The annual Mayday murder of Jack…..coming soon to a town near you!

Jack going to his doom at Hastings Castle, Mayday 2012
©Carole Tyrrell

There is a murderous tradition associated with Mayday or May 1st.  For on this day the Jack or Jack in the Green must be slain and his body torn apart and thrown to a waiting crowd. Of course it an also happen on May 7th if that’s the date that the Mayday bank holiday falls on.

Jack’s murder marks the coming of Summer as  he is also seen as the Green Man or the embodiment of Nature.  There are also associations with Puck.  Mayday also coincides with the Celtic festival of Beltane which is a fire festival.  It burst forth with abundant fertility although Beltane is one of the names for the god of death. But there’s no blood spilt in Jack’s murder. Instead his large, tall body is formed from leaves and flowers which is why he’s known as Jack in the Green . You’ll find him being pulled apart at various locations within the UK.

According to The Living Myths Celtic Year website

‘Beltain is the origin of pagan May Day festivities such as that of the Padstow Hobby Horse, and maypole dancing, of the ‘Queen of the May’, and of ‘well dressing’ – decking holy wells with flowers, as still practised in some rural communities.’

The tradition carried on in England as, according to the Hastings Jack in the Green website:

‘In the 16th and 17th centuries in England people would make garlands of flowers and leaves for the May Day celebration, they became increasingly elaborate. Works Guilds would try to outdo each other, in the late 18th century this became a matter for competition, milkmaids in London carried garlands on their heads with silver objects on them, but the crown had to go to the chimney sweeps. Their garland was so big it covered the entire man. It became known as Jack in the Green.’

The Jack has a conical or pyramidal framework on which the greenery is entwined with a man inside to ‘walk’ it along streets and in procession.  Mayday celebrations were often rowdy, drunken affairs with the Maypole as a very obvious phallic symbol  in a festival dedicated to fertility.  It, the May Queen and the Jack are the only survivors.    I found this 17th century image of a Jack on Wikipedia.

A Jack in the Green from the 18th century – shared under Wiki Creative Commons

 

As you might imagine it was the Victorians who called time on Jack in the Green declaring it unruly and raucous (surely not).  They replaced the merry stumbling prance or stagger around the Maypole with a smaller one for children to skip round.  Then most of the celebrations vanished apart from the May Queen and well dressing in some regions.

 

But you can’t keep a good Jack down forever and in the 1980’s he was slowly brought back to life.

In 1983, the Hastings Jack in the Green was revived by Mad Jack’s Morris Men.  They take their name from Mad Jack Fuller with their symbol being that of his pyramidal mausoleum in Ditchling churchyard which is also known as the Sugarloaf.

The festival is a 4 day event in the town culminating in a parade of giant figures and the releasing  of Jack before he takes centre stage in the procession along the High Street and onto West Hill.  The Jack stands in waiting on his own stage with his attendants, known as ‘bogies’ or Green Men as morris dancers and singers take to the centre stage.  Here is a selection of images from the Hastings Jack in the Green from 2012 and 2018:

Morris dancing has been around for over 600 years and there are several regional variants. He wears a beautiful crown of flowers on top. The costumes have become more ornate and decorative over the years since I first came upon the celebration by chance on a visit to Hastings in 2001.  Then it was within the grounds of Hastings Castle and I sat and listened to Maddy Prior singing as the sapphire sea below glittered under the afternoon sun. The Hastings Mayday also coincides with hundreds of bikers descending on the town but there’s not trouble as they are much more interested in buying insurance or bathrooms.

 

The final event is the slaying of Jack and he is walked to the stage surrounded by his entourage and spun round to the sound of massed drums. Then the ripping apart of him begins in earnest and sprigs and branches of evergreens are tossed out to the eager crowd as having a piece of Jack is meant to ensure you good luck for the coming year.

My piecee of Jack’s body.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

I am indebted to Sarah Hannant’s invaluable book Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids – a Journey through the English Ritual Year for the information on my local Jack in the Green which takes place around Deptford.  There Jack’s slaughter takes place on May 1st regardless of whether its’s a working day or not. The group are still known as Fowlers Troop and their version took place from roughly 1906 until 1924 when the police stopped it.  Again it was associated with chimney sweeps.  A local photographer of the time, Thankfull Sturdee, (now there’s a name) took photos of the 1906 Jack and his work can be found on the Fowlers Troop website and also in Lewisham Borough photos archives.

Fowlers Troop, Deptford Jack in the Green, 1900’s by Thankfull Sturdee.
Used without permission

I saw it in 2017 and it followed a route through Greenwich which includes several pubs.  Outside each one there was morris dancing and singing and two old sea dogs relating various tall tales.  The Jack is very tall, roughly 3m, decorated with flowers at the top and has to have a guide to lead him forward as it must be difficult to see his way. I followed them through the wet grounds of the former Royal Naval College and enjoyed seeing the looks of amazement on car drivers and casual bystanders faces as we passed by.  Sadly, I missed the killing of Jack as I lost them at the Rose and Crown. Here is a selection of photos from the 2017 Deptford Jack – look at the size of the Jack!

 

A Jack in the Green is an event worth seeing as it’s always very lively and there’s a pub or two involved if that’s what you fancy. It’s a celebration of English culture, albeit slightly watered down these days, and an acknowledgement of the changing of the seasons.

 

So support your local Jack!

There are several Jack in the Greens in the UK:

Brentham, North Ealing, Guildford, Kuntsford, Oxford, Rochester, Whitstable, Bristol, Carshalton, Central London at Conway Hall, City of London, Highworth, Wilts, Ilfracombe, Knutsford, Oxford,,

©Text and photos Carole unless otherwise stated

 References and further reading

 Mummers, Mapypoles and Milkmaids, – A journey through the English ritual year,  Sarah Hannant,  Merrell Publishing, 2011

www.livingmyths.com/Celticyear.htm

http://www.deptford-jack.org.uk/

http://www.hastingsjitg.co.uk/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_in_the_Green

https://www.tripsavvy.com/jack-in-the-green-festival-1662665

http://www.countryfile.com/may-day-guide-history-traditions-events

 

Advertisement

Symbol(s) of the Month – the exuberant 18th century symbols of St George’s churchyard

One of the skulls at base of blank cartouche on one side of large chest tomb, St George’s.
©Carole Tyrrell

It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that  the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment.  And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.

There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard  the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides.  But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well.  Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s.  They are  buried in the vaults beneath the church.  St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from  a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street  especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.

 

However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These  tombstones  are topped with classic memento mori symbols.  This is Latin for ‘remember me.’  They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:

Remember Man as you pass by

As you are now so once was I

As I am now so must you be

Remember man that you must die.’

 

Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do  could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.

 

St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones  are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were  ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’

 

I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols.  There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable.  However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.

 

The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.

 

This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds.  It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield.  All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’

 

The skull and crossbones, a winged hourglass and a set of sexton’s tool on the left hand side.
©Carole Tyrrell

Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it.  This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel.  These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible.  The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard.  In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.

Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a  definite smirk.  On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them.  Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.

 

Somersaulting skulls and hourglass
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other.  Below them is a small worn hourglass.  I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.

 

Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre  ‘Death’s Head.’  This is a human face with wings on either side of it.  I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.

A closer view of the Saxby Angel with what appears to be a faded open book on one side and a stylised flower on the other side.
©Carole Tyrrell

I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones.  However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable.  The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby.  It reads:

 

‘               ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘

 

A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side.  The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.

Crown in clouds with small faces, presumably angels, peeping out from either side.
©Carole Tyrrell

On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown.  It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven.  This verse from the Bible refers to it:

 

James 1:12 New International Version (NIV)

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James%201:12

 

A very plum faced Death’s Head with an open book on one side and a skull and a long bone on the other side.
©Carole Tyrrell

A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.

 

 

 

 

But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay.  He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read.  He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students.  Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.

On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb.  There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity.  There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one.  At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death.  The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region  and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.  It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers.  The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens.  Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity.  In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended.  Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful  motifs of mortality and resurrection.

 

St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable.  It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard.  However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’  18th century symbols.  But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..

 

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated.

References

Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008

St George’s Churchyard, St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, Revised June 2005

St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, information leaflet,, October 2003

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

http://www.catholictradition.org/Saints/signs4.htm

http://www.planetgast.net/symbols/plants/plants.html

https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemetery-symbolism-4123061

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

http://www.graveaddiction.com/symbol.html

 

OLIVE: The olive is a true Biblical tree, a tree ‘full of fatness’ w

Symbol(s) of the Month – The Crown and the Crown of Thorns

Firstly, Happy New Year to my readers and happy symbol spotting!! This month I have two symbols for you to read about.

The Crown

I first saw this symbol during a visit to Beckenham Cemetery.  It’s a  less well-known symbol and stands for victory or truimph over death.  It has, from earliest times,  been a symbol  of leadership, distinction and  royalty.  A variety of saints also wore crowns to indicate  that they were either a martyr or of royal blood.  Also, according to Julian Litten, it  is ‘The Crown of Life’ which is a reward for those who stayed faithful until death.  There are 3 biblical quotes which illustrate this:

James 1:12 New International Version (NIV)

‘Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.’ https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James%201:12

and also Revelation 2 10 and Corinthians 24:27

Interestingly enough, J C Cooper says that it is also ‘an architectural emblem of the celestial world and form the point of exit from this world and entry into the divine.’  So the crown has several interesting connotations.

In the Jewish faith  it’s known as ‘The Crown of Good Name’ which alludes to the deceased as being of ‘exceptionally noble character.’   However, it can also be a representation of the head of the family or of a household.

This eye-catching example comes from Beckenham Cemetery.

Baker memorial, Beckenham Cemetery to a husband and wife. Amelia, who died at 61 and her husband John who died after her at 79. Dates of death are both unreadable ©Carole Tyrrell
Baker memorial, Beckenham Cemetery to a husband and wife. Amelia, who died at 61 and her husband John who died after her at 79. Dates of death are both unreadable
©Carole Tyrrell

 

This example comes from Brompton where it is at the top of a very ornate and beautiful memorial.  This is a radiate crown and, according to J C Cooper, it can represent ‘ the energy and power contained in the head which was regarded as the seat of life-soul, …an attribute of sun gods,….of supernatural people and the points of the crown symbolise the rays of the sun…’ or it may just be an attractive decorative device.

Crown of thorns:

This is a variant on the crown as it is a representation of suffering, passion and martyrdom.  It’s based on the ‘crown plaited  by the soldiers and imposed upon Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate’ according to Julian Litten.  J C Cooper asserts that this was a ’parody of the Roman Emperor’s crown of roses’. The soldiers then mocked Jesus by kneeling in front of him and hailing him as ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ A potent emblem of royalty and power had been turned into one of pain and degradation.  But the crown of thorns is a prelude to Jesus being given a far worthier crown in Heaven. This is confirmed in Hebrews 2:9: “

But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone”

In a famous painting of the executed King Charles 1, the Eikon Basilike, he has abandoned his earthly crown, the symbol of majesty, for the crown of thorns that he is holding in his hand as a representation of his suffering.

 

This is the Eikon Basilike of 1649 in which King Charles 1 is depicted as a Christian mratyr. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Copyright_tags#United_States
This is the Eikon Basilike of 1649 in which King Charles 1 is depicted as a Christian mratyr.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Copyright_tags#United_States

These are both deeply religious symbols and are examples of both the deceased’s faith and also their belief in an everlasting life beyond the grave.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell
References:

http://www.graveaddiction.com/symbol.html

http://www.sztetl.org.pl/en/term/131,funerary-symbolism/

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://metrolondonguides.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/a-glossary-of-victorian-memorial-symbols-2/

http://www.undercliffecemetery.co.uk/undercliffesymbolism.pdf

http://www.lsew.org.uk/funerary-symbolism/ (Julian Litten)

https://www.gotquestions.org/crown-of-thorns.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eikon_Basilike

 

Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978