This weekend at Kentwell Hall the Tudor Re-enactment team were in full swing. Celebrating May Day, they brought to life old customs and traditions for all to enjoy.
First of all, we had to go A’Maying, which is where the tree is felled for the May Tree. (The maypole with ribbon dancing is a Victorian invention). With drummers drumming and pipers piping we followed the procession into the woods to where our chosen tree stood. As we neared the spot, the music stopped and voices were hushed. The Woodsman and several other men went forward to fell the tree in silence, for they did not want to awaken the Forest Spirit, Jack in the Green. It was all to no avail, for as soon as axe touched wood out sprang Jack, with green cloak billowing and mossy hair and beard bristling beneath his hood. He attacked viciously the Woodsman, but the men managed to pull Jack away, and finally subdued him enough to send him back into the heart of the wood. The tree fell slowly, and I whispered a prayer of thanks to it for its sacrifice.
All the men then gathered around the fallen tree, picking it up and heaving it onto their shoulders to take back to the village. The music started again, and we followed in procession through the fields to our destination. Once there, we were invited to tie ribbons onto the May tree, with the intention of making a wish that would come true in a year and a day. The men then attached ropes to the May tree and hoisted it into a hole they had made into the ground, and wedged it tight. The May Tree now stood proud in the centre of the village.
Later that day the main procession went from the village to the Hall – and what a sight it was. The May Queen, a young girl of about 9 or 10 years of age sat bareback upon a beautiful Suffolk Punch horse, that had daffodils plaited into mane and tail. The young girl was dressed in a simple white gown, and her golden hair shone in the sunlight – indeed, her whole being shone with pride and excitement as she lead the procession. Behind her in a wagon were her maidens, more young girls dressed in white, waving to the crowd. The musicians followed, singing their traditional May songs, and the banner bearers with their colourful standards brought up the rear. It was truly spectacular, with the flags waving in the wind, the music lifting hearts and souls.
Once in the courtyard of the Hall, the May Queen dismounted, and followed the Lady of the Hall into the wagon with the handmaidens. The Lady of the Hall the crowned the May Queen with a wreath of flowers, to much applause. As the May Queen descended, a fury in green swept through the crowd, and Jack O’ the Green came flying in, grabbing the May Queen and hoisting her over his shoulder. The men ran after him, finally capturing him once again and rescuing the May Queen. They forced Jack to kneel before her and asked the May Queen if she forgave him. The young maiden went forward and placed her hand upon Jack’s head, and forgave him, sending him back into the deep woods where he belonged. “Hail Jack,” I whispered. “Know that you are honoured”.
The mummers then performed a hilarious play about St George and the Dragon, and then the procession moved back to the village. There, the music kicked up again in full tilt, and we began the spiral and circle dances around the May tree. I could feel the energy humming through the crowd, into the ground, making my feet want to move. A handsome young lad grabbed my hand, asking if I wanted to dance – I said yes, and we swept into the circle, laughing. I was later joined by my husband, and we performed a traditional tudor dance with many others, where the men and women each have their turns to run, jump, clap and turn.
After the dancing I sat upon the green sward, listening to the musicians and feeling the energy that was created in that spot. It was joyous, and marked a very important time when winter was bid farewell, and summer was welcomed. I’m sure the Tudor Re-enactors will have a splendid evening to themselves tonight once the crowds have gone home and the gates are closed.
I wish we had more of these celebrations where I live – I have danced a Victorian Maypole but once, and love the energy that these rituals create. If you have a chance, go to Kentwell Hall this weekend, and join in the festivities.
For more information on Kentwell Hall activities throughout this summer, please see www.kentwell.co.uk.