Last month’s Symbol of the Month was devoted to the ship. It’s a central symbol of Christianity and recently, on a visit to Rochester Cathedral, I found more evidence of this in the medieval graffiti etched on several of its pillars.
They are in the nave of the Cathedral and consist of at least a dozen scratched images of sailing ships. They look almost as if a child has drawn them and you have to look very closely to see them. Th eone above is the only one that I could find easily.
According to the Cathedral’s information board these were often drawn by :
‘…..crew members and sea captains with proximity to an altar, image or shrine dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of those in peril on the sea. At times of trouble on a sea voyage, such as storm, a vow could be made to St Nicholas that, if they survived, a votive offering would be made in thanks, sometimes in the form of a model ship of wax and wood. Some of these models survive in coastal churches today but at Rochester this graffiti is the only surviving trace of this once common tradition.;
It goes onto add:
‘……..All recorded designs are located on the south face of the pillar, (this) may indicate the suspected position of an altar or shrine to St Nicholas in the south nave aisle in the 12th of 13th centuries.’
There is a church dedicated to St Nicholas adjacent to the Cathedral but this is now the offices of the Board of Education of the Diocese of Rochester. According to their website, there was a shrine to the saint within the Cathedral at which people worshipped until the 15th century. It was consecrated on 18 December 1423. The current church dates from the 17th century with 19th century restoration.
So these little ships, symbols of protection, will sail on a sea of stone for as long as the Cathedral stands. Let’s hope that all of the crews and captains, they who go down to the sea in ships, who created them came home safely back to port.
The first Symbol of the Month of 2020 – a little later than I planned but more to come….
There are many sailing vessels in cemeteries. Ships, boats and the occasional yacht, becalmed on headstones or monuments forever sailing on a marble or granite sea. Often they reveal the incumbent’s former occupation as on this fine example on the grave of Captain Edward Parry Nisbet in Brompton Cemetery. Note the cross formed by the mast which is one of the central symbols of Christianity. There’s also the magnificent and exuberant monument to Captain Wimble and his indomitable wife on the appropriately named Ship Path in West Norwood Cemetery.
But this little boat tied up and apparently moored at the base of a large cross is symbolic of a journey that has reached its final destination.
The monument is located within Brompton Cemetery and is a representation of the journey of life. This is a small sculpture of a rowing boat that has been carved to resemble a wooden one and there are seats inside but no oars. It could be interpreted as coming to the end of your life or journey and entering another life of eternity symbolised by the cross. In other words, the crossing to the ‘other world’ as Douglas Keister calls it. Also as www.stoneletters says:
‘…it’s a symbol of our last journey, it embodies the voyage of life, of coming full circle and taking us back to the waters of our beginning.’
However a boat can also be seen as an emblem of safety and refuge as it carries us over life’s often choppy seas and takes us home. In this context, another boat that springs to mind is Noah’s Ark. It protected and saved all that were on it and was a metaphor for the church as it weathered the storm against all odds. However, Keister also suggests that the shape of a boat can resemble that of a cradle or a womb which would again emphasise shelter and protection. It holds us secure above the chaos of life.
Boats and death are a central theme in many other religions and cultures in that they carry the souls of the dead to eternity. For example, King Arthur was transported by boat on death and, most famously, the Vikings people also used funerary boats. This was granted to important people of the tribe as they and their possessions would be sent out across the water in one after it had been set ablaze. A symbolic mimicking of the soul’s journey to Valhalla. Also in Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman who took the souls of the dead by boat into the Underworld by crossing the River of Woe, Acheron.
But boats and death also feature in literature, especially poetry and there is the famous quotation by F Scott Fitzgerald:
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
‘Crossing the Bar’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson also features a sea voyage which will end in death,
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
There is also The Ship of Death by D H Lawrence amongst others.
I said earlier that a boat or ship is an important Christian symbol due to the mast forming a cross. Also, the Latin for ‘nave’ ,the central aisle of a church, means ‘ship’ and there are several Biblical references to boats and ships. After all, Christ told his disciples to “follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.
But let’s not forget that a boat or ship can also indicate a love of sailing and freedom.
Some of the letters on the epitaph beneath the boat and cross have worn away so I can only assume tha the name commemorated is Walter Ward M Cais but it seems incomplete. He died young at only 43 and his widow, Martha, married again and lived well into the 20th century. It must have been a message of comfort that Walter’s small boat was moored safely for eternity.
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.
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.
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.
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,,