Category: traditions and folklore

The Queen’s Maundy Money: Silver for the Poor on Maundy Thursday

By , April 2, 2010 2:22 am

The Day Before the Easter Holiday Starts

Every year, the Royal Mint makes special coins, of pure silver, with different values from normal coins.

The Queen then takes these coins, placed in specially-made leather purses, and gives her age in pence to a number of men and women equal to her age in a Cathedral ceremony, every Maundy Thursday.

Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, is in many ways the start of the Easter holiday in England.

The Queen's Maundy Money, especially minted, comes in red and white leather purses

The Queen's Maundy Money, especially minted, comes in red and white leather purses


Although it’s a working day, it’s rather like Christmas Eve – lots of people will either take the day off, or make an early get-away for the 4-day Easter weekend. (There is a holiday on Good Friday and a bank holiday on Easter Monday, so it’s a nice break from the regular working routine).

There is a centuries-old tradition of a Maundy ceremony (from c.600 AD) and more recently (since the time of King John or so) a ceremony on Maundy Thursday involving the King or Queen, in which coins are given to the deserving poor.

This post is about the history and practice of the Queen’s Maundy Money.

Origin of the phrase “Maundy Thursday”

The Queen's Maundy Money ceremony in 1898, at Westminster Abbey

The Queen's Maundy Money ceremony in 1898, at Westminster Abbey

There is not a united view about the origin of the phrase.  The most popular idea is that it comes from the phrase Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos in the Latin Vulgate Bible, where Christ said to his apostles, A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. (Gospel according to St. John, 13.34). 

Mandatum, which is also the origin of the words “mandatory”, “mandamus” and “mandate”, is thought to be the origin of the “Maundy” part of the phrase, and the “Thursday” part is rather self-explanatory.

Early Maundy Ceremonies

An important part of early Maundy Thursday celebrations was the washing of poor people’s feet, in imitation of Christ, and to show essential humility and the equal-before-God idea (a concept that most medieval bishops honoured more in the breach than the observance, as a general rule).

Foot washing was done by bishops and other important clergymen, and also by the King or Queen, until the mid 17th century – King James II was the last monarch to wash feet personally. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, does it each Maundy Thursday now.

The washing of feet comes from the Last Supper, where Christ washed the feet of his disciples during the Passover celebrations.

Giving To the Poor

The Queen at the Maundy Money ceremony in 1952, her first public engagement as Queen

The Queen at the Maundy Money ceremony in 1952, her first public engagement as Queen

Anglo-Norman Kings certainly appear to have given alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday.

King John is recorded as having given alms to the poor in Knaresborough, in Yorkshire, when he happened to be there for Holy Week in 1210 AD. He gave knives, clothes and food. (There are lots of references to his giving forks, too. That strikes me as inherently unlikely, because people didn’t use forks for eating until several centuries later).

It is unlikely that King John was the first English King to give alms on this day.

Medieval Maundy Money

The first recorded giving of money to commemorate Maundy Thursday is during the reign of Edward I, who ruled from 1272 (and was King John’s grandson).

The process became more formalised, and more important after the Reformation, as the King or Queen was then not only the ruler of the secular country, but head of the Church of England, too.

Queen Elizabeth II’s Maundy Money

A 3d coin, or thruppeny bit, showing the "young" Queen's head which still appears on Maundy money today

A 3d coin, or thruppeny bit, showing the "young" Queen's head which still appears on Maundy money today

The process has been pretty similar for some decades, now.

Each Maundy Thursday, the Queen gives out Maundy purses at one of England’s Cathedrals. The only exception was in 2008, where the ceremony was held in St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral, in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

The red and white Maundy purses are given to a number of elderly men and women, chosen now from the local area for charitable and other good works. There is one man and one woman for each of the Queen’s years – so as she is now 84 years old, on 1st April 2010 she gave Maundy money to 84 men and 84 women, in Derby Cathedral.

The white purse contains a £5 coin and a 50p coin, and the red purse contains 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p coins, adding up to the Queen’s age again. So the 84 men and 84 women get 84 pence in coins in their red leather purses.

A 50 pence piece in general circulation, showing the Queen's most recent portrait

A 50 pence piece in general circulation, showing the Queen's most recent portrait

The coins are not normal coins. 1p, 2p and 50p coins are in general circulations, but 3p, 4p and £5 coins are not. These coins are all legal tender, for their face value, but are obviously worth a great deal more than 3p or whatever.

Unlike modern coins, which are struck from alloys, the Maundy Money coins are minted each year, from sterling silver, so the coins are 92.5% silver.

In addition, the specially-minted coins feature the first portrait of Elizabeth II, issued on her coins from 1953. This “young portrait” was replaced on normal coins in 1962, but remains on each year’s Maundy Money.

Until 1909, extra sets of Maundy coins were struck and could be purchased. Edward VIII decided to abolish this, and since 1909, the only sets of Maundy coins issued have been to the recipients at the annual ceremony.

Obviously, the number of coins increases each year as the Queen gets older, and the number of pennies issued rises by one, as does the number of men and women who receive them.

The BBC’s article about 2010′s ceremony in Derby can be read here, and the Monarchy’s official article about the ceremony is here.



Royal Navy Rum – issued daily to sailors 1655 to 1970

By , February 8, 2010 2:01 am

Alcohol and the Royal Navy often seem to go together – there are the nautical phrases for the time in the evening when a drink is OK, “the sun’s over the yardarm”, and having one too many can lead to a person being described as “three sheets to the wind”.

And, of course, there’s the old sea shanty, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?”

Even given all that, though, it might come as a surprise to learn that the Royal Navy was issuing daily rum rations to all enlisted men (even those in nuclear submarines) until 1970.

Up Spirit ceremony on HMS Endymion, 1905

Up Spirit ceremony on HMS Endymion, 1905

After “Black Tot Day”, the final rum ration was replaced – by 3 cans of daily beer, instead……

Before Rum – Beer to combat foul water

Like pretty much everyone else, before 1655, sailors drank mostly small beer, or ale.

It was healthier than drinking water which was too often contaminated. Casks of drinking water on board ship quickly got stagnant and nasty, and no-one wanted to drink it.

But on longer voyages, the stuff didn’t keep that well. So the Senior Service needed a better solution – what to give sailors to drink?

The Start of Rum Rations

Sailors being issued with rum in Portsmouth in 1933

Sailors being issued with rum in Portsmouth in 1933

England conquered Jamaica in 1655, and an enterprising local captain started issuing a daily ration of rum to his sailors, instead of the official Royal Navy beer ration of a gallon (!!) a day.

The Royal Navy took over officially in 1740. From that date, each sailor in the Service was issued with half a pint of strong rum each day, half at noon, half at sunset. Before and after a battle, double rations were issued.

It was issued neat for a few years, but (oddly enough) some sailors stored up their rations, and then got completely blotto on them.

So from 1756, the standard “grog” rum was issued – 2 parts water to 1 part rum, mixed with lime or lemon juice, and cinnamon.

It’s thought that the nickname “limey” comes from this practice of adding citrus juice to the rum, a habit which combated scurvy.

In 1850, the ration was reduced to 1/4 pint (5 fluid ounces) and then to 1/8th pint (2.5 fluid ounces).


The Up Spirit Ritual

The issuing of the rum ration became an elaborate ceremony. At 11am, the boatswain’s mate piped the tune “Up Spirits”, and a procession ladled out the rum, into portions for more senior NCOs, and the rest mixed with water (etc) for the ratings.

At midday, the boatswain’s mate piped the tune, “Muster for Rum”, and the crew came and got their half-pints of grog.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the officers’ rum rations were accompanied by toasts – first the Loyal Toast (to the King or Queen) followed by a different toast for each day of the week:

Monday, “Our ships at sea”

Tuesday, “Our men”

Wednesday, “Ourselves”

Thursday, “A bloody war, and quick promotion”

Friday, “A willing soul and sea room”

Saturday, “Sweethearts and wives, may they never meet”

Sunday, “Absent friends, and those at sea”

See the HSM Hood website for more pictures of the daily Up Spirits ritual in the 1930s

Black Tot Day – the End of the Rum Ration

 Black Tot Day on board HMS Phoebe

Black Tot Day on board HMS Phoebe

On 31st July 1970, the last rum was issued to ratings – on a day known as “Black Tot Day”.  The Portsmouth Evening News said:

……sailors said farewell to the last issue of Nelson’s Blood, (as rum was known in the navy), by conducting mock funerals and wearing black armbands…The annual Christmas pudding stirring ceremony in HMS Bellerophon was brought forward today so that the usual four pints of rum could be included in the 150lb mix

Different ships carried out different farewell ceremonies. One ship in the Arabian Gulf buried their last barrel, and erected a headstone which said, “Good and Faithful Servant” on it.

HMS Dido put the last tot in a bottle with a note inviting the finder to drink to the health of the Royal Navy, and threw it overboard.

British Navy Pusser’s Rum, on sale since the 1970s, is the Admiralty’s mixture of 6 different rums, as served on board ship for centuries.

The Frost Fairs: the frozen River Thames in London

By , January 10, 2010 3:43 am

The Frozen Thames in London – an Introduction

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

A woodcut showing the medieval London Bridge and Frost Fair on the Thames, 1683

Between 1400 AD and 1814, the last time it happened, the River Thames in London froze over 26 times. And when it froze solidly, Londoners made the most of it, and the “Frost Fairs” developed.

The tidal, somewhat salty Thames is a deep, fast-flowing river today, but before the Old London Bridge was demolished in 1831, the river’s waters were pooled slightly behind the medieval arches, which probably helped the ice take hold.

It was also the time known as the “Little Ice Age”, when winters were colder and more severe than they have been since 1800 or so.

The huge, medieval bridge, with houses and shops above the numerous archways, is shown in the background of the woodcut to the right of this text, depicted during the Frost Fair of 1683.

The text accompanying the woodcut says:
An Exact and lively Mapp or Representation of Boothes and all the variety of Showes and Humours on the ICE of the River of THAMES by LONDON  During that memorable Frost in the 35th yeare of the Reigne of his sacred Maj King Charles the 2nd

The embankments had not yet been built, either, and so the River Thames was wider, shallower, and probably a little slower.

The Frozen Thames in the 16th century

The Thames froze over several times in Tudor England. Henry VIII is known to have travelled from Whitehall, next to Westminster, to Greenwich by sleigh, along the River Thames, in 1536. Greenwich was one of Henry’s favourite palaces; he married there more than once, and his daughter Elizabeth I was born there later in 1536.

In 1564, Elizabeth I practised her archery on the frozen Thames, and boys and men played football on the ice.It was said of this winter:

On the 21st of December, began a frost, which continued so extremely that on new year’s eve people went over and along the Thames on the ice from London Bridge to Westminster. Some played at the foot-ball as boldly there as if it had been on the dry land; diverse of the court shot daily at pricks set up on the Thames; and the people, both men and women, went on the Thames in greater numbers than in any street of the city of London.

On the 31st day of January, at night, it began to thaw, and on the fifth day was no ice to be seen between London Bridge and Lambeth, which sudden thaw caused great floods and high waters, that bare down bridges and houses, and drowned many people.

The development of Frost Fairs into full-blown parties

The first frost fair, in terms of full-scale activity and commercial stalls and sports took place in 1608.  It was a cheerful and spontaneous affair.

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair  in 1683/1684

A woodcut showing the Thames Frost Fair in 1683/1684

The “Long Freeze” or “Great Freeze” of 1683/4 was one of the coldest-known English, and European, winters. The Thames froze solidly, and the ice was up to a foot deep. The frost began 6 weeks before Christmas, and lasted into February.

Streets of stalls and booths stretched from bank to bank; all London’s normal entertainments made their way on to the river.

A whole ox was roasted at Hungerford Steps, bear-baiting and and puppet-shows were held on the ice. Skating and “chair-pushing” events were also set up.

A pamphlet published about the Long Frost included this passage:

A whole street of booths, contiguous to each other, was built from the Temple Stairs to the barge-house in Southwark, which were inhabited by traders of all sorts, which usually frequent fairs and markets, as those who deal in earthenwares, brass, copper, tin, and iron, toys and trifles; and besides these, printers, bakers, cooks, butchers, barbers, coffee-men, and others, who were so frequented by the innumerable concourse of all degrees and qualities, that, by their own confession, they never met elsewhere the same advantages, every one being willing to say they did lay out such and such money on the river of Thames.

John Evelyn, a diarist, said that:

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Frost Fair Mug 1683/4

Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water

The mug shown in the picture to the right of this text is tiny, less than 2.5 inches high. Engraved on the base are the words, “Bought on ye Thames ice Janu: ye 17 1683/4″.

It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington.

It is astonishing that something so small and delicate lasted to be put in a museum!

The Great Frost of 1709, probably Europe’s coldest winter for 500 years, saw another large-scale frost fair.

Not only rivers, but huge chunks of the North Sea, froze during the terrible cold of the winter, and in France, an estimated 500,000 people died of starvation and malnutrition later in the year. There is a fascinating article from the New Scientist about this winter, called 1709: The year Europe froze.

A London paper said:

The Thames seems now a solid rock of ice; and booths for sale of brandy, wine, ale, and other exhilarating liquors, have been for some time fixed thereon; but now it is in a manner like a town; thousands of people cross it, and with wonder view the mountainous heaps of water that now lie congealed into ice.

On Thursday a great cook’s-shop was erected, and gentlemen went as frequently to dine there as at any ordinary. Over against Westminster, Whitehall, and Whitefriars, printing presses are kept on the ice.

The last River Thames Frost Fair

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The Frost Fair on the River Thames in London, 1814, by Luke Clenell

The last proper freezing of the River Thames in London took place in 1814.

The frost set in at the start of January, and by the end of the month, the River was frozen solid – an elephant was led across the Thames by Blackfriars Bridge to demonstrate the safety of the ice.

Hoardes of traders and entertainers rushed to set up shop, and the fair was in full-swing. It was shorter than many, as the solid ice lasted only a week.

Writing 20 years later, Charles Mackay said of the 1814 fair:

Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost.

The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day.

Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north.

Since 1814

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

Ice on the River Thames in 1895

There has, of course, been ice on the River Thames since 1814 – what has not happened since then is the absolute freezing of the water, thick enough to allow lots of activity to take place on the ice.

The photograph to the right of this text shows ice in 1895, with the newly-constructed Tower Bridge in the background.

It looks pretty uneven, and not much fun to walk on!

Fireworks, Bonfires and Guys – celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night

By , November 6, 2009 2:53 am

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Guy Fawkes and his group of Catholic fellow-conspirators did their best to blow up Parliament on the 5th November 1605, on the day of the State Opening of Parliament.

Their conspiracy, and the 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed in a cellar under the House of Lords, was discovered hours before the explosion was due.

The “gunpowder plot” and the rebellion that was supposed to follow failed, and James I kept his throne, and the Members of Parliament and Lords stayed alive.

For more about the history and aims of the gunpowder plot, see the previous post on this site.

The defeat of the plot – and the subsequent torture and execution of the plotters – is celebrated annually with great enthusiasm to this day. This post is about the bangs, fires and whimpers of Bonfire Night / Firework Night  Guy Fawkes’ Night in England – fireworks, bonfires, burning effigies, and special grub.

The Times has an article about good public displays and events in 2009 here.

Family parties and public events

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Lots of people go to big public firework displays, held on commons, heaths and in parks all over the place.

These tend to be on the nearest Saturday to the 5th November, rather than on the actual day (if the 5th November isn’t a Saturday anyway).

Similarly, people often choose to have private parties in their own back gardens, more often on the actual day, whatever day of the week that happens to be.

That way they can also attend a grand display locally, should they choose to do so!

Fireworks

Fireworks are a big part of Guy Fawkes’ Night. It’s perfectly legal to buy fireworks (other than the really big kind) and set them off in your own back garden, and many families do. Mine always did as a child, and we loved it. Bangs and stars in the sky are therefore a common feature of the week or two around the 5th November. Newsagents, supermarkets and other shops usually sell boxes of a selection of fireworks and rockets, and also packets off sparklers, around the start of November.

Bonfires

Bonfires are a big part of the evening. It’s a handy time of year (lots of dead leaves and fallen branches) and helps to keep people warm as well, if it’s chilly. Public celebrations also often have them – in my parents’ village in Kent, they have an enormous bonfire lit on the village green before the fireworks start – it’s usually about 20 – 30 feet tall, and people are cheerfully invited to contribute suitable burning material.

Burning Guys, and “penny for the Guy!”

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

Traditionally, a figure is burned on the bonfire – a rough model of a man, often about or nearly life-size. This “guy” is supposed to represent Guy Fawkes himself, although in real life, Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, rather than burned.

Until the end of the 19th century, effigies of the Pope and Devil were often burned as well, but such overt anti-Catholicism is rather unfashionable, now.

Unpopular politicians and so forth can find themselves being modelled for bonfires to this day. This year, for example, the Bonfire Society in Edenbridge in Kent intends to burn a 30 foot guy modelled on Jordan, AKA Katie Price (a model).  The BBC has written about the plans here.

In my family, when I was a child, we made a guy every year from sacks or similar, and clothed him in ragged old jumpers unfit for anything else. A face was drawn on with pen, and chunks of wool for hair. Not great works of art, but fun to make.

Just before the bonfire is lit, the effigy is slung on the top, to burn with the fire.

It used to be much more common for children to make a guy, and trundle it round the streets in a pushchair or trolley, shouting, “penny for the guy” in order to collect funds for fireworks. The more impressively-created the guy, the more money could be expected. It happens less now, especially because children aren’t allowed to buy fireworks any more – a buyer has to be over 18. It’s still pretty common for a guy for a village event to be left out with a collecting tin, to gather funds for a firework display.

Food

There are certain foods which are traditionally-eaten on Bonfire Night – some are traditional nationally, others only in one region or county.

Common across the country is a meal of sausages, jacket potatoes, and baked beans, or similar. The potatoes can be wrapped in foil and put at the edge of the bonfire to cook.

Treacle toffee (darker and much less sweet than normal toffee) and toffee apples are common.

“Parkin” is a common Bonfire Night all over the country, but the actual recipe for this varies hugely. Same name, rather different food! Mostly, it’s a type of soft, treacle-based cake, made with both oats and flour.

Famous Bonfire Night Celebrations

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

There are many local traditions and societies, so I’ll only mention a couple of the biggest and best-known.

Lewes, a town in East Sussex, has a particularly enthusiastic group of Bonfire Societies.

Each of the 7 main societies creates at least one elaborate effigy – Guy Fawkes predominates, local and national politicians often also feature.

There are also models of people’s heads on pikes (a type of spear), often modelled after unpopular members of the town council, or those who opposed the Lewes festivities.

Societies, each with mottos and caps, parade their effigies and heads through the streets, carrying fire torches and similar.

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Many people in the parades are dressed up – Zulus, smugglers and Elizabethans are particularly common.

The parades end in bonfires and firework displays. Lewes is a small town, but crowds of up to 80,000 are common, and roads, car parks etc are closed down for the evening.

You can find the Lewes Bonfire Council’s website here.

I’ve been to the Lewes event a couple of times – my uncle lives near by. It’s awe-inspiring, mad, and fantastic fun.

Ottery St Mary in Devon is a small town with a very odd Guy Fawkes tradition.  The first part of the Carnival consists of costume parades and fireworks (so far, so normal).

The second part is made up of men, women and children carrying tar barrels through the streets, while those barrels are on fire.

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

There are 17 barrels, all lovingly-coated with coal tar over some months, and then filled with hay or paper.

Each is lit outside a traditional pub, shop, or hotel, throughout the afternoon and evening, and then people take it in turns to run through the streets, carrying the flaming barrels.

It’s a family-based tradition – people in the same families tend to carry barrels from the same pubs down the years.

The Ottery St Mary tar barrel site is to be found here.



Almost immortal but less than human – fairies before Shakespeare

By , October 27, 2009 4:24 am

Introduction to English fairies

The presence in the world of fairies was not a new idea when Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or The Tempest. There was a long and rich English tradition of the fairy world for Shakespeare to draw on – although he altered the perception of the being forever, by making them more fun, friendly, and less of a threat to people.

This article is about the fairy world before Shakespeare, in English folklore and legend. It is a threatening world, not one of little girls dressing up in pink and waving wands.

Connla and the Fairy Maiden - a Victorian drawing

Connla and the Fairy Maiden - a Victorian drawing

The origin of fairies

There were different ideas about where fairies came from, and what caused them to live in the human world. These tended to be geographically-based – so in Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland, fairies were often thought to be either immortal beings, or  race of ancient, small people who had retreated before an invading population of humans.

Sometimes, particularly in the north of England, fairies were thought to be fallen angels, living on earth.

A common idea in the south of England is perhaps the most intriguing – that fairies were almost immortal, but less than human. The fairy lived for a long time – much longer than man’s three-score-years-and-ten, but he did not have a soul, so at the end he just dried up and withered away.

In this way, fairies had an essential sadness about them – a long life, but only life on this earth, with no afterworld to look forward to, and a difficulty in feeling emotion in a human fashion. This is perhaps the idea that Shakespeare drew on in creating Ariel in his play The Tempest. In Act V, Ariel says to his master, Prospero:

Your charm so strongly works ‘em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

And when Prospero asks, Dost thou think so, spirit? Ariel replies, Mine would Sir, were I human.

Size, appearance and associations

"Plucked from the Fairy Circle" - a man  saved from the fairy circle by a friend

"Plucked from the Fairy Circle" - a man saved from the fairy circle by a friend

Medieval and folklore fairies were generally the same size as fairly small adult people, and were almost always dark-haired and with darker than normal skin. They were extremely beautiful, but their dark colouring represented, to the medieval mind, their dark nature.

As fairies were strongly associated with nature, they often wore green or brown. They could often change their appearances, or become invisible, at will.

The flower fairies, and fairy wings, are both later ideas, far more in tune with the twee Victorian fairies than anything older. The first apparent association of flowers in particular (as opposed to nature in general) with fairies seems to have been in the person of the Fairy Queen, Titania, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Medieval fairies were most often associated with farms, and the domestic world. They were in and around people’s homes, part of everyday life. Fairies were particularly sensitive to mess and disorder, and were known to punish people who were untidy and dirty.

Fairies, changelings and abductions

Fairies were known to abduct people, in particular babies. When a fairy stole a baby, he left a fairy baby in place of the human baby – the changeling child.

Women who had recently given birth were particularly at risk of being taken by the fairies, before the Churching ceremony which cleansed them of the sin of Eve, childbirth, 40 days or so after the baby was born.

Children who suffered from birth defects, or conditions such as autism, were sometimes suspected of being changeling babies.

The belief in changelings persisted for much longer than other ideas about fairies’ evil deeds – in late Victorian England, it was still being written about as a current belief in some rural areas.

The unfortunate children who were labelled as changeling babies could have a very tough time – Martin Luther believed that changelings were not human babies, but were soul-less and could be killed with impunity.

There is a fascinating online book here about British Changeling Legends.

Fairy pranks and evils

Fairies were responsible for all sorts of mishaps, from tangled hair and missing needles, but also for paralysing people or animals, causing tuberculosis, or other serious illness and even death.

Placating the evil-doing fairies

Fairies depended on people for their food and water – and in particular, for their favourite dairy products, milk and cream. The association with cleanliness is clear, here – the need to keep dairies clean was well-known in medieval England. And keeping the fairies supplied with what they wanted was a way to protect oneself from the evil deeds fairies too often perpetrated on people who displeased them.

To try to guard against a baby being stolen, mothers were advised to make sure someone was awake and watching over a newborn ever minute of the first few days of his life, and with great care until the baby was a couple of months old.

Fairies were known to hate cold iron, rowan trees, and other charms. Some protections varied – in some parts of the country bread repelled fairies, while in other parts, they liked their daily loaf.

Shakespeare’s changes to the fairy world in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare adopted some traditional fairy beliefs, but also altered others. His fairies had an Indian changeling boy, kept fairy hours (mostly dark times of day) and fairy times of year.

Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, was a common folk figure, well-known to Shakespeare’s audiences. But until A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he wasn’t a fairy – he was too nice for that, his pranks were not really harmful. Fairies were nastier.

And Oberon, in the play, acts at the end to sort out the humans’ lives and make everything as it should be – for altruistic reasons.

It was the beginning of the rehabilitation of the English fairy.


St. Swithin and predicting English weather in the summer

By , July 19, 2009 4:00 am

English summer weather and the legend of St. Swithin’s Day

England, it is sometimes said, doesn’t have climate,  it has weather. There is quite a lot of truth in this – while it is obviously colder and darker in the winter than in the summer, on any given day it could be bright and sunny in December, or grey and pouring with rain in August.

So over the years, a large number of myths, legends and signs have been said to foretell what the weather will be.

There is an old legend, trotted out  every year, that the summer’s weather can be predicted by observing what happens on St. Swithin’s saint’s day, 15th July.

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

Stained glass window of William of Malmesbury, who wrote about St. Swithin in the 12th century

If it rains on St. Swithin’s Day, the tradition says, it will rain every day for the next 40 days.

Not great news for London, as it rained pretty heavily on 15th July this year. Oh, and it’s rained every day since, so far!

A traditional version of the weather forecasting properties of St. Swithin’s Day says:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain na mair

In the 18th century, John Gay recorded the ancient tradition thus:

Now if on Swithun’s feast the welkin lours
And every penthouse streams with hasty showers,
Twice twenty days shall clouds their fleeces drain
And wash the pavement with incessant rain.

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

A plan of Winchester Cathedral from 1911 - St. Swithin was Bishop of Winchester

Who was St. Swithin / St. Swithun / St. Swithhun?

St. Swithin (the most common spelling) was an Anglo-Saxon, and was bishop of Winchester from 852 AD until he died in 862.

In 9th century records, not a lot is said about him. He was one of the two main advisors of Egbert, King of Wessex. He signed a few charters which are still extant, and his death was reported in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, and that’s about it.

There are a lot more sources about him from the 10th century, but how much they actually knew and how much was just more or less made up is anyone’s guess!

Winchester Cathedral is still dedicated in part to him – to the Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Paul and St. Swithin.

How the legend came about

William of Malmesbury, an 11th and 12th century historian, wrote about St. Swithin in his 1125 book Gesta pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of  English Bishops). William said that, when dying, St. Swithin said, “ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius”, or that he should be buried outside the Catherdral, where passers-by  could walk and raindrops fall on him. This indicates that the rain-forecasting potential of the saint was already know by the 12th century.

In the 10th century, over 100 years after his death, St. Swithin’s body was “translated”,  or moved. Most of his body was buried in a new shrine to him in Winchester Cathedral, but later his head went to Canterbury, and an arm to Peterborough Abbey.

It is supposed to have rained heavily on the date of the translation of St. Swithin’s relics, and the legend may originate from this.


Any truth in this saying?

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

Malmesbury Abbey, where William of Malmesbury was a monk

To some extent, yes. Obviously, it’s not the case that the 15th July sets out the weather for the next 40 days for sure.

But there is a pattern whereby the weather in mid-July sets the stage for what is to follow.

The jet-stream’s position, for example, greatly affects British weather in the summer, and its position is often fixed by mid-July for several weeks thereafter.

So the weather for a week either side of St. Swithin’s Day is indeed a general indication of what the rest of the summer’s weather may be like.


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