'Wake and call me early...'
May Queens featured in Tudor and Stuart celebrations, though the Queen was usually one of a royal couple – the Lord and Lady of the May. The Victorians tended to filter out the male presence
and focused on the Queen. May Kings did survive, however, in many village customs.
The poet Alfred Tennyson did much to popularise the tradition with his long poem The May Queen (1855). The work is a meditation on beauty, vanity and
wasted youth and was hugely popular in Victorian times. It was set to music by William R Dempster. Tennyson once visited Dickens at Lausanne and found the novelist's daughter Mamie singing his May Queen at the piano.
So you must wake and call
me early, call me early mother dear,
Tomorrow’ll be the happiest time of all the glad New Year,
Tomorrow’ll be of all the year the maddest, merriest day,
For I’m to be Queen of the May, mother, I’m to be Queen of
The crowning of May Queens was ritualised by John Ruskin at Whitelands College in 1881 (see Maypoles above). The May Queen we have inherited from his vision is a girl who presides at May Day celebrations, often with
a retinue of attendants. She wears a white gown and a crown or garland, and typically returns the next year to crown the new May Queen.
Some wonderful photographs of early May Queens at Whitelands can be seen at:
But the older village tradition of a May King as well as Queen endured in many schools. Phyl Surman in her 'Pride of the Morning - An Oxford Childhood' writes that In Iffley, 'a queen was elected by private ballot from the girls attending the village school
and, by a similar procedure, the pupils would also elect a king. Girls in their best white dresses and boys in Sunday suits would process to church in the wake of the king and queen and maids of honour wearing flowers in their hair.'