May 2009

Talk on the history of Hitchin Church

The talk by Dr Joseph Elders in Hitchin’s St Mary’s Church on 23rd April was exceptionally well-attended; not only did our own members turn out in great number but also, for the first time, we were joined by the Hitchin Society.

Dr Elders, Archaeology Officer of the Church of England, updated us on the origins of St Mary’s after the recent radar survey of the church and other archaeological work in Hitchin. He firstly told us about some Romano-British Christian burials which have been found in Hitchin, an important discovery which shows continuity of Christianity from pre-Saxon times through the Dark Ages here. This, he said, indicates an early church in Hitchin.

Dr Elders also mentioned the will of Aethelgifu, a wealthy Saxon noblewoman who, in the late 900s, left a very detailed will in which she bequeathed money to several local monasteries and for “the Church at Hitchin”. He explained that this reference, plus the Romano-British burials and the radar results, suggests there really was a much older church in Hitchin, and he thinks it likely future archaeological exploration in the church will turn up more solid (in both senses) evidence to confirm it. Our society has already offered to help financially with the project.

Many of you will be aware of the long tradition that King Offa of Mercia founded a Benedictine Monastery in Hitchin in the late 8th century. The first mention of this is in the chronicle compiled in the 13th century by Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey. We do not know his sources and have no idea whether he was copying from an older text, passing on an oral tradition or even being creative regarding the king who supported the St Albans monastery, but the likelihood of a Norman, even a Saxon, building under the present church means it’s possible that St Mary’s does indeed stand on the site of Offa’s religious house. This new archaeological evidence is very exciting in many ways!

Old May News

As there is little to report this month, here’s some old news you may have missed.

William Hone’s The Every Day Book, published in 1825, includes news from Hitchin on 1st May 1823 describing a curious May Day custom.

Between three and four in the morning a large party of townsfolk paraded through the town singing The Mayer’s Song and carrying large branches of May. They fixed these branches in the handles or knockers of the doors of every respectable house in town, the more respectable the house the larger the branch. However, if a servant of the house had offended one of the Mayers a branch of elder and nettles was fixed to the door instead, which was considered a great disgrace. As a result, the servant girls rose early to see what May-branch they’d been given.

Throughout the day, parties of Mayers danced and frolicked in various parts of the town. The writer describes a group which remained in Bancroft, and another in Sun Street, for over an hour, each consisting of two men with faces blacked, one with a birch broom and a large artificial hump on his back, the other dressed as a woman in rags and tatters, with a large straw bonnet and carrying a ladle. These were called “mad Moll and her husband”. Next came two men, one dressed fantastically with ribbons and many gaudy silk handkerchiefs round his arms and legs. He carried a drawn sword in his hand. Leaning on his arm was a youth dressed as a fine lady in white muslin, profusely bedecked from top to toe with bright ribbons. This couple were the “Lord and Lady”. Six or seven more couples followed, dressed much like the Lord and Lady but without swords.

When the group had received a satisfactory contribution at any house, musicians struck up a tune on a violin, clarionet, fife and drum and a merry dance began. “And very well they danced, I assure you”, says the writer, though he was relieved to be assured that all the group were in fact men as women were not permitted to take part.

While the group danced merrily around, mad Moll and her husband amused the crowds with grimaces and clownish tricks. If the onlookers pressed too close mad Moll’s husband went to work with his broom, sweeping the road dust into the faces of the crowd. When onlookers offered pretended affronts (and many did) to his wife he chased them, broom in hand, and if he couldn’t catch them he flung his broom at them. This caused “an abundance of merriment”.

Chambers’ Book of Days records the words of The Mayers Song. It runs to seven verses, and this is just a snippet – the first 2 verses and the last:

Remember us poor Mayers all,
And thus we do begin
To lead our lives in righteousness,
Or else we die in sin

We have been rambling all this night,
And almost all this day,
And now returned back again,
We have brought you a branch of May.

The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day;
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May!

Thanks to the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society of Maryland, USA for making the Book of Days available online, and to Kyle Grimes of the University of Alabama at Birmingham for the same service with William Hone’s Every-Day Book.

Next Society meeting

On Thursday 28th May Terry Knight, one of our founding members, will be taking us Behind the Headlines to talk about 150 years of news at the Hertfordshire Express and its successors. The meeting starts, as usual, at 8pm at Church House and is followed by refreshments.