The first recorded evidence of a maypole in Britain dates back to 1350 when it appears that a tall birch pole was erected at Llanidloes in central Wales. Traditional maypoles were rough-cut trunks of any tall, straight tree such as birch, pine or ash, bound with leaves, flowers and ribbons. People simply did a dance around around them, sometimes holding hands, sometimes kissing in passing.
More elaborate poles might be painted and topped by garlands, but no-one held ribbons in the early days.
Music was typically supplied by a man playing a pipe and tabor, as in the picture to the right. Alternatively a bagpiper might play for the dancers, and a fiddler is often depicted in later centuries.
Height of maypoles
The Puritan parliament in 1644 banned the erection of maypoles, declaring them 'a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.'
In 1661, after the monarchy had been restored, a huge maypole was erected in the Strand in London, reaching over a hundred and thirty feet. Obviously this was exceptional; a common length for a Maypole was about 30 feet.
In 1672, at Stanton St John in Oxfordshire, some young men cut down a tree without permission. It was 31 or 32 feet long and 1 foot across. They had to pay 30s. for it.
Taunting with maypoles
People used to play April Fool tricks on May Morning. Anthony Wood, the great diarist of 17th-century Oxford, refers more than once to ‘may games’ as practical jokes.
Wood’s writing also indicates that a Maypole might be set up by a householder as a may game – especially to wind up the local Puritans. For the summer of 1641 Wood reports that ‘a most licentious and profane fellow’ in the parish of Holywell set up a Maypole and fixed to it the picture of a Roundhead, specifically a Puritan steward of one of the Oxford colleges. With his companions, ‘making themselves mad-merry about it’, they brought muskets and other weapons to shoot at the effigy.
A servant hit the picture, ‘at which the said master did fall a-laughing extremely, and on a sudden sunk down, falling into a long, sharp and terrible convulsion-fit, and so continued a long time after very sick and in great pain and misery; but whether he be since alive or dead, I am uncertain.’
Again, on May 1 1660: ‘A maypole against the Bear in Allhallows parish, set up on purpose to vex the Presbyterians and Independents. Dr John Conant, then vice-chancellor, came with his beadles and servants to have it sawed down, but before he had entered an inch into it, he and his party were forced to leave that place.’
On May 12, 1670, a Maypole was set up to make a particularly obscure point: ‘Holy Thursday, a Maypole set up at the upper end of Catte Street in St Peter’s parish in the East by Short the coffee- man, churchwarden; a paper set up on it noting that the street should as anciently be called Gratian Street, which is false.’
My Bird is a Round-head is the title of a broadside ballad of 1643. It was written by Humphrey Crouch and tells the true story of a Northamptonshire man who set up a maypole and kept a tame owl that he called Roundhead. One of his Puritan neighbours had him brought before a Justice of the Peace for these provocations.
'A ladder for the church...'
The notebooks (1659 – 1675) of Warden Woodward, who patrolled the Oxfordshire Estates of New College have the entry for 14 May 1661: ‘One small tree in the woods was allowed unto Newington men for a maypole, they were very desirous to have one and yet so honest as not to steal one.’ A tree was granted them on condition that ‘when the time was past they should take it down and make therewith a ladder for the church.’
For 30 May 1670: ‘as we were in the coppice there came to us about seven or eight of the young maidens of Tingewick and entreating pardon for being so bold they desired a tree to make a maypole. To increase good neighbourhood and love among them…and to wean them from conventicles a tree was granted to them.’
The conventicles were small assemblies of non-conformist lay people who, denying the authority of the Anglican Church, would hold their own services wherever they liked, often out of doors. It is interesting that giving the Tingewick girls a maypole was seen as a way of binding them to the older established religion. So too, the Newington men were allowed a maypole - if it was later fashioned into a church ladder.
Here is further evidence of the covert understanding between May revellers and the local parish church.
Maypoles with ribbons
Braiding maypoles with ribbons for dancers to hold dates only from the 19th century, and seems to have originated in theatrical entertainment. Research suggests that the practice began on 28 November 1836 at the Victoria Theatre, London, in a melodrama which featured what The Times reviewer called 'a novel and excellent dance around the maypole.'
Maypoles with ribbons were increasingly seen in later decades, but were by no means universal. The ribboned pole was standardised by John Ruskin. He introduced the practice in 1881 at Whitelands College, a teacher’s training college for women, situated in Chelsea. The dancing formed part of an elaborate May Pageant, with the crowning of a May Queen (see The May Queen above). From Whitelands, women teachers took the new tradition wherever they went, and it quickly became standard in schools.