village of Glatton, in Huntingdonshire, and depicts a veritable “Queen o’ the May,” together with her attendants and “garland.” The drawing from which it is made was sketched from the life by Cuthbert Bede, who has given the following description of the Huntingdonshire May-day customs:-


“The garland, which in Norfolk is a hoop wreathed with flowers, is of a pyramidal shape, and in this respect resembles the old ‘milkmaid’s garland.’ It is composed of crown-imperials, tulips, anemones, cowslips, kingcups, daffodils, meadow orchis, wallflowers, primroses, lilacs, laburnums, and as many roses and bright flowers as the season may have produced. These, with the addition of green boughs, are made into a huge pyramidal nose-gay, from the front of which a gaily-dressed doll stares vacantly at her admirers. This doll is intended to represent Flora. From the base of the nosegay hang ribbons, handkerchiefs, pieces of silk, and any other gay-coloured fabric that can be borrowed for the occasion. The garland is carried by the two maids of honour to the May Queen (her Majesty, in respect of a train, being like the old woman cut shorter, of the nursery song), who place their hands beneath the nosegay and allow the gay-coloured streamers to fall towards the ground. The garland is thus some six feet in height.

“The sovereignty of ‘the Queen o’ the May’ is not hereditary, but elective; her Majesty being annually chosen by her schoolfellows on the morning of May-day, and dethroned in the evening. Her chief symbol of sovereignty is a parasol of the antiquated umbrella pattern, which she bears with grace and dignity. More-over, she weareth white gloves, and carrieth a bag in which a white pocket-handkerchief is displayed, and in which she will place all pecuniary donations. She has a white veil, too; in front of her dress is her bouquet, and around her bonnet is her crown – a coronal of flowers.

That Odd Fellow’s ribbon and badge (the property of the village shoemaker) which now ornaments the ‘garland,’ land May-day was hung around her Majesty’s neck – the substitute for the ribbon of the Garter. You may be quite sure that her Majesty is dressed in her very best finery and has put on that white frock for the first time since last summer. Observe, too, her white stockings and ‘sandall’d shoon’: it is fortunate for her that it is a fine day, and dry under foot, for otherwise she would feel the need for the brogues of her every-day life. Let us hope that she will have as merry a day as had Tennyson’s May Queen.

“Preceding the two maids of honour with their garland, and followed by her female attendants, her Majesty makes the tour of her native place, and, at the various houses of the gentle and simple, exhibits the charms of Flora and the garland. If, as is commonly the case, the Regal procession is composed of school children, they sing such songs as may have been taught them. It is then usual for those of her Majesty’s subjects who do not wish their loyalty called in question to make a pecuniary present to the May Queen, who forthwith deposits it in her pocket-handkerchief bag of tribute, in order to meet the expenses of the coronation banquet. This feast will take place in the school-room, or in some large-roomed cottage at the fashionable tea hour of three o’clock in the afternoon, at which her Majesty, who has been somewhat wearied with the morning’s procession, will be graciously pleased to condescend to sit down in the midst of her loving subjects, and will probably quaff ten (at the least) of those cups that cheer but do not inebriate, and will consume plum-cake and bread-and-butter in proportion. If the votive offerings have been large, the tea-table delicacies are increased by the luxurious addition of peppermint-drops, brandy-balls, toffy, and other kinds of ‘suck’. When her Majesty and suite have consumed as much of the tea, and cakes, and goodies, as human energies will permit, they pocket the relics of the sweets, and then proceed to disport themselves by ‘Throwing at the Garland.’

“A cord has been drawn from chimney to chimney, or from tree to tree, across the village street. From the centre of the cord hands a hoop of flowers, and in the centre of the hoop is suspended the doll Flora. Balls have been purchased with a portion of the mornings gifts, the boys are permitted to join in the sports, and, in the expressive language of pantomime, ‘now the fun begins.’ The balls are thrown backwards and forwards over the rope and garland; and, if Flora’s nose should be damaged by a bad shot, why, it is no more than Flora might expect for exposing herself in the very heat of the fire. Games are then instituted: ‘I spy,’ Tick,’ ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush,’ ‘Thread the needle,’ ‘What have I apprenticed my son to?’ ‘Blind man’s buff,’ &c.; in all of which her Majesty, have laid aside her crown (and bonnet), and cares of state, frolics ‘the maddest, merriest’ of all. Perchance the village shoemaker (who is always a musician) may permit his household band to be in attendance, when ‘the tuneless pipe,’ or ‘harsh-scraped violin,’ will wind up the May-day sports with a dance, and send the Queen o’ the May to bed, wearied out indeed, but happier than some Queens whose crowns have been of gold and jewels, and whose dominion has extended to the uttermost ends of the earth.”

Print and text by kind permission of B. Jefferies.

* Cuthbert Bede was the pseudonym of the Rev. Edward Bradley who was curate of Glatton with Holme AD 1850 – 1854

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