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Chambers, Robert, 1802-1871 / Chambers's book of days, a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, including anecdote, biography & history, curiosities of literature and oddities of human life and character
Vol. I (1879)

May,   pp. [unnumbered]-714 PDF (97.6 MB)

Page 575

MAY-POLvS.                             MAY 1.                                MLY-POLE5.
the church steeple.' During the rest of the year
this pole was hung upon iron hooks above the
doors of the neighbouring houses, and imme-
diately beneath the projecting penthouses which
kept the rain from their doors. It was destroyed
in a fit of Puritanism in the third year of Edward
VI., after a sermon preached at St Paul's Cross
against May games, when the inhabitants of
these houses 'sawed it in pieces, everie man
taking for his share as much as had layne over
his doore and stall, the length of his house, and
they of the alley divided amongst them so much
as had lain over their alley gate.'
The earliest representation of an English May-
pole is that published in the variorum Shak-
speare, and depicted on a window at Betley, in
Staffordshire, then the property of Mr Tollett,
and which he was disposed to think as old as the
time of Henry VIII. The pole is planted in a
mound of earth, and has affixed to it St George's
red-cross banner, and a white pennon or streamer
with a forked end. The shaft of the pole is
painted in a diagonal line of black colour, upon a
yellow ground. a characteristic decoration of all
these ancient May-poles, as alluded to by Shak-
speare in his Midsummer Night's Dream, where it
gives point to Hermia's allusion to her rival
Helena as a 'painted May-pole.' The fifth volume
of Halliwell's folio edition of Shakspeare has a
curious coloured frontispiece of a May-pole,
painted in continuous vertical stripes of white,
red, and blue, which stands in the centre of the
village of Welford, in Gloucestershire, about five
miles from Stratford-on-Avon. It may be an exact
copy and legitimate successor of one standing
there in the days when the bard himself visited
the village. It is of great height, and is planted
in the centre of a raised mound, to which there is
an ascent by three stone steps: on this mound
probably the dancers performed their gyrations.
Stubbes, in his Anatornie of Abuses, 1584, speaks
of May-poles 'covered all over with flowers and
hearbes, bounde rounde aboute with stringes,
from the top to the bottom, and some tyme painted
with variable colours.' The London citizen,
Machyn, in his Diary, 1552, tells of one brought
at that time into the parish of Fenchurch; 'a
goodly May-pole as you have seene; it was
painted whyte and green.'
In the illuminations which decorate the manu-
script 'Hours' once used by Anne of Brittany
and now preserved in the Bibliothbque Royale at
Paris, and which are believed to have been
painted about 1499, the month of May is illus-
trated by figures bearing flower-garlands, and
behind them the curious May-pole here copied,
which is also decorated by colours on the shaft,
and ornamented by garlands arranged on hoops,
from which bang small gilded pendents. The pole
is planted on a triple grass-covered mound, em-
banked aind. strengthened by timber-work.
That this custom of painting and decorating
the May-pole was very general until a com-
paratively recent period, is easy of proof. A
Dutch picture, bearing date 1625, furnishes our
third specimen (see next page); here the pole is
surmounted by a flower-pot containing a tree,
stuck all round with gaily-coloured flags; three
hoops with garlands are suspended below it, from
which hang gilded balls, after the fashion of the
pendent decorations of the older French example.
The shaft of the pole is painted white and blue.
London boasted several May-poles before the
days of Puritanism. Many parishes vied with
each other in the height and adornment of their
own. One famed pole stood in Basing-lane, near
St Paul's Cathedral, and was in the time of Stow
kept in the hostelry called Gerard's Hall. ' In
MAY 1.

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