A Potted History

Castleton Garland - a potted history by Frank Parker

The origins of Castleton Garland Day are lost in the mists of time, but one thing's certain - today's colourful traditional ceremony that delights locals and visitors alike was never seen in the days of Charles II! But that doesn't mean that Garland Day doesn't have ancient roots. It just means that like all traditions, this one has had to change in order to survive and remain relevant. And there have been quite a few changes since the earliest first hand description of the ceremony which goes back to the reign of William IV and the 1830s.

It came from an 86 year old Castleton resident who was interviewed in 1901 and remembered that the village woodwind band used to provide the music before brass instruments were introduced, sometime after the 1840s. Otherwise not much had changed, apart from the dancing and the king's costume, which only gets revealed when the beehive shaped garland (which he wears over his head as he rides through the village) is hoisted to the top of the church tower.

It used to be an old coachman's great-coat, but had recently been improved to reflect the popular belief that the ceremony was in honour of Charles II. But the consort, or lady who accompanied the king and was played by a man, still wore an old cape and a veil - and was prone to act the fool.

The pair of them, mounted on horseback, led the parade which stopped outside each of the village's 7 pubs whilst the band played, the dancers danced and everyone had a drink. The dancing was described as morris (a term which had a broader meaning than modern usage), and it was the bell ringers, who also organised the Garland Ceremony, who danced.

This changed in 1897, the year of Victoria's diamond jubilee. Throughout the land, towns and villages marked the occasion with children's pageants, inspired by the Merry England movement, and, no doubt, with this in mind, the Castleton bell ringers allowed the dancing to be done by girls from the village school. The change must have been popular because it was made permanent. But attempts to introduce additional pageantry into the parade were short lived. In the early years of the 20th century one of the village pubs closed, but maypole dancing and the ceremony at the War Memorial became part of the tradition.

In the 1950s, when the old consort retired and they couldn't find a man to replace him, the chairman of the Garland Committee persuaded his daughter to take on the role – and so the consort changed from being a veiled jester to become a fine lady of Charles' royal court.

The most recent alterations to the tradition have been to allow boys to dance, and to widen the catchment area to include other schools in the Hope Valley.

So there's solid evidence from the last 170 years of how the tradition has bent and flexed to accommodate the winds of change. But it's still a colourful and unique celebration of King and Country. A blend of pageantry, spectacle, folklore, nature and community. But although it's precise origins are lost in antiquity, we do know enough to make some educated guesses.

The May 29th holiday was indeed granted by parliament in 1660 to celebrate the restoration of the monarchy, and it marked the end of the puritan clampdown on merrymaking. Before Cromwell, May day was celebrated with garlands of wild flowers brought into church in praise of God. These customs were Christian adaptations of pagan rituals, and in Castleton, there could well have been an unbroken tradition from pre-historic times until the puritans stopped it. When the monarchy was restored, the people were quick to re-establish the old traditions, and some of the springtime ones were moved to Restoration Day, presumably because the weather was better.

Diarists such as Samuel Pepys tell us that in London the holiday was only marked by a special morning church service and evening bonfires - and both of these petered out as the tax-paying public increasingly resented Charles's ever more expensive lifestyle. So there's no evidence that anything like the Castleton Garland Ceremony took place during his lifetime. Nor during the first half of the 18th century when the Jacobites were plotting against George I and II.

The Restoration Day message, of celebrating the return of Charles II (a Stuart) to the throne was used as cover for support of the Jacobite cause. They wanted to overthrow George in favour of another Stuart, Charles's nephew James, (known as the Old Pretender,) which was tantamount to treason. So it would have been impossible for Castleton to salute Charles on Restoration Day, without appearing to be in favour of James, which we know it wasn't because in 1745 it rang a celebratory peel of bells to mark the retreat from Derby of a Jacobite army.

We know about this peel because it's mentioned in the churchwardens' accounts – or rather in the copy of them that appears in J B Robinson's Derbyshire Gatherings. Alas, the original account book has been lost, so we only have the author's edited version, and the item that gets the most attention is a reference to a payment in 1749 for an “iron rod to hang the ringers garland on”. So, there was some kind of garlanding ceremony back then, but whether it was on May 1st , 29th or some other date is unknown.

In 1760, George III came to the throne. By now the Jacobite threat had passed and the Restoration Day message was no longer equivocal. It had become a celebration of the monarchy, both the current one and a rose tinted version of a long dead, larger than life, merry monarch. Even the oak, the tree which symbolised Charles II's escape during the civil war but had also been hijacked by the Jacobites, was now seen as an unambiguous symbol of monarchy. And on May 29th it became popular for people to wear sprigs of oak in their lapels, or decorate the outside of their houses with branches of it .

Decking buildings in this way with different woods was nothing new. One of these ancient springtime customs was believed to protect the property from evil. Another simply allowed the perpetrator to return later and get a reward for removing the greenery. But to display oak was more like flying a flag. So by putting oak branches on top of the church tower, which was the tallest structure in the village, the ringers were showing their true colours big time, and for the reasons mentioned earlier, this couldn't have happened during the Jacobite period when it would have been interpreted as support for the Stuart Pretender.

So far there's been scant mention of Castleton's unique beehive shaped garland which covers the Garland King down to his waist. And that's because historians believe it's a type of Jack-in-the-Green which wasn't developed until the end of the 18th century, so the iron rod that was purchased in 1749 must have been for a traditionally shaped garland. A Jack-in-the-Green isn't related to the green man who appears in medieval stained glass windows, but was born out of civic May Day parades, in which City Guilds and tradesmen used their garlands like floats in a carnival parade. The most eye-catching ones would naturally attract the most coins from appreciative householders and spectators.

By the middle of the 18th century, the milkmaids were the ones to beat because they made their garlands of flowers and greenery wrapped around the shiny pails that they carried on their heads. Then the chimney sweeps' apprentices enhanced the idea, and before long the foliage of their garlands was completely enveloping the garland carriers.

Roy Judge's book The Jack-in-the-Green, has descriptions and pictures showing this development during the late 18th century.

So if Castleton's May Day parade consisted of different groups competing to have the most novel garland, it could well have been that the bell ringers saw what was happening and made their floral tribute in the shape of a bell which their leader wore over his head.

Now, as well as garlands, there were other spring time traditions, and one was known as a Robin Hood Game or a Lord of Misrule. For just one day each year the social pecking order was upturned and the village would vote for one of their number to be king for a day of topsy-turvy mayhem which inevitably finished up with the Lord and his sidekicks leading his subjects on a village pub crawl.

And so by the start of the 19th century it's thought that all these different traditions had been combined into ceremonies that took place on May 29th, and Castleton wasn't alone in such celebrations. At about this time the holiday got the nickname Oak apple Day or Royal Oak Day and the school-boy practice of nettling those who weren't wearing a sprig of oak took off.

By the 1830s, urban middle class opinion was turning against this sort of raucous behaviour, and it eventually spawned the Merry England movement which harkened back to a sanitised view of white-smocked happy children dancing round Maypoles in a Tudor rural idyll.

As the Victorian era progressed most other villages and towns dropped their Oak Apple Day festivities, a move that was accelerated when the day ceased to be a public holiday.

By 1900, Castleton's ceremony had become an anachronism, which is why S O Addy, of the Folklore Society came here to witness the event before it inevitably disappeared.

And it was he who recorded the memories of 86 year old Samuel Marrison to which we referred at the beginning.

Frank Parker (April 2016)