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Episode 106: Midsummer in Tudor England

Episode 106 is all about celebrating the longest days of the year for our Tudor friends. The days are longer, the sun is higher in the sky, and the seeds are sown. Now it’s time to build a bonfire, and party! How did the Tudors party on June 21? Listen to the episode above, or read the transcript.

(Remember, if you like this show on Tudor Astronomy, there are two main ways you can support the podcast. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can get Tudor swag at the TudorFair.com where there are mugs, clothes, shoes, bags, and lots of fun products inspired by Tudor history!)

Book Recommendations:
(these are Amazon affiliate links – you pay the same price, and the podcast gets a small commission. Hooray!)

Alison Sim, Pastimes and Pleasures in Tudor England
Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, a History of the Ritual Year in Britain


I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine. Shakespeare – Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 106, celebrating the Summer Solstice.

But first, I need to thank my patrons who help keep this show independent. I have amazing patrons – thank you to Elizabeth, Kathy, Cynthia, Juergen. Also Jeneane, Sarah, Megan, Lady Anne – Jessica – Olivia, Al, Ashleigh, Kendra, Cynthia, Judith. Melissa, Katherine, Katie, Berta, Renee, Maura, Emily, Celayne, Laura, Ian, Barbara, Char, Keeva, Amy, Allison, Joanne, Kathy, Kristine, Annetta, Kandace, John, Susan, Andrea, Katherine, Rebecca from Tudors Dynasty, Sandor, Philip.  Thank you, you guys. If you want to be part of this group of very intelligent people with exceptional taste, please go to patreon.com/englandcast to sign up.

The Agora Podcaster of the Month is Travis and Pete from the Podcastnik group of shows – they do the History of Alchemy and History of Germany among others – check them out at Podcastnik.com.

One final thing – if you like treats – and who doesn’t, really, I invite you to check out the Treasures from Bess Subscription Box that I’ve recently launched. It’s a monthly box filled with Tudor treats like books, jewelry, and special spa-like items, all inspired by Tudor history. $39.99/month including free shipping in the continental US. Check out TreasuresfromBess.com for more information, to see sample boxes, and learn more.

So now, as I record this, it is June 20. Summer solstice. The longest day of the year if you’re in the Northern hemisphere. The shortest if you’re in the southern Hemisphere. Today the sun reaches is most northern point in sky, rising high in the northeast and setting in the most northwest spot. And obviously that’s opposite if you’re in Australia.

The word solstice comes from the Latin sol -for sun – and sistere – for standing still.  People all the way back to ancient times celebrated this day, in varied ways. In very early Britain, people made circles like Stonehenge. “The Stonehenge we see today is aligned on the midwinter setting sun and the midsummer sunrise.”

And we know that the seasons ruled everything for our Tudors. In an age when the cyclical nature of the seasons dictated every aspect of life, celebrating the summer solstice was an important part of the year. It was the time when the seeds were sown, and the harvest was growing. From now on, we look forward to the shorter days, to the harvest, and eventually to Yule, and the winter solstice where the whole thing begins again.  But how did the Tudors celebrate this period?

Celebrating midsummer was an important part of pagan worship. One of the smartest things the Christians did early on – whether you agree with it or not you can’t argue that it wasn’t clever – was to take pagan holidays and appropriate them for themselves. They often even kept the original names, such as in the case of Easter, which comes from the name of the Germanic goddess Ostara, who was a fertility goddess celebrated at the spring equinox.

But let’s move on to the summer solstice. The early Christians named June 24 as the feast day for St. John the Baptist, so by the time of the Tudors, there was a mix of pagan and Christian celebrations going on that lasted for several days.

The thing was, though, that throughout the 16th century as the Protestant Reformation took hold, people began to see these festivals as papist, and began to outlaw them. But midsummer was just one of the many summertime festivals starting with Corpus Christi, which took place on the thursday after the eighth sunday after Easter. There were processions, with people competing to see who could create the best floats and processions. The Pope  had proclaimed the Corpus Christi celebration as an official church festival in 13176 in order to remind Christians of the holy nature of the Eucharist. But that proclamation meant that the holiday wouldn’t survive the Reformation.

Still, while it was allowed, the procession was a chance for different parishes to show off their civic pride. In York the host, which was silver and crystal, was carried under a tent to protect it from the rain. In Coventry they made crosses and banners to carry, and the banners were made of silk and velvet embroidered with golden thread. In London, the Skinners’ Company was the largest procession with over 200 clergy.

During the 16th century there were also plays to celebrate Corpus Christi, on themes from the Bible. In some places they might have just one play, but in others, like Coventry, there was an entire cycle of plays. In York the cycle had fifty two plays, and would have taken over 21 hours for all of them to have been performed.

These plays, like the festival, were abolished by the 1570’s.

Then came midsummer, which is what we are celebrating today. The Christians had made it the feast of St. John the Baptist, but the main festivities were pagan in nature. It was a time for bonfires, especially. Some have speculated that the bonfires were seen as medicinal – clearing the air from plague as people did know that bad air was related to sickness, though they didn’t know about germs of course.

John Stow’s Survey of London talks about the bonfires – after they had already been abolished as being papist. He writes:
“In the months of june and July, on the vigils of festival days, and on the same festival days in the evenings after the sunsetting, there were usually made bonfires in the streets, every man bestowing wood or labor towards them; the wealthier sort also, before their doors near to the said bonfires, would set out tables on the vigils, furnished with sweet bread and good drinks and on the festival days with meats and drinks plentifulls, whereunto they would invite their neighbours and passengers also to sit and be merry with them in great familiarity…”

The word bonfire actually comes from the other activity people would participate in – throwing old bones into the fire for good luck, believing it could scare off dragons. One 15th century monk was against the bones saying it made the bonfire stink. Bonfire literally means fire with bones as fuel. Many people believed that the flames would lure the sun to stay in the sky longer.

John Stow explains a different meaning of ‘bonfire’ thus (bonus=good in Latin):

‘These were called Bone-fires, as well of amity amongst neighbours, that being before at controversie, were there by the labour of others reconciled, and made of bitter enemies, loving friends’.

In some towns in the 16th century they also marked midsummer by marching watches. In London about 4,000 people took part with morris dancers and pageants. People on stilts, and hobby horses would be part of these processions as well. Hobby horses originated in the middle ages for jousting practice, and by the 16th century they were thought to bring good luck to a festival. In 1521 the procession included a pageant on Pluto with a huge serpent that would spit fireballs into the crowd. The marches were not seen as religious themselves, though they would sometimes include religious themes.

But even more than religious, you could see the pagan in them. Like I said, the one festival had a pageant on pluto, but there were others with even more obvious mythological themes. In 1521 the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London had give pageants: The Castle of War, the Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and the aforementioned Pluto. There were also naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays made the processions even more noisy. In 1541 the Drapers’ Guild procession included a dragon burned in aqua vitae – unrefined alcohol.

(Remember, if you like this show on Tudor Astronomy, there are two main ways you can support the podcast. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can get Tudor swag at the TudorFair.com where there are mugs, clothes, shoes, bags, and lots of fun products inspired by Tudor history!)

Since they weren’t meant to be religious, they could have continued on their own throughout the century, but the authorities began to mistrust them. Riots could break out easily, and with all of the political strife, people were worried about things escalating. In 1539 Henry VIII banned the London midsummer watch, saying he wanted to save money. In 1548 the Lord Protector Somerset brought it back to help compensate for the fact that he had just banned the Corpus Christi celebrations. In other cities they did continue with these marching processions, but they finally died out by the mid 17th century.

As Stow said, fire was a big part of the midsummer celebrations. One of the most popular things was to have a fire wheel. A wheel from a cart would be packed with straw, lit, and someone would roll it down a hill. If it made it the whole way down while not being extinguished, it would foretell a good harvest. This was a clearly pagan celebration – in pagan times the wheel was seen as a symbol of the sun.

While Henry VIII had tried to have some of these celebrations ended, Elizabeth was a fan of the summer ones. She tried to have the Lord Mayor of London revive the midsummer watch, but the city made excuses. It’s likely that the event was expensive and difficult to organize, and so no one involved in it really missed it that much.

Besides marching and setting things on fire, people also decorated their homes with flowers. As fire was seen to represent the sun, the flowers symbolized the earth, and fertility. You would decorate your home with circular wreaths, symbolizing the cyclical nature of the seasons. The flowers would be red, yellow, or orange, the colors that represented the sun.

John Stow, a seventeenth century writer, remembered green birch being hung on all the local signposts. He wrote:

“Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers.”

These plants had powers associated with their religious symbolism. For example, the protective plant trefoil. Its three-part leaves symbolized the the Holy Trinity. The white lilies Stow wrote about derived their power from their association with the Virgin Mary — they are still called Madonna lilies. St. John’s Wort was used at this time with the festival of St. John, and was believed to have magical power. Its leaves had red sprinkles, symbolizing the blood of St. John, who was martyred. At midsummer you would make wreaths of St. John’s Wort, and put them on the horns of cattle, and their pens and sheds. Fern spores collected at midsummer were believed to give miraculous power and could even make you invisible. Also, all herbs collected at midsummer were believed to be extra potent, so it was a popular time to make medicines and potions.

People believed that witches and fairies were overly active at Midsummer, and so began their celebrations on the sunset prior to the day itself. The hours between dusk and dawn are closer to the underworld, and a time when magical activity is at its peak. People belived this was when witches harvested their plants, and if you read William Shakespeare in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” you’ll see how people believed this magical activity was heightened at this time.

Of course if you’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you’ll know who Puck is – “the oldest of the Old Things” due to his depiction in folklore. Puca, was the term used on the British Isles for the Pagan Sun deity also known as the Stag King. The Puca was a respected yet vengeful fairy creature. “Puca evolved into a medieval term for the Devil. Yet, Puca also had a mischievous side in English folklore and was known as Robin Goodfellow. An expression for being lost is “Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight.” Reference to this quote are recorded in Tudor manuscripts as early as 1531.” Shakespeare even introduces Puck as Robin in Act 2 Scene 1.

Hunter S Jones writes, “Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms.”

Jones continues, “Divinations for love, prosperity and health were practiced throughout the island. However, for some people, the importance of midsummer festivities wasn’t about magic, it was about community. Tudor England also viewed Midsummer as a chance for Christian charity, for merry making, and for neighbors to make amends. It was a holiday celebrated much as we celebrate today on New Year’s Eve. It was a time for the fulfillment of wishes and desires, and the beginning of new dreams.”

Rich people would provide cakes and tubs of ale for their local poor in their town or village, or feast their friends and ‘more civil poor neighbours’, as one rich man did in Long Melford in Suffolk. Sometimes money was left as a bequest for this purpose. Thus Midsummer was a chance for Christian charity, for socialising, and for neighbours at odds to make up.

So I’m going to leave it there for this week – The book recommendations are Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England by Alison Sim. There’s also The Stations of the Sun –A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton

There are links on the website at Englandcast.com.

And you can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. 

(Remember, if you like this show on Tudor Astronomy, there are two main ways you can support the podcast. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can get Tudor swag at the TudorFair.com where there are mugs, clothes, shoes, bags, and lots of fun products inspired by Tudor history!)