May Day Mirth

May Dancing

This morning I was told how the people of Deal have set up two or three Maypoles, and have hung up their flags upon the top of them, and do resolve to be very merry to-day. It being very pleasant I wished myself in Hyde Park.

May-Day, 1660

Dress up, dance, eat and Kiss, then repeat until giddy. That’s the May Day that jumps out of the sources at us. Pepys’ enthusiasm for the celebration of May Day out in the open, is testament to the place that this ancient festival and Holy day held in the life of the English people in the Seventeenth Century. King Charles’ return from exile was imminent, and the people found their way to celebrate by openly embracing the ancient traditions that the puritan governments of the last decade had tried to quell. In reality much of the ritual year continued to be celebrated in village greens and towns across the land, despite the laws forbidding it, but not everywhere and not to the extent of before. Now the shackles were off, and happily they coincided with one of the favourite holidays (Holy Days). Here’s a ballad that sums it up:


May Day Country mirth

Joan to the Maypole away let’s run,
The time is swift and will be gone,
There go the Lasses away to the Green,
Where their Beauties may be seen:
Nan, Noll, Kate and Moll.
Brave Lasses have Lads to attend ‘um,
Hodge, Nick, Tom, Dick,
Brave Dancers, who can amend ‘um?
Did you not see the Lord of the May,
Walk along in his rich array;
There goes the Lass that is only his,
See how they meet and how they kiss.
Come Will, run Gill,
Or dost thou list to lose thy labour?
Kit Crowd, scrape aloud,
Tickle her Tom, with a Pipe and Tabor.

But we when we Dance, and do happen to sweat,
Have a Napkin in Hand for to wipe off the wet,
And we with our Dories do Iig it about,
Not like the Court which often are out;
If the Tabor do play, we thumps it away,
And turn and meet our Lasses to Kiss ’em;
Nay they will be as ready as we,
That hardly at any time can miss ’em.

And if we hold on as we begin,
Joan thee and I the Garland shall win:
Nay, if thou live till another day,
I’ll make thee Lady of the May;
Dance about, in and out,
Turn and kiss, and then for-greeting;
Now Joan we have done,
Fare thee well till the next merry meeting.


Without a doubt, my favourite line is:

But we when we Dance, and do happen to sweat,
Have a Napkin in Hand for to wipe off the wet,

You can just imagine the Yeomanry and labourers letting loose on May day, dancing until the sweat poured, late into the warm Spring night. May Day traditionally marked last day of sowing seed in the fields and the country folk of early modern England worked hard, mercilessly so at times, but they played hard as well.


The countryside wasn’t the only place that celebrated the traditional festivals. Pepys mentions his regret at not being at Hyde Park on May-Day, a regret he repeats in his diary the following year. Londoners would descend on the park on 1 May in their very finest to celebrate the occasion. Pepys finally manges to show off in the park in 1663, but as ever with Pepys it descends somewhat into farce, as reality fails to live up to his own pomposity. After an odd episode with a stolen horse, he swap his horse for a finer one only to be shown up by the Kings riders, performing the 17th Century equivalent of motorbike wheelies, and then to his distaste fails to see anyone of note:

…towards Hide Park, whither all the world, I think, are going, and in my going, almost thither, met W. Howe coming galloping upon a little crop black nag; it seems one that was taken in some ground of my Lord’s, by some mischance being left by his master, a thief; this horse being found with black cloth ears on, and a false mayne, having none of his own; and I back again with him to the Chequer, at Charing Cross, and there put up my own dull jade, and by his advice saddled a delicate stone-horse of Captain Ferrers’s, and with that rid in state to the Park, where none better mounted than I almost, but being in a throng of horses, seeing the King’s riders showing tricks with their managed horses, which were very strange, my stone-horse was very troublesome, and begun to, fight with other horses, to the dangering him and myself, and with much ado I got out, and kept myself out of harm’s way. Here I saw nothing good, neither the King, nor my Lady Castlemaine, nor any great ladies or beauties being there, there being more pleasure a great deal at an ordinary day; or else those few good faces that there were choked up with the many bad ones, there being people of all sorts in coaches there, to some thousands, I think. Going thither in the highway, just by the Park gate, I met a boy in a sculler boat, carried by a dozen people at least, rowing as hard as he could drive, it seems upon some wager.

1 May 1663

Quotes from Pepys taken from


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