May Queens

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An accepted part of the modern May celebrations in many towns and villages; the usual pattern being a procession, crowning ceremony, and some sort of parade, as one constituent part of the sports, displays, and stalls of a local fête. While not entirely invented from scratch, the modern May Queen is an example of the Victorian Merrie England style of reinvented tradition which completely transformed the custom while keeping only a tenuous link with previous practice. Many earlier customs had had a man and woman who, with their entourage of officers, were elected to preside over the celebrations, and were treated with some degree of respect, although often in a jocular way. The more common title for this couple was ‘Lord and Lady’, although occasionally they are reported as ‘King and Queen’. They appear regularly at Whitsun ales and in children's garlanding customs (see May Day, children's garlanding). In earlier versions of the latter, the Lord and Lady were chosen by the children themselves, but as the school and vicarage took over control of the custom, the choice also passed increasingly into adult hands. In the new May Day constructed by Victorian reformers, the figure of the May Queen was given more prominence, and finally raised to be the central character. The process was helped by Tennyson's immensely popular poem ‘The May Queen’, published in 1832, which, although it gave no details of the custom, focused attention on the female character, and by the 1870s and 1880s new May Queen festivals were becoming well established and being described as the ‘old traditional’ way of celebrating May. Well-known examples were at Knutsford (Cheshire) and, following the ideas of John Ruskin, at Whitelands College, Chelsea.


Roy Judge, ‘Fact and Fancy in Tennyson's “May Queen” and in Flora Thompson's “May Day”, in Buckland and Wood, 1993: 167–83;Judge, 1987; Malcolm Cole, Whitelands College May Queen Festival (1981);Revd W. Dallow, ‘May Queens’, Strand Magazine (May 1892), 484–8.

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