Maypoles and "Burying Peter"

Today I stumbled a nice example of the intersection of landscape and archaeology and folk tradition. We visited Nun Monkton, a village a few miles to the north-west of York. It’s a classic medieval village, with the houses arranged around the broad open green, with the church at one end. The green is dominated by a huge maypole that stands over 80’ high at the west end of the green. Maypoles are not an uncommon site in English villages, but this one is a whopper and believed to be the tallest one in England.
Maypoles tend to sit at the ‘twee-er’ end of the folkloric spectrum, and tend to evoke images of Edwardian school children dancing with ribbons attached to the top of the pole. However, this kind of distinctive ribbon dance was an introduction from the Continent in the later 19thcentury. More traditionally, maypoles were focus for seasonal festivities, but often of a more ribald and boozy type, although they were commonly associated with music and dance. They were often dressed or adorned with greenery and boughs, not surprising with a monument so clearly associated with the beginning of May.
As with many maypoles in England, the actual pole itself is not that old- the current maypole only dates to 2004, but its predecessor was erected in 1875, having been shortened in 1975 and the 1920s. Before, this a painting shows a pole in place in the 1840s and there are traditions that it stood there since at least the 1790s. The local village history has lots of information about the festivities around the 1875 erection which involved eight local vicars, a May queen, two river steamers from York and a brass band. As so often with this kind of landmark, it was a focus for hi-jinks with the front gate of the local pub being found on top of it after Mischief Night 1953.
However, it is the earlier history of the location that turns out to be particularly interesting. First, adjacent to the maypole is the sorry-looking remains of a medieval stone cross. It’s not in great condition and little survives but the base. The juxtaposition of the cross and the maypole is certainly significant. Yet, the real interest is a report on a tradition that took place in the village recorded in that stalwart record of folk traditions Notes and Queries (4thApril 1868, 361-2). It describes a tradition known locally as ‘Rising Peter’, which took place on June 29th each year (St Peter’s Day). According to N&Q, on the Saturday before the feast day the villages accompanied by fiddlers and players processed to where the maypole stood. A sycamore tree stood next to it, beneath was buried an rough wooden effigy or statue of St Peter in a wooden coffin (and apparently sometimes dressed in ridiculous clothes) – it was then processed to the nearby pub where it was shown publicly until the first Saturday after the feast where it was taken back to the tree and reburied until the following year. The whole process and the intervening feat period seem to have been associated with the feasting. 
The report notes that the tradition had died out by the time the note had been written (1860s) but had only become moribund in late years. Suggesting that it had been a practice that had survived at least into the early 19th century. Significantly, this means that it must have been at least partly contemporary to the use of the same site for the maypole. 
The curious coincidence of the maypole, the cross and the site of ‘burying Peter’ clearly marked a point of some ritual and customary significance to the local community. Importantly, its position on the village green meant that it was located on common land, and not private property. Often rites and ceremonies related to the affirmation of shared ownership and defining the boundaries of common land focused on processing around the edge of a territory – such as occurred at ‘beating of the bounds’ processions that often took place on rogation days. In this case, the green was a tract of common land over which villages had customary rights of access and use was situated at the heart of the settlement, but a similar kind of processionary tradition seems to  have taken place. Although impossible to date the origin of this tradition, a medieval origin would not be unlikely and the dramatic reconstruction of the ‘death’ and resurrection of a holy statue has clearly parallels to aspects of pre-Reformation dramatic liturgical practice. Although the origin of the maypole may not be quite so early, the spatial link is clear and also there seem to be a temporal connection – the maypole seems to have been danced around not just at May but also on St Peter’s day, and the re-erection of the pole in the 1870s took place on and around this day.
A final interesting note, and something that I only noticed on leaving the parish church, is that the maypole and crossbase lie exactly on the same west-east alignment of the parish church. As you come out of the church door, they are directly in front of you, although a couple of hundred yards away. This can’t be coincidental, and implies some kind of spatial connection between the church and this secondary focus of more ad hoc votive activity.
2nd Edition OS map with maypole and church marked


Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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