Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Until recently, if you asked who the Anglo-Saxons were the answer would’ve been that they were people from two northern European tribes who invaded England during the fifth and sixth centuries and then put down roots and stayed. They pushed the Britons (mostly Celts who’d been Romanized) to the corners of the island and formed a shifting set of small kingdoms in the island’s middle. 

The kingdomlets eventually became one full-size kingdom, which was in turn overthrown by the Norman invasion in 1066. 

Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin from Do whatever you like, in the end it all goes wrong anyway. It’s a run-on sentence, but you can blame the ancient Romans.

 

The Jutes and the complications

To complicate the picture (I can never resist a complication), you can also tell the traditional story so that there were three tribes, the Angles and the Saxons plus the Jutes. But the Jutes are always getting dropped from the discussion because they wouldn’t spend money on a publicity agent. So the Anglo-Saxons are the folks we know about. If you care what posterity thinks of you,  you’ll find a lesson in there somewhere. 

On the other hand, by the time posterity either remembers or forgets you, you won’t be around to care, so the Jutes may have been wise to spend their money on other things. 

Irrelevant photo: I can’t remember the name of this, but if you have one you suddenly find you have a thousand and you’re pulling them up everywhere.

What evidence we have says the Jutes came from Scandinavia–probably from what’s now Jutland–and that the tribal members who didn’t migrate got absorbed by the Danes. 

 

Where does the traditional story come from?

Two of the main sources of information about the period are Gildas and the Venerable Bede, and both wrote about battles between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. But Bede lived in the seventh and eight centuries, so he’s not a contemporary source. And Gildas lived in the sixth century, so although he’s earlier than Bede he’s not a contemporary either. Gildas also considered the Anglo-Saxons God’s punishment for the British leaders’ depravity, and sorry, no, I don’t have any details, but that does kind of mark him as something less than an unbiased narrator.

So grain of salt, please, with both of those. Some archeologists have begun to notice that no one has yet found evidence of those battles, and that calls their version of the story into question.

In addition, the dividing lines between Angles, Saxons, and Jutes may not have been as clear in real life as they were in Bede’s history. Still, their names have been preserved in assorted place names, showing that they were used. The English counties that end in -sex (settle down there in back; we’ve all heard the word sex before or we wouldn’t recognize it) were Saxon. Wessex is from West Saxons; Essex from East Saxons, Middlesex from Middle Saxons. The North Saxons, as was pointed out by someone who has a better grasp of British geography and history than I do, did not leave behind a place called Nosex. 

The Angles, however, left us East Anglia and England. Not to mention the word English

The Jutes (probably) left us Jutland, and it’s in the wrong country. See why they keep getting dropped from the conversation?

The Anglo-Saxons, somewhat irrelevantly, didn’t call themselves Anglo-Saxons. The word turns up for the first time in the eighth century. 

 

The unknowns and the new interpretations

One of the things we don’t know about the period is whether the Anglo-Saxons invaded in hordes or trickled in in small numbers and settled among the existing population. Bede and Gildas make the incomers sound like invading hordes who replaced the Romano-Celts, either killing them or driving them to the corners of the island. Until recently that’s been accepted as fact.

Then–

You’ve heard the complaints that Black Lives Matter protesters are rewriting history? Well, here’s history being rewritten with no political agenda at all. Because history’s constantly getting rewritten. New ideas crop up, and new ways of looking at things, and new technologies (social history, for example, or women’s history), and new information. They change the picture. So here’s how it’s changing at the moment:

Archeologists from Sydney and Vancouver have been rummaging through Anglo-Saxon bones from the fifth through eleventh centuries and they say the Anglo-Saxons weren’t from a genetically unified group of people. They were (much like the inhabitants of modern Britain) a mix of migrants and local people.

What sort of a mix are we talking about? Between 66% and 75% of the early Anglo-Saxons had ancestors from continental Europe. The remainder had local ancestors. And Anglo-Saxon here means people who lived in what archeologists identify as Anglo-Saxon settlements–people who lived a certain way, buried their dead a certain way, and had identifiable types of jewelry or goods buried with them.

For the middle Anglo-Saxon period (that’s several hundred years after the original migrants arrived), 50% to 70% percent had local ancestors and the rest had ancestors from continental Europe. That may mean local people adopted the Anglo-Saxon culture, that the rate of migration changed, or both.“Instead of wholesale population replacement,” they say, “a process of acculturation resulted in Anglo-Saxon language and culture being adopted wholesale by the local population. . . . It could be this new cultural package was attractive, filling a vacuum left at the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. “

The archeologists speculate that “being Anglo-Saxon was more likely a matter of language and culture, not genetics.”

Separate studies of DNA and of tooth enamel back up their findings, with incomers being identifiable only by high-tech scientific study. They were buried the same way as local people and in the same places. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon economy

The established belief has been that when the Romans left the economy went into a sharp decline. Basically, Britain fell apart. But enthusiasts waving metal detectors have added new evidence about the period, and in Building Anglo-Saxon England, John Blair uses it (and other evidence) to argue that the economy was just fine, thanks. It produced goods. It traded with other countries. It didn’t collapse.

Susan Oosthuizen’s The Anglo-Saxon Fenland and The Emergence of the English make a different version of the same argument. The early Anglo-Saxon years weren’t the gang warfare we’ve come to think they were. She looks at the way the land was used and sees continuity. The Roman withdrawal from Britain, she thinks, created stability, not chaos.  

Both households using privately held land and communities using common land continued very much the way they had. A violent transformation, she argues, would’ve overwritten field layouts. A conquering horde wouldn’t have settled into the boundaries, property rights, and land management patterns of the people they’d dispossessed.

Instead, she sees incomers and local people living beside each other, with no evidence that the earlier people became subject to the incomers. She goes as far as arguing that the period shouldn’t be called Anglo-Saxon, because that overlooks both the Britons and the immigrants from North Africa, the Mediterranean, Ireland, and parts of Europe other than where the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came from. They  formed, she says, a common culture with a common language. 

The number of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants was small but may have been culturally or economically significant. But (unsubstantiated theory warning) everything from “may have” is just me speculating.

 

But didn’t Britain collapse when the Romans left?

When the Romans left, Rome’s constant demand for taxes left with them, which may have taken pressure off the local economy. In places, arable land was converted to pasture. That can be taken as a sign of collapse or a sign that, without the need to shovel surpluses to Rome, people could afford to do this.

In 429, the bishop of Auxerre visited Britain and described it as “this very opulent island.” It “enjoyed peace with security on several fronts,” he said. And St. Patrick’s reminiscences apparently also paint a picture of a stable country, not one torn by wars and invasion.

Even Gildas–remember him? one of the sources of the war and chaos tale?–describes early sixth-century Britain as a country with  a functioning legal system, a church hierarchy, monastic houses, and a military command structure and administration that were still organised along Roman lines. 

A review of Oosthuizen’s book says, “What Gildas most disliked was the evidence he saw for new administrative, legal, social, religious, and political structures emerging and diverging from Roman norms, not the lack of such structures.”

The idea that historians should be neutral–or at least try to look neutral–was still centuries away.

 

Yeah, but the language–

But wasn’t Old English brought by the Anglo-Saxons and imposed on the country?

Not necessarily. There’s no evidence that it arrived in Britain as a fully formed language–it would’ve been, at the least, a variety of dialects– or that it was imposed. In eighth-century Britain–that’s well after the Anglo-Saxons first arrived–Bede says people spoke Old English, British Celtic, Irish, Pictish, Church Latin, and vernacular (meaning everyday spoken) Latin. A lot of them would have known two or three languages, and he says almost everyone could speak vernacular Latin.

English might have gobbled down several of those, using both a Germanic and British base for its syntax and a vocabulary that was stolen from everyone within hearing range. 

Linguists–at least some of them–are now calling English a contact language, meaning not that flies stick to it but that it grew out of the interaction of various languages. That’s in contrast to a language that’s imposed by a dominant class, as English was (by way of an example) in Britain’s colonies.

 

The Ikea hypothesis

I can’t leave you without talking about the map of Ikea stores in Oosthuizen’s book. (It’s reproduced in the review. The link’s above.) She argues that future archeologists could mark a map with all the Ikea stores that are close to rivers leading to the North Sea, and from that theorize that Sweden colonized Britain in the late twentieth century. 

They could back up the theory by pointing to the amount of Ikea furniture in people’s homes and decide that the 100,000 Swedes who lived in London in 2018 had moved there to work for Ikea. 

Which is entirely possible.

A quick history of town criers

The pandemic dictated that this year’s Town Crier Championships had to be held in silence, so this might be a reasonable time to stop and ask about town criers’ history in England.  

 

The Normans. Doesn’t everything trace back to the Normans?

In England, we can trace town criers at least back to 1066, when the Normans invaded the country and put themselves in charge, adding an overlay of the Old French they spoke to the Old English that everyone else did.

While they were at it, they also took over the land, the government, and anything that was left after that was parceled out.

The reason I mention their language, though, is that roughly a thousand years later town criers still start their cries with “Oyez, oyez,” which is French for “Listen up, you peasants.” 

Okay, it’s French for “Hear ye, hear ye,” which is English for “Listen up, you peasants.” And it’s pronounced, “Oh yay,” for whatever that information may be worth. 

Whatever they say after that, they’re supposed to end with “God save the queen.” Or king. Or whatever. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses.

The reason we can trace town criers back to the Norman invasion is that two of them were woven into the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the tale of the invasion in–um, yeah–tapestry. You can pick out the town criers because they’re carrying hand bells, which they rang to gather people around them. Because, loud as they were, a bell was even louder. 

They were sometimes called bellmen. 

Even today, town criers open their cries by ringing a hand bell, although historically some used drums or horns. 

But in spite of their Frenchified call,  it wasn’t the Normans who introduced the town criers–at least not according to the website maintained by the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which says the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxons carrying King Harold’s news about the Norman invasion to the populace.

Harold? He’s the guy who not long after sending out news of an invasion lost the battle, the war, and his life. 

If the loyal company is right and the town criers in the tapestry were Anglo-Saxon, then the tradition predated the Normans.

And who am I to question a loyal company? 

Well, I’m the person who stumbled into the Windsor and Maidenhead Town Crier site, which also mentions the tapestry but says its town criers came into the country with the Normans. 

That’s the trouble with drawing your history from visual art. A lot of interpretation is involved.

A third site ducks the issue by saying the town criers’ position was formalized after the Norman invasion. 

So we’re going to be cagey about this. Go eat a cookie or something and I’ll move us along while you’re distracted.

 

The town crier’s role

With the medieval period we can pick up more verifiable information about town criers. At a time when most people were illiterate, word of mouth was the social media of its day. Also the newspaper, the radio station, and the TV set. As Historic UK explains,  “most folk were illiterate and could not read.” 

Well, holy shit. As if being illiterate wasn’t bad enough, they couldn’t read either. Talk about multiple handicaps.

So the town crier would ring their bell or blow their horn or pound their drum, gather people around, and bellow out the news, proclamations, bylaws, thou-shalt-nots, thou-shalts, and whatever else the person pulling their strings felt was important. 

They had strings? Who pulled them? 

I haven’t found a direct answer, so I’m patching this together as best I can. Sprinkle a bit of salt over it, would you? 

The string puller(s) would probably have varied with the period we’re talking about. At at least some times and in some places, town criers were paid by the proclamation. Some sites talk about a city or town having a town crier, which makes it sound less like a casual job, and one site talks about town criers proclaiming ads. You know, “Oyez, oyez. Lidl is selling three lettuces for the price of two, but hurry or they’ll all be gone. God save the salad dressing.” 

But local government would also have come into the picture, wanting its announcements cried out, wanting the reason for a hanging made public, passing on announcements it received from the king or queen, which gives me a nifty excuse to mention that town criers were considered to be speaking in the name of the monarch, so attacking one was an act of treason.

Generally, once the crier had read out a proclamation, they’d nail it to the door post of the town pub. (Come on, where else are you going to gather the citizenry?) That gives us the word post in the sense of news and communication. 

Okay, they also made their proclamations at markets and town squares and anyplace else people could be counted on to gather. But an inn? If people gathered and listened, they might well step inside, buy a beer, and talk over what they’d heard. And a smart landlord might well offer the town crier a free beer after a well-placed announcement, although that’s the purest of speculation.

One site says town criers also patrolled the streets at night, looking for troublemakers (who else would be out after dark?) and making sure fires were damped down after the curfew bell rang. 

The origin of the word curfew lies in the Old French for covering a fire: cuvrir and feu. Fire was a constant threat in medieval towns. Having an old busybody with a bell making sure everyone really did cover theirs would be annoying but also useful. It’s believed (which is to say, it’s not exactly known) that one reason more people didn’t die in the Great Fire of London is that town criers warned people about the fire. It’s also believed that many more people died in the fire than were ever counted, so if you’ve still got some salt left, use a bit more of it here, because a good part of what I’ve found on the topic was written by nonhistorians. And speaking as a nonhistorian myself, we screw up more often than we like to admit.

Towns did organize unpaid overnight patrols (you’ll find a bit about that here), and the watchmen were sometimes called bellmen, but all men were expected to volunteer or to pay someone else to take their shift. They could all have been town criers, in spite of sometimes being called bellmen. I’m going to crawl out on a thin branch and say that some nonhistorian got fooled by the word bellman being used for two different jobs.

So who got to be a town crier? Someone with a loud voice who could sound authoritative. And someone who could read, because proclamations would come in written form and needed to be read out accurately. 

Town criers haven’t, historically, all been men. Some were husband-and-wife teams, and some were women. The Northwich 1790s records mention a woman who’d been carrying out the role “audably and laudably” for more than twenty years.

The collective noun for a group of town criers–of course you need to know this–is a bellow of criers. 

As literacy spread, town criers became less important, and where they continued, more decorative. These days, if you find them at all you’ll find them dressing in three-cornered hats (or other gloriously outdated headgear) and all the clothes that go with them. They’re most likely to show up to open local events or at contests.

 

And that brings us back to the silent championships

And so we return to this year’s silent championships: If the contestants couldn’t make a noise, what were they judged on?

Organizer Carole Williams said it was “a return to the bare bones of crying. . . .It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words.”

That makes it sound like a shouted tweet, doesn’t it?

Williams, by the way is a crier from Bishops Stortford, which I include that because place names don’t get any more English than that, and a member of the Loyal Company of Town Criers, which I include because it hosts the competition and because organization names don’t get any more English than that. Even if you make them up.

Normally, the contest is judged on sustained volume and clarity, on diction and inflection, and on content, but this year’s entries had to be recorded and since not everyone could be expected to get their hands–or their cries–on good recording equipment, the organization decided to make sure everyone had an even chance.

The contest raised money for a mental health organization called–appropriately enough–Shout. 

*

Thanks to Bear Humphreys at Scribblans for sending me a link to the silent crier championships. 

The origins of England’s parliament

You can trace the origins of England’s parliament’s back as far back as the Anglo-Saxon witan if you have nothing better to do with your life. Clearly, I don’t. 

 

The Anglo-Saxon witan

The witan wasn’t an elected body, but then neither were the earliest English parliaments. It was a council of the country’s nobles and top clergy, and it advised the king on whatever topic he wanted to be advised on. It consented to the laws he proposed and did an assortment of other things that kept the wheels of government creaking onward. 

And since it was his council, he set its agenda, chose its membership, and summoned it when he wanted its help. If it sounds a bit like his collie, to an extent it was. The king whistled and it came. If he didn’t whistle, he could take action anyway. He didn’t need its approval. 

But the collie also had some power. The king needed the support of the nobles and clergy if he was going to govern. Or to stick with the image we’ve got, the collie could either round up all his sheep or miss a few, so it paid to keep it happy and working hard. 

If you’re in the mood, you can call the witan the Witenagemot, which means meeting of the wise men. 

Don’t you just love it when people offer you meaningless choices? 

Irrelevant photo: The last of the begonias, from October.

Lower down the governmental ladder, each shire held a regular meeting, the shire moot. (A moot was a meeting.) It would’ve involved the local lords, the bishops, the sheriff, and village representatives.  Think of it as a collision of a court session and an administrative meeting, because the two weren’t separate at this point. 

Lower down still, moots were also held at the town and village level, and the local freemen would’ve attended.

 

The Normans 

Then the Normans invaded and they established something very much like the witan (and not unlike a structure they were familiar with in Normandy). They called it the commune concilium–Latin for general council, because, hey, they were Normans, they spoke Normish. Or French, actually. And Latin–or enough Latin to get by. 

The concilium was made up of the king’s chief tenants–in other words, the top layer of the aristocracy. It was a smaller group than the witan, but it was a permanent one.

In case you’re in need of confusion, though, I’ll be happy to provide it, and this is as good a place as any to toss it in. The commune concilium also seems to have been called the curia regis (the king’s court), or the aula regis. Unless, of course, Lord Google and the entire damn internet are messing with me.

I asked Lord G. to translate aula for me. Court seems to be the best match, but it also means inner court, palace, courtyard, his (confusingly), and (even more confusingly) aula. So aula means aula. It’s hard to argue with that, even if it doesn’t tell us much.

Translation programs are strange beasts. But let’s stick with curia regis, since we have a reliable translation for it. To quote one of the sources I ran to in search of some elusive clarity, “It is difficult to define the curia regis with precision.” So I may be slurring together some things that aren’t exactly the same, but if I am it’s not just me who’s short on precision. Blame history. Blame the Normans. Blame Lord Google.

Hell, blame Boris Johnson. Blame Theresa May. She didn’t say aula means aula, but she did say Brexit means Brexit, which was just about as helpful.

I know. Brexit’s just about upon us. It makes it appealing to write about thousand-year-old chaos.

It seems safe to say that the concilium/curia/aula changed over time. So we’ll say that, then sneak out the door and pretend we were never here.

For the sake of more confusion, though, every so often the king would call together a larger circle, the magnum concilium, or great council, adding earls and abbots, bishops and barons to the smaller group. Also priors, but I can’t find a category that makes a neat a counterweight for them. If I said “priors and pigeons,” you’d understand that the Norman kings didn’t really seek advice from pigeons, wouldn’t you? 

The great council was called together when the king needed them to approve his decisions, especially when those decisions involved taxes, because money was  always a sore point and he’d need to get the nobles on his side if that was in any way possible.

In the time of Henry I (that’s 1100 to 1135), a smaller council began to serve, unofficially, as a committee of the larger council. It was made up of the royal household’s officials plus the king’s attendants along with all the king’s horses and all the king’s friends. Its authority was as vaguely defined as the king’s, but it took on some financial responsibilities and gradually grew into the court of exchequer. We’ll skip the Latin for that if it’s okay with you.

Its members were called justices, and when the king wasn’t around, the chief justiciar presided over the court. 

However vaguely defined, this was turning into a powerful body.

 

The non-Normans

Now let’s leave the Normans behind and skip to Henry II, who was a Plantagenet. In 1178, he took five members of the curia, stirred vigorously, sprinkled dried fruit over the top, and turned them into a special court of justice. Unlike the rest of the curia, they stayed in one place instead of traipsing around the country after him. 

Kings (in case you didn’t know this–and if you did, surely someone out there didn’t) traveled a lot of the time, which allowed them to saddle their nobles with the cost of feeding and entertaining their huge and kingly households. It also kept them in touch with their kingdoms at a time when the internet was down.

Other bits and pieces of the original council spun off at different times until the country had the court of king’s bench, the chancery, and the king’s secret council (which eventually became the privy council).

The larger and smaller versions of the curia became clearly separate bodies, and the larger one was first called a parliament in 1236. Parliament’s website (which has some odd and interesting corners) considers the great council the forerunner of the House of Lords.

In 1254, the king (by now we’re up to Henry III) added representatives of the counties to Parliament. You can call them knights of the shire if you like. One site I found does, and it gives you a sense of the layer of society the representatives were drawn from. 

Do you have any idea how hard it is not to type “knights of the shirt”? 

The next addition came in 1265 (it’s still Henry III who’s plonked on the throne): Representatives of the boroughs (called town burgesses) were poured into the mix.

What was a borough? A town with a charter from the king. The charter allowed it to govern itself and go to the candy store without supervision–sometimes without even asking permission. 

Okay, like most things, the charters varied, but that’ll get us close enough.

And what’s a burgess? An inhabitant of a town who had full citizenship rights. You’ll notice, if you peer into the cracks of that definition, that not everyone who lived in a town did have citizenship rights, and that those who did were citizens of the town, not the country. It would make an interesting post.

As usual, Henry needed the burgesses to consent to taxation. 

That was always the king’s weakness. Not just Henry’s. Any king’s. Kings needed money, especially if they wanted to fight a way, and to get it they needed–well, I was tempted to say the consent of the governed, but at this point we’re still talking about the consent, or at least semblance of cooperation, of a very thin but powerful layer of people just below the king. The rest of the governed had to either put up with things or rebel. In between those two choices, they didn’t have a lot of space to maneuver.

 

Voting comes into the picture

From 1290 onward, representatives of the counties were summoned to parliament regularly, and a bit later on borough representatives were as well. Each county and borough generally sent two members. And at this point, I suppose I have to break down and capitalize that: two Members, as in Members of Parliament.

In 1295, voting comes into clear focus with the Model Parliament summoned by Edward I. It included two knights from each country, two burgesses from (almost) each borough, and two citizens from each city–all of them elected instead of nominated. 

Why “(almost) each borough”? 

A House of Commons research paper says, “There was no single definition of or agreement on what constituted a borough in this period. The issuing of a writ was a royal prerogative and those boroughs that became Parliamentary boroughs were usually the county town of each ancient county and a number of other important boroughs. The actual number of Parliamentary boroughs in early Parliaments fluctuated.”

Did you follow that? 

Don’t worry about it.

So who got to vote?

Not everybody. In fact, not a whole lot of people. But, like most elements in this tale, it was hazy.

Everywhere, only men could vote, but that was by custom, not by law. This is a country with an unwritten constitution, remember, so that sort of haziness feels like home and family. In practice, women who met the qualifications sometimes transferred their right to vote to a male, who’d vote for them. 

In the counties, voters were people with a property freehold worth 40 shillings, and that wasn’t restricted to land. If you’re not sure what that means, it’s enough to know that if you didn’t have a fair chunk of property, you didn’t vote.

In the boroughs, though, it varied from one to the next but usually depended on residence, on owning property, on being a freeman, or on some combination of those. In some it was restricted to members of the corporation running the borough. Again, if the details are slipping through your fingers, don’t worry about it. Same as above: The vote was restricted by wealth and status.

Oxford and Cambridge universities each sent two Members to Parliament, and they were elected by the senates of each university. 

What about the other universities? 

Trick question. They didn’t exist yet.

In 1341 (Edward III’s on the throne by now), the Commons (knights, burgesses, and citizens) and the Lords (barons and clergy) began to meet separately. 

 

More about the vote

Who got to vote was one issue, but it wasn’t the only one. The king’s writ required sheriffs to hold free elections for county representatives, but sheriffs sometimes skipped the election part and declared themselves the winners.

It’s a system I’m sure some modern politicians would envy.

In 1406, a statute specified that county elections had to be held in full view of the participants. My largely useless high school classes taught me that the secret ballot was the standard by which you could measure a fair election. Ha. At this stage, having people cast their vote in public was an attempt to prevent corruption. If you held the election in public, everyone would at least know it happened.

Elections could be raucous, with feuds and factions, and in 1429, the Commons petitioned the king to restrict the vote further, saying elections involved “too great and excessive number of people . . . of whom the greater part are by people of little or no means” and that these people “pretend[ed] to have an equivalent voice . . . as the most worthy knights or esquires dwelling in the same counties.” 

In response, in 1430 leaseholders lost the right to vote, no matter how much the land they leased was worth. The franchise was now limited to what one paper calls “40 shilling resident freeholders,” and I’m quoting because if I mess around with the wording so that it sounds more accessible I’m afraid I’ll change the meaning. What they’re saying, I think, is that you had to own the property, not just rent it.

This was the first time the rules for who could vote in the counties was formalized, and they stayed fixed–more or less–until the Reform Act of 1832. For a bit about the Reform Act, allow me to refer you to that noted non-historian, me. If you follow the link, it’s toward the end of the post.

Under Oliver Cromwell (he was Lord Protector–which is to kingship as margarine is to butter–from 1653 to 1658, and for the time he was in power you can add a few years to allow for a Civil War and assorted chaos if you like)–

Can we start that over? Under Cromwell, they tinkered with the rules on who could vote, but the changes were reversed when he died and the monarchy was restored, so we’ll skip them.

In the seventeenth century, someone came up with a nifty way to game the system. They subdivided large landholdings into smaller ones worth 40 shillings each, creating groups of people who’d vote the way the primary landowners wanted them to. The smaller landowners were called faggot votes. 

No, I’m not sure either. It’s a word with an odd history, and in modern Britain it doesn’t have anything to do with insulting a gay man. A faggot’s a sausage. And no again: As far as I know any relationship is purely accidental.

At the end of the seventeenth century, Church of England clergymen got the vote. 

In 1831, just before the Reform Act of 1832, an estimated 1.35% of the English population could vote, although the percentage would have varied from county to county. In Herefordshire, it was an estimated 3.6%, but in Middlesex it was 0.22%.

And with that in place, next week we go to another post about the history of British voting rights, the Peterloo Massacre. I’ve been threatening to write about it for a while, and it’s now in the queue. Sorry this one ran so long, and if you got this far, thanks for your patience.

The Gawthorpe Maypole Procession and World Coal Carrying Championships 

Every folkloric festival in Britain started at the pub. Even the ones that predate the invention of the pub started at the pub.

And the synthetic ones? You know, the ones that date back seven and a half years and were started by the local Let’s Lure Visitors in Here So They Can Spend Money Commission? 

Yup. Those started at the pub too. 

If we’ve established that, let’s talk about the Gawthorpe Maypole Procession and World Coal Carrying Championships, which is an odd mix of the folkloric and the synthetic and should leave us wondering whether a synthetic festival becomes folkloric if it sticks around long enough. 

In keeping with a tradition here at Notes, I’m posting this in the wrong season. Maypole celebrations have a way of happening in May, but screw it. Even in this time of pandemic, May will come around eventually. But even more than that, the contest won’t be held this year, so we can celebrate early if we want to.

Besides, ever since lockdown hit us, half the people I know can’t keep track of the days of the week, so let’s not be sticklers about the months.

Irrelevant photo: You may have already guessed that this is not a maypole. It’s not even a spring flower, it’s an autumn one, but damn, isn’t it beautiful?

If you’re ready, then, this post is for all you people who want to believe that somewhere people still dance around maypoles and life is bright and shiny and innocent. It’s for you because you’re half right. The maypole half. Bright and shiny? Not when it shares a three-day weekend with a coal-carrying race. As for innocence, I’ve never been to the event so I have no evidence one way or another. I expect it’ll all depends on how you want to define innocence. Also folkloric. But let’s dodge the difficult questions and go straight for the fluff.

The coal carrying event started in 1963, but in the traditional way: A bunch of guys were sitting around a pub, and at this point I’ll yield the stage so the event’s own web page can tell the story, with its own punctuation and dialect. If they overshot the local accent, blame them.

“At the century-old Beehive Inn . . . Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ‘Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered !’ slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out. ‘Ah’m as fit as thee’ he told Lewis, ’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’ (Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee (and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ‘Owd on a minute,’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘ ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’ (The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House.)”

If I can step in and interpret that last bit for you, what happened was that the secretary said, “Let there be a coal race,” and lo, there was a coal race. And it was good.

Also dirty.

And it still is. Men race with 50 kilo sacks of coal and women with 20 kilo sacks. If you want that in pounds, just multiply it by 2.2. I’m outta here. 

Both groups run 1,012 meters, most of it uphill. Kids, as far as I can figure out, run coalless and a shorter distance.

The rules list lots of things not to do. No coaching during the race. No assistance, no advice, no information, no cutting corners, and no general busybodying, and that’s all in red type with lots of random quotation marks, so you don’t get to tell anyone that you didn’t see the warnings.  

The event is sponsored by Eric F. Box, Funeral Directors. 

No, I can’t explain why Eric is more than one director, but maybe I should’ve mentioned his involvement earlier, by way of a health and safety warning. It’s enough to make a person wonder if, what with all that coal and hopefully a bit of coal dust to keep it company, he counts on the race bringing in a few customers.

But let’s leave Eric and his customers to work things out among themselves and move on to the maypole dance. We’ll do the general history first, then the local stuff.

Did maypole dancing start at the pub? Oh, hell yes, even if it predated the pub’s invention. It’s ancient enough to be considered pagan, it was probably linked to fertility, and it was rowdy–as fertility so often is. You can trace it back to the Celtic seasonal holiday of Beltane if you like–spring, rebirth, all that sort of thing–although the maypole was probably an Anglo-Saxon addition

Or you can trace it to the Roman holiday Floralia if you like.

Hell, you can do anything you want. You can eat your shoelaces if you like. I can’t stop you, can I? 

Assorted websites take the Floralia route, and they’re as convincing as the ones that trace it to the Celts. Me? I don’t honestly care. It was all such a long time ago that we’re left spinning theories–some better informed than others, but still educated guesses at best.

As England Christianized, the church tolerated May Day celebrations, and in medieval England laborers could often claim the day as a holiday. We can’t document that they danced around a maypole, but if we were to bet that they drank and got rowdy and then if we could somehow find out what really happened I doubt we’d lose our money. The day might or might not have involved a pole but it surely involved lots of regional variations.  

According to Gawthorpe’s website, maypole dancing dates back to the reign of Richard II (1483-1485, so you had to hurry or you’d be docked for coming late), but another website says that maypole dancing gets a mention in Chaucer and he died in 1400, meaning we can dock Richard’s pay. 

By the time Henry VIII was rampaging through his assorted marriages (1509-1547), maypole dancing had reached most of England’s rural villages (or so says the Gawthorpe website). Historic UK swears that May Day celebrations were banned in the sixteenth century, which caused riots, but other websites wait an extra century, blaming the Puritans for banning them and letting Henry off the hook. There were May Day riots one year, but they don’t seem to have been related to maypoles or bans.

The Puritans, though, were beyond question skillful disapprovers, and they disapproved of all tha rowdy, paganish carrying on, and their best to stamp out May Day.

Then the monarchy was restored and with it May Day celebrations and maypoles.

Then we skip merrily along until we come to the eighteenth century, when (to give you the flavor of the holiday) a newspaper clipping preserved the tale of some village rowdies stealing another village’s maypole. That seems to have been an accepted part of the carrying on. 

In addition to poles (your own or someone else’s), the holiday seems to have involved flowers, herbs, adults, and general uproar. Also, I’d be willing to bet, alcohol.

The first evidence of maypoles having ribbons is from 1759, and they may have wandered in from Italy. 

Then the Victorians came along and sanitized the holiday, turning it into an activity for kids and calling it an ancient tradition. Maypole dancing was taught to schoolmistresses-in-training, and they made it part of the folk revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. 

One website says that the crowning of the queen and the dancing were controlled by the village elite, taking the holiday away from the kind of folk tradition that grew from the ground up.

As for the Gawthorpe, the maypole business sounds painfully respectable, with local dignitaries and a four and a half mile procession involving floats and marching bands and horses. Not to mention some poor girl who gets chosen as queen and some other poor girls who don’t. I’m not sure which is worse. They should all sue. 

Can you sue an entire culture?

The maypole part of the Gawthorpe celebration dates back to 1906, when a teacher at the local school–probably one of the ones who’d been taught the reinvented tradition in teacher training–taught the kids what the website swears are intricate steps. And they probably are intricate because they have to hold ribbons and circle a pole multiple times without tying anyone to it. It takes six months to teach the steps, the website says. Cynic that I am, I can’t help thinking that’s because it takes so much time to chase down the dancers and make them stop having fun, but please don’t mistake me for anyone who knows that. For all I know, it fills every last one of them with joy. 

Give me a coal race any day.