1:38pm Wednesday 29th April 2009
By Chris Koenig
Could May morning singing from the top of Magdalen College Tower date right back to 1509, or 500 years ago tomorrow? Possibly. Benefactor of the college King Henry VII died on April 21 that year and May 1 could have been chosen as the day to commemorate him — perhaps combining the Christian Requiem Mass with a much earlier Pagan custom of welcoming in the Spring.
Certainly historian John Pointer wrote in Oxoniensis Academia in 1749: “Another remarkable tradition is having a Concert of Music upon the Top of the Tower, every May Day, at four o’clock in the morning, in commemoration of King Henry VII the Founder of the Tower, being at first a Mass of Requiem, or mass sung for the Rest of his Soul.”
But the truth is that no one knows exactly how, or why, or even when the custom started.
In the 16th and 17th centuries several colleges celebrated May morning, with New College even putting on a rival singing performance from the top of its tower — though historian Anthony a Wood noted that this ceremony was stopped: “because Magdalen College men and the rabble of the towns came on May Day to their disturbance.”
He went on to describe how after the New College singing, a crowd of people would form a procession to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the Cowley Road “with their lords and ladyes, garland, fifes, flutes and drumms to salute the great goddess Flora and to attribute to her all prais with dancing and music”.
Garlands still feature in the unique Oxfordshire May Day goings-on at Charlton-on-Otmoor.
Here an evergreen garland, made in the shape of a cross that manages also to resemble a woman, is put on top of the beautiful rood screen (the best in the county according to Pevsner) in the church of the Virgin Mary — and then kept there until the feast of the Virgin on September 19, when it is replaced.
On May Day the children of the village carry the garland, sometimes called the ‘lady’, into the church.
In her book May Day to Mummers: Folklore and Traditional Customs in Oxfordshire (Wychwood Press, 2002) Christine Bloxham wrote that the woman who “dressed” the garland in 1980 “talked about giving the lady a waist and putting buttons of wild flowers down her bodice”.
A theory about the Otmoor lady is that she replaces, like a sort of ghost, a statue of the Virgin that stood on the rood screen until the Reformation.
Garlands, flowers, and music of sorts also formed an important part of Oxford’s May Day revelries for several centuries.
Until the early 20th, girls made garlands, or crosses, of flowers.
They carried them round the city begging for money before depositing them in churches.
The boys, meanwhile, set up a din by blowing cow’s horns or hollow canes.
In Shepilinda’s Memoirs of the City and University of Oxford, written in 1737, a particularly colourful explantation for this practice is recorded: “The tradition of this is, that once upon a time the tradesmen of this City went all out a gathering May in a morning, in which time their wives made them all cuckolds.”
In any case, even 100 years ago there would have been much playing of tin pipes and penny whistles on May morning, and there was also a procession through Oxford of the brewers’ dray horses and carts.
© Copyright 2001-2013 Newsquest Media Group