1st of May – May Day

St Philip and St James the Less, apostles. St Andeolus, martyr, 208. Saints Acius and Acheolus, martyrs, of Amiens, about 290. St Amator, Bishop of Auxerre, 418. St Briocus of Wales, about 502. St Sigismund, King of Burgundy, about 517. St Marcon, abbot of Nanteu, in Normandy, 558. St Asaph, abbot and bishop at Llanelwy, in North Wales, about 590.

 

Born. – Sebastian de Vauban, 1633, Nivernois; Arthur, Duke of Wellington, 1769. 
Died. – Arcadius, emperor of the East, 408; Maud [Matilda of Scotland], Queen of England, 1118; Pope Pius V., 1572; François de Paris, 1727, Paris.

 

MAY DAY.

The outbreak into beauty which Nature makes at the end of April and beginning of May excites so joyful and admiring a feeling in the human breast, that there is no wonder the event should have at all times been celebrated in some way. The first emotion is a desire to seize some part of that profusion of flower and blossom which spreads around us, to set it up in decorative fashion, pay it a sort of homage, and let the pleasure it excites find expression in dance and song. A mad happiness goes abroad over the earth, that Nature, long dead and cold, lives and smiles again. Doubtless there is mingled with this, too, in bosoms of any reflection, a grateful sense of the Divine goodness, which makes the promise of seasons so stable and so sure. 

Among the barbarous Celtic populations of Europe, there was a heathen festival on the same day, but it does not seem to have been connected with flowers. It was called Beltein, and found expression in the kindling of fires on hill-tops by night. Amongst the peasantry of Ireland, of the Isle of Man, and of the Scottish Highlands, such doings were kept up till within the recollection of living people. 

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Merry people of the old days had in every town, or considerable district of a town, and in every village, a fixed pole, as high as the mast of a vessel of a hundred tons, on which each May morning they suspended wreaths of flowers, and round which they danced in rings pretty nearly the whole day. The May-pole, as it was called, had its place equally with the parish church or the parish stocks; or, if anywhere one was wanting, the people selected a suitable tree, fashioned it, brought it in triumphantly, and erected it in the proper place, there from year to year to remain. The Puritans – those most respectable people, always so unpleasantly shown as the enemies of mirth and good humour – caused May-poles to be uprooted, and a stop put to all their jollities; but after the Restoration they were everywhere r4e-erected and the appropriate rites re-commenced. Now, alas! in the course of the mere gradual change of manners, the May-pole has again vanished. They must now be pretty old people who remember ever seeing one. 

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The custom of having a Queen of the May, or May Queen, looks like a relic of the heathen celebration of the day: this flower-crowned maid appears as a living representative of the goddess Flora, whom the Romans worshipped on this day. Be it observed, the May Queen did not join in the revelries of her subjects. She was placed in a sort of bower or arbour, near the May-pole, there to sit in pretty state, an object of admiration to the whole village. She herself was half covered with flowers, and her shrine was wholly composed of them. In our country, the enthronization of the May Queen has been longer obsolete than even the May-pole; but it will be found that the custom still survives in France.*

In Scotland there are few relics of the old May-day observances – we might rather say none, beyond a lingering propensity in the young of the female sex to go out at an early hour, and wash their faces with dew. At Edinburgh this custom is kept up with considerable vigour, the favourite scene of the lavation being Arthur’s Seat. On a fine May morning, the appearance of so many gay groups perambulating the hill sides and the intermediate valleys, searching for dew, and rousing the echoes with their harmless mirth, has an indescribably cheerful effect. 

The fond imaginings which we entertain regarding the 1st of May – alas! so often disappointed – are beautifuly embodied in a short Latin lyric of George Buchanan [Scottish historian], which the late Archdeacon Wrangham thus rendered in English:

 

THE FIRST OF MAY.

‘Hail! sacred thou to sacred joy, 
     To mirth and wine, sweet first of May! 
To sports, which no grave cares alloy, 
     The sprightly dance, the festive play! 
 
Hail! thou of ever circling time, 
     That gracest still the ceaseless flow! 
Bright blossom of the season’s prime 
     Age, hastening on to winter’s snow! 
 
When first young Spring his angel face 
     On earth unveiled, and years of gold 
Gilt with pure ray man’s guileless race, 
     By law’s stern terrors uncontrolled: 
 
Such was the soft and genial breeze, 
     Mild Zephyr breathed on all around; 
With grateful glee, to airs like these 
     Yielded its wealth th’ unlaboured ground. 
 
So fresh, so fragrant is the gale, 
     Which o’er the islands of the blest 
Sweeps; where nor aches the limbs assail, 
     Nor age’s peevish pains infest. 
 
Where thy hushed groves, Elysium, sleep, 
     Such winds with whispered murmurs blow; 
So where dull Lethe’s waters creep, 
     They heave, scarce heave the cypress-bough. 
 
And such when heaven, with penal flame, 
    Shall purge the globe, that golden day 
Restoring, o’er man’s brightened frame 
     Haply such gale again shall play. 
 
Hail, thou, the fleet year’s pride and prime! 
     Hail! day which Fame should bid to bloom! 
Hail! image of primeval time!
     Hail! sample of a world to come!

 

ROBIN HOOD GAMES.

In Scotland, the Robin Hood games were enacted with great vivacity at various places, but particularly at Edinburgh; and in connection with them were the sports of the Abbot of Inobedience, or Unreason, a strange half serious burlesque on some of the ecclesiastical arrangements then prevalent, and also a representation call the Queen of May.** A well-known historical work1 thus describes what took place at these whimsical merry-makings: ‘At the approach of May, they (the people) assembled and chose some respectable individuals of their number – very grave and reverend citizens perhaps – to act the parts of Robin Hood and Little John, of the Lord of Inobedience, or the Abbot of Unreason, and “make sports and jocosities” for them. If the chosen actors felt it inconsistent with their tastes, gravity, or engagements, to don a fantastic dress, caper and dance, and incite their neighbours to do the like, they could only be excused on paying a fine. On the appointed day, always a Sunday or holiday, the people assembled in their best attire and in military array, and marched in blithe procession to some neighbouring field, where the fitting preparations had been made for their amusement. Robin Hood and Little John robbed bishops, fought with pinners, and contended in archery among themselves, as they had done in reality two centuries before. The Abbot of Unreason kicked up his heels and played antics like a modern pantaloon.’ Maid Marian also appeared upon the scene, in flower-sprent kirtle, and with bow and arrows in hand, and doubtless slew hearts as she had formerly done harts. So it was until the Reformation, when a sudden stop was put to the whole affair by severe penalties imposed by Act of Parliament.

 

ST ASAPH.

Asaph is one of those saints who belong to the fabulous period, and whose history is probably but a legend altogether. According to the story, there was, in the sixth century, a bishop of Glasgow called Kentigern, called also by the Scots St Mungo, who was driven from his bishopric in 543, and took refuge in Wales with St David. Kentigern also was a saint; so the two saints wandered about Wales for some time seeking unsuccessfully for a convenient spot to build a church for the fugitive, and had almost given up the search in despair, when the place was miraculously pointed out to them through the agency of a wild boar. It was a piece of rising ground on the banks of the little river Elwy, a tributary of the Clwyd, and Kentigern built upon it a small church of wood, which, from the name of the river, was called Llanelwy, and afterwards established a monastery there, which soon became remarkable for its numerous monks. Among these was a young Welshman, named Asaph, who, by his learning and conduct, became so great a favourite with Kentigern, that when the latter established an episcopal see at Llanelwy, and assumed the dignity of a bishop, he deputed to Asaph the government of the monastery. More than this, when at length St Kentigern’s enemies in Scotland were appeased or silenced, and he was recalled to his native country, he resigned his Welsh bishopric to Asaph, who thus became bishop of Llanelwy, though what he did in his episcopacy, or how long he lived, is equally unknown, except that he is said, on very questionable authority, to have compiled the ordinances of his church, and to have written a life of his master, St Kentigern, as well as some other books.*** We can only say that nobody is known to have ever seen any such works. After his death, no bishops of Llanelwy have been recorded for a very long period of years – that is, till the middle of the twelfth century. The church and see still retained the name of Llanelwy, which, the supposed second bishop having been canonized, was changed at a later period to St Asaph, by which name it is still known.

 

1  Domestic Annals of Scotland, i, 7. 
* May Day, or “Bealtainn”, is mentioned in Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales’ chapter on Celtic Art. The “Queen of the May” is mention in the ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ chapter on The Tolbooth and in ‘Domestic Annals’ chapter on the Reign of Mary for 1561. 
**  The “Abbot of Unreason” is mentioned in the same ‘Old and New Edinburgh’ and ‘Domestic Annals’ chapters as in the above footnote. 
***  This Life of Kentigern, by Asaph, is mentioned in MacGeorge’s ‘Old Glasgow’ in the chapter of ‘The First Bishop.’ Asaph is also mentioned in the ‘Book of Days’ for the 13th of January.

 

On this Day in Other Sources.

 

RA or RE, was the sun god of Egypt, and represented as a hawk; he was supported by lions “which are solar animals,” and he is the equivalent of BAAL. Beul means the mouth, the front, the opening, the dawn of day, the couth of night, the beginning. Every one has heard of bealltainn, the 1st of May, old style, and “belten-fires,” when branches of the tree which bears red rowan berries were very lately placed over the cow-house doors in the west, and when all sorts of curious ceremonies were performed about the cattle. Birch branches, primroses, and other flowers, were placed upon the dresser, tar was put upon the cattle, snails were put upon a table under a dish, and were expected to write the first letter of a lover’s name, holes were dug in the ground and fortunes foretold from the kind of animals which were found in them. People used to get up early on the morning of Easter Sunday and go to the tops of hills before sunrise, in the full belief that they would “see the sun take three leaps, and whirl round like a mill wheel” for joy, which seems to be a mixture of Paganism and Christianity. the ram, the hawk, the lion of Manus, and all that tribe of mythological beings may be derived from astronomical symbols, and those of Egypt and the far East may perhaps explain those on the sculptured stones of Scotland. 

– Popular Tales, Vol. 4, pp.286-299.

 

A custom, dating far back in Catholic times, prevailed in Edinburgh in unchecked luxuriance down almost to the time of the Reformation. It consisted in a set of unruly dramatic games, called Robin Hood, the Abbot of Unreason, and the Queen of May, which were enacted every year in the floral month just mentioned. The interest felt by the populace in these whimsical merry-makings was intense. At the approach of May, they assembled and chose some respectable individuals of their number, very grave and reverend citizens perhaps, to act the parts of Robin Hood and Little John, of the Lord of Inobedience, or the Abbot of Unreason, and ‘make sports and jocosities’ for them. If the chosen actors felt it inconsistent with their tastes, gravity, or engagements, to don a fantastic dress, caper and dance, and incite their neighbours to do the like, they could only be excused on paying a fine. On the appointed day, always a Sunday or holiday, the people assembled in their best attire and in military array, and marched in blithe procession to some neighbouring field, where the fitting preparations had been made for their amusement. Robin Hood and Little John robbed bishops, fought with pinners, and contended in archery among themselves, as they had done in reality two centuries before. The Abbot of Unreason kicked up his heels and played antics like a modern pantaloon. The popular relish for all this was such as can scarcely now be credited. 

Such were the Robin Hood plays of Catholic and unthinking times. By-and-by, when the Reformation approached, they were found to be disorderly and discreditable, and an act of parliament was passed against them. Still, while the upper and more serious classes frowned, the common sort of people loved the sport too much to resign it without a struggle. It came to be one of the first difficulties of the men who had carried through the Reformation, how to wrestle the people out of their love of the May-games. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.13-29.

 

The 1st of May this year [1517], the Lord Governor returns to France; and during his absence, commits the government to the Archbishops of St. Andrews [Andrew Forman] and Glasgow [James Beaton], and to the Earls of Huntly [Alexander Gordon], Argyll [Colin Campbell], Angus [Archibald Douglas] and Arran [James Hamilton]

– Historical Works, pp.238-275.

 

Horse-racing was early practised as a popular amusement in Scotland. In 1552, there was an arrangement for an annual horse-race at Haddington, the prize being, as usual, a silver bell. Early in the reign of James VI., there were races at both Peebles and Dumfries. The Peebles race was accustomed to take place on Beltane-day, the 1st of May; it was the chief surviving part of the festivities which had from an early period distinguished the day and place, and which were celebrated in the old poem of Peebles to the Play

– Domestic Annals, pp.177-227.

 

In 1561 the Tolbooth figures in one of those tulzies or rows so common in the Edinburgh of those days; but in this particular instance we see a distinct foreshadowing of the Porteous mob of the eighteenth century, by the magistrates forbidding a “Robin Hood.” This was the darling May [Day] game of Scotland as well as England, and, under the pretence of frolic, gave an unusual degree of licence; but the Scottish Calvinistic clergy, with John Knox at their head, and backed by the authority of the magistrates of Edinburgh, who had of late been chosen exclusively from that party, found it impossible to control the rage of the populace when deprived of the privilege of having a Robin Hood, with the Abbot of Unreason and the Queen of the May. Thus it came to pass, that in May, 1561, when a man in Edinburgh was chosen as “Robin Hood and Lord of Inobedience,” most probably because he was a frolicsome, witty, and popular fellow, and passed through the city with a great number of followers, noisily, and armed, with a banner displayed, to the Castle Hill, thee magistrates caught one of his companions, “a cordiner’s servant,” named James Gillon, whom they condemned to be hanged. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.123-138.

 

Nothing is more frequent, than for men to allow their minds to dwell on particular topicks, till speculations swell into certainties. If the Queen’s marriage were allowed to be, for the interest of the two kingdoms, and experience evinced, that it was, there could not be a properer person than Darnley, whatever folly might fear, or wisdom portend. In the midst of those speculations, and fears, Argyle, and Murray, came to Edinburgh, on the 1st of May [1565], at the head of 5,000 horsemen; to hold a law-day against Bothwell, who could not bring fifty, and who did not appear. The Queen considered so great an armament, for such an object, to be more intended to overawe herself, than to frighten Bothwell: she commanded the justice clerk, to adjourn the law-day, and signified her dissatisfaction to Murray. 

– Life of Mary, pp.98-126.

 

After the Duke of Chatelherault, with his Hamiltons – all queen’s men – marched in on the 1st of May [1571], the gables of the church were loopholed for arquebuses. Immediate means were taken to defend the town against the Regent [Morton]. Troops crowded into it; others were mustered for its protection, and this state of affairs continued for fully three years, during which Kirkaldy baffled the efforts of four successive Regents, till Morton was fain to seek aid from Elizabeth, to wrench from her helpless refugee the last strength that remained to her; and most readily did the English queen agree thereto. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.47-66.

 

The people also had got alarmed lest the whole of the muir should be thus alienated, and the land which the bishops had permitted them to use as common pasture-ground for their cattle, taken away. We find accordingly, about this time, repeated protests made by the merchants and deacons of crafts, in name of the community, against the alienation – “geving furth or delying” – of any part of the “common muirs.” Such a remonstrance occurs under date 1st May, 1574, against a grant to one James Boyd, and the parties making it protest that “the partis thereof ellis delt and gevin furtht by [without] thair consent in tymis bigane suld nocht prejuge them but that thai may have tym and place for recalling and remeid thairof.” 

– Old Glasgow, pp.175-181.

 

May 1. – ‘The first day of May, 1576 years, was sae evil, the wind and weet at the west-north-west, with great showers of snaw and sleet, that the like was nocht seen by them that was living, in mony years afore, sae evil.’ – Chr. Aber

– Domestic Annals, pp.56-80.

 

The Bishop of Ross seems to have been indefatigable, on the continent, in raising up friends, for his old mistress, though perhaps, his endeavours, by promoting alarms in England, only injured her. Burghley, seems to have collected early, in 1578, many letters to, and from, the Bishop of Ross. From them, it appears, that he corresponded with the Archbishop of Glasgow, Queen Mary, Philip, King of Spain, Cardinal Comensis, and the Archbishop of Treves. There was a list, also, of the Scotish nobility, and clergy; distinguishing the party, to which they belonged. Some matters had been represented on her behalf, to the Emperor Rudolph. Soon after arrived, the Count de Retz, a marshal of France, from the French king, to solicit access to the Queen of Scots, and after seeing her, to go into Scotland. On May-day, he had an audience of Elizabeth, who had hitherto denied his request. At that time, there was with the Scotish Queen, an agent, from the Duke of Aremberg, a sovereign prince, in the Netherlands. The Scotish Queen seems to have now been carried back again, from Chatsworth, to Sheffield castle. And from this seat, she complained to Castelnau de Mauvisiere, of the refusal of passports; upon the principle, no doubt, of narrowing her intercourse. 

– Life of Mary, pp.260-274.

 

An earthquake noted in Howes’s Chronicle as having been experienced in Kent at midnight of the first of May this year, [1581,] was probably the cause of the rocking felt at the Master of Gray’s house. In Kent it made ‘the people to rise out of their beds and run to the churches, where they called upon God by earnest prayers to be merciful to them.’ 

– Domestic Annals, pp.81-98.

 

King James [VI.] and his Queen, Anna, safely arrived from Denmark at Leith, the first of May this year, 1590, with a fleet of 16 ships, accompanied with sundry of the nobles, and great ladies of Denmark. 

– Historical Works, pp.340-416.

 

The snow covered the face of the ground, this year, from the 1st of November in the preceding year, until the 1st day of May this year [1600]

– Historical Works, pp.340-416.

 

The winter of 1602 is described by Birrel as of unheard-of severity and duration. It lasted from the 1st of November to the 1st of May. In February was a ten-days’ snow-fall. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.124-176.

 

The king’s declaration regarding sports on the Sunday and other holy-days came to Edinburgh [in 1618]. The king willed that no lawful recreation be barred to the people – ‘such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting… nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances, and the setting up of May-poles;’ seeing, however, that no one was allowed so to indulge who had not previously attended service in church. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.177-227.

 

The Town Council of Edinburgh became proprietors of this charity, according to their Register, in consequence of Queen Mary’s grant to them of all such religious houses and colleges in Edinburgh; and in 1582 they resolved to adapt the bishop’s college for other purposes than he intended, and issued an edict, that among the bedesmen entertained there should be “na Papistes,” but men of the “trew religion.” The buildings having become ruinous, were reconstructed under the name of Paul’s Work in 1619, and five Dutchmen were brought from Delft to teach certain boys and girls lodged therein the manufacture of coarse woollen stuffs. “They furnished the poor children whom they put to apprenticeship with clothes and bedding,” says Arnot, “and paid the masters of the work, thirteen pence and a third or a penny weekly, during the first year of their apprenticeship. This was considered as a very beneficial institution, and accordingly, many well-disposed people enriched it with donations;” but to the horror of the Edinburghers in 1621, as Calderwood records, on the 1st of May, certain profane and superstitious “weavers in Paul’s Worke, Englishe and Dutche, set up a highe May-pole, with garlants and bells,” causing a great concourse of people to assemble; and it seemed eventually that the manufacture did not succeed, or the Town Council grew weary of encouraging it; so they converted St. Paul’s Work into a House of Correction. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.300-309.

 

May. 1 [1687]. – Being Sunday, a young woman of noted piety, Janet Fraser by name, the daughter of a weaver in the parish of Closeburn, Dumfriesshire, had gone out to the fields with a young female companion, and sat down to read the Bible not far from her father’s house. Feeling thirsty, she went to the river-side (the Nith) to get a drink, leaving her Bible open at the place there she had been reading, which presented the verses of the 34th chapter of Isaiah, beginning – ‘My sword shall be bathed in heaven: behold, it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my curse, to judgment,’ &c. On returning, she found a patch of something like blood covering this very text. In great surprise, she carried the book home, where a young man tasted the substance with his tongue, and found it of a saltless or insipid flavour. On the two succeeding Sundays, while the same girl was reading her Bible in the open air, similar blotches of matter, like blood, fell upon the leaves. She did not perceive it in the act of falling till it was about an inch from the book. ‘It is not blood, for it is as tough as glue, and will not be scraped off by a knife, as blood will; but it is so like blood, as none can discern any difference by the colour.’ 

– Domestic Annals, pp.338-341.

 

It came to be seen that the only way to secure a harmony with the northern kingdom in some matters essential to peace was to admit it to an incorporating union, in which there should be a provision for an equality of mercantile privileges. To effect this arrangement, accordingly became the policy of the English Whig ministry of Queen Anne. On the other hand, the proposition did not meet with a favourable reception in Scotland, where the ancient national independence was a matter of national pride; nevertheless, there also a parliamentary sanction was obtained for the preliminary steps. In May 1706, the Commissioners, thirty from each nation, met at Westminster, to deliberate on the terms of the proposed treaty, and the Act of Union was passed in February 1707, as to take effect from the ensuing 1st of May. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.379-389.

 

May 1 [1713]. – Died, Sir James Steuart, Lord Advocate for Scotland, aged about seventy-eight, greatly lamented by the Presbyterians, to whom he had ever been a steadfast friend. the General Assembly, in session at the time, came in a body to his funeral, which was the most numerously attended ever known in Edinburgh, the company reaching from the head of the close in which his lordship lived, in the Luckenbooths, to the Greyfriars’ Churchyard. For several years, bodily infirmity confined him to a chair; but his mind continued clear to the last. Sir reign of James II., but nevertheless was forced to flee his country, and he only returned along with King William, whose manifesto for Scotland he is understood to have written. 

– Domestic Annals, pp.379-389.

 

Dr. Andrew Duncan, First Physician to His Majesty for Scotland, and an eminent citizen in his day, so much so that his funeral was a public one. “The custom of visiting Arthur’s Seat early on the morning of the 1st of May is, or rather was, observed with great enthusiasm by the inhabitants of Edinburgh,” says the editor of “Kay’s Portraits.” “Dr. Duncan was one of the most regular in his devotion to the Queen of May during the long period of fifty years, and to the very last he performed his wonted pilgrimage with all the spirit, if not the agility, of his younger years. On the 1st of May, 1826, two years before his death, although aged eighty-two, he paid his annual visit, and on the summit of the hill read a few lines of an address to Alexander Duke of Gordon, the oldest peer then alive.” The Doctor was the originator of the Caledonian Horticultural Society, and the first projector of a lunatic asylum in Edinburgh. 

– Old and New Edinburgh, pp.373-382.

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