THE MAY QUEEN

The Queen of the May, from Randolph Caldecott's 'Come Lasses and Lads, 1884

'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 May!

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: 

https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/the-may-queens-of-whitelands-college-the-early-years/ 

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.'

A page of L Summerbell's illuminated edition of Tennyson's 'The May Queen', 1872

May Queen at Great Rollright, 1938.. A resident recalls how after maypole dancing on the village green, all the children toured Great Rollright on a farm cart carrying garlands of flowers.

May Queen and retinue at the village of Swerford, May Day 1934

A May King and Queen at Heythrop, 1914. Note the cruciform garland and the four armed attendants - this was the eve of the Great War.

May King and Queen at South Newington, 1934. As at Heythrop above, headgear and sash appear to be the King's main items of regalia.

The May Crowning of Mary

The month of May is consecrated by the Catholic Church to the Virgin Mary as ‘Queen of May’. Pilgrimages and visits are made to churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.  A ‘May Crowning’ of statues of Mary with garlands, and a rosary procession are other features of the tradition.   

Customs also include special hymns, one beginning: 

Bring flow'rs of the fairest,
Bring flow'rs of the rarest,
From garden and woodland
And hillside and vale;
Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

Chorus:
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May,
O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

The customs spread from the 17th century, and must have compounded Puritan hostility to May Queens who were now associated not only with the pagan Flora, but with the Papacy.

'Lifting' in Oxford, May Morning 2002 (photo Malcolm Austin by courtesy of Oxford City Morris Men)

Outside The Anchor, May Morning 2014 (photo courtesy of Eynsham Morris)

'Lifting' a maiden

There was a village tradition of 'lifting' whereby a group of young men would lift a pretty girl in a flower-bedecked chair on May Day.  A vigorous variant on the May Queen custom, the practice survives among morris dancers in Oxford.

It's all rather impromptu (flower-bedecked chairs inessential).