The maypole is perhaps the most prominent symbol of Maytime festivities, and therefore has the ability to mean many things to many people. Older readers might think of dancing around the maypole with a sense of nostalgia, others may cringe. Some readers will view it with fascination, others with a sense of folksy horror. Almost certainly, there will be readers that want to know its history, and others that will want it to be older and more pagan than it probably is. Here, then, is what we’ve been able to find out.
Some historians have related the maypole to the decorated trees that the Romans danced around to celebrate the coming of Spring. However, the earliest recorded mention of the maypole tradition comes from a Welsh poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd, writing in the mid-14th century at Llanidloes in Central Wales. The poet speaks of a tall birch tree, around which festivities took place. In the last decades of the same century, a poem commonly attributed to Chaucer (Chaunce of the Dice) makes mention of the permanent maypole at Cornhill in London, so it’s clear that the tradition was up and running by the late 1300s.
While the pagan Saxons are thought to have worshipped at something that looked like a maypole (the Irminsul), there’s no evidence that the two were connected.
It’s easy to see why people might reach that conclusion, and its inherent poleness, not to mention the activities that became associated with its presence, certainly didn’t help the maypole’s reputation during Oliver Cromwell’s time. Plenty of, shall we say, ‘unpuritan’ behaviour took place in the shadow of these phallic shapes, some of which reach over 100ft high. The permanent maypole at Cornhill in London, chopped up by a protestant clergyman in 1549, was said to have been taller than the steeple (known as the Undershaft, on account of its overshadowing) at nearby St Andrew’s Church – again, good reason for the religious establishment to deem it a threat and condemn it as ‘pagan’.
It’s funny you should ask, but yes, in a sense they did. As the historian, Ronald Hutton, notes: “Rivalry between villages could be expressed by theft of each other’s poles, and such raids led to violence in Hertfordshire in 1602 and Warwickshire in 1639.”
Early maypoles were painted but did not involve the ribbons we now associate with the tradition (these were introduced by the Victorians). Although their history is unclear, they were believed to be a focal point for dancing, rather than something to attach anything to, and depictions of maypole dancing often show a large circle of people holding hands around the pole. In 1618, the poet Nicholas Breton wrote of a dance, “where the young folks smiling kiss at every turning”, which you can imagine upsetting the Puritans to the point of aneurysm. By the time the maypole was banned, Hutton notes, it had become associated with, “mixed-gender dancing, drunkenness, and Sunday merry-making.”
That would be the work of the aforementioned Puritans, who put a stop to all May Day celebrations when they came to power in 1645. As we’ve already seen, the maypole itself seems to have put the wind right up them, as this rather magnificent description by Philip Stubbes, writing in 1583, shows.
“There is a great Lord present amongst them, as superintendent and Lord over their pastimes and sports: namely, Satan Prince of Hell… Their chiefest jewel they bring from thence is the maypole, which they bring home with great veneration as thus: the have twenty, or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound round about with strings from top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, they strew the ground round about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers, and arbours hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as the heathen people did at the dedication of their idols.”
It’s not what you do with it, it’s the size that counts, right? The tallest maypole in the UK (at the time of writing) is that of Barwick-in-Elmet, Leeds, which stands at 90ft (27.43 metres). Once every three years, on Easter Monday, the maypole is taken down by hand, painted and then re-erected on Spring Bank Holiday, all of which incites vast celebration. This is next due to take place in 2025.
The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).