May Queens

The lovely month of May always makes me think of the crowning of the May Queen in books and poetry. May Queens were very popular in Tudor and Stuart times, but then, for a while, the tradition died out, and it was Alfred, Lord Tennyson who did much to revive it. His poem The May Queen was published in 1855 and was set to music, becoming very popular.

John Ruskin, with his love of all things Medieval, continued the revival of the tradition, with the crowning of the May Queen at Whitelands College in London in 1881. This ceremony continued into the Twentieth Century and was possibly the inspiration for Elsie J Oxenham's May Queens in her Abbey books.

Oxenham, like Ruskin and Rawnsley, loved all things connected with the Arts and Crafts revival. Her books are full of folk dancing, hand made clothing and beautiful, locally made, pottery. Some of her descriptions of the glowing, jewel colours of pottery make my mouth water!

"She wandered round the room, looking at the brown and gold pottery....vases, and candlesticks, bowls, and quaint jars and trays. 'what lovely shapes these are...Oh I love this tall, straight mug, the shading and shape are both beautiful....' It's the next comments that make me think how influenced Oxenham was by Ruskin. Mary, one of her characters, says 'At first I loved the colour in them......but the shapes are growing on me every day. I believe I'm discovering a new thing. I hadn't realised lines meant so much. Look at the curve of that jar.'"

So, it is no surprise that Oxenham adopts the ceremony of the crowning of the May Queen with gusto. Her books are full of descriptions of the Queens, their dresses and retinues, as well as the crowning ceremony itself. Each Queen of the May chooses her own flower and creates a dress to reflect this choice. There are daffodils, wisteria, violets, lavender and wallflowers, to name just a few. As the series stretches to more than 50 titles, Oxenham has to become increasingly inventive with her flower choices. Each May Queen also takes her flower name as her title throughout the remainder of the series, It can all get a bit confusing!

In the first book of the Abbey series - The Girls of the Hamlet Club - the description of the dresses and ceremony, is fairly simple "they had brought a soft white robe, which looked very dainty, but had cost about twopence...Little John brought a great bunch of daffodils, and Maid Marian a wreath laid on a cushion" but by the later books the descriptions become more fulsome and the clothing more glorious. In Two Queens at the Abbey there are twin Queens - Buttercup and Daisy - as well as many former Queens returning for the ceremony:

"Phyllida in her train of glowing chestnut with its bright gold lining...Tessa followed in her beautiful lupin robe of lemon yellow, with its long spikes of every colour of lupins stretching from the corners... Jansy in her lobelia blue came next, then the Marigold Queen, her brilliant orange train held carefully by Diana…" 

And so it goes on. Dozens of May Queens from all of the books, all in gorgeous, colourful robes. Oxenham really lets herself go with her descriptions of the May Queens.

I think I'll continue to look for descriptions of the May Queen crowning ceremonies in books and poetry, and the celebration of what is probably one of the loveliest months of the year.