A prime example of a custom which originally had a logical practical purpose but which was turned into an elaborate occasion by tradition and which continues in isolated places long after the original raison d'être is gone. When churches had earth floors, or even cold stone floors, it was the custom to make the building more habitable by laying a thick layer of rushes (or hay or straw) on the floor. It was not only rural parishes that had rushes, as the churchwarden's accounts for St Mary-at-Hill, London, for example, includes a payment of 3d. in 1493 ‘For three burdens of rushes for new pews’. These rushes were renewed periodically, and the process of bringing in the new supply was what became expanded in many places into the elaborate rushbearing custom, particularly in the north-western counties of England. The date for rushbearing varied, but was often during the local wakes week if in the right season.
Rushbearing was one of the pastimes specifically permitted on Sundays by order of King James I's Book of Sports (1618), in terms which indicate that it was already more than simply a practical exercise to keep the feet warm in church: ‘… and that women shall have leave to carry rushes to the church for the decoring of it, according to their old custom’.
The usual method of bringing in the rushes involved them being piled high on a waggon highly decorated with flowers and ribbons. Illustrations of the custom often show the rushes built into elaborate shapes. The waggon was accompanied by morris dancers, and people carrying garlands (which could be hung in the church afterwards); the procession would often go round the whole parish before ending up at the church. As wooden floors became more common, rushbearing lost its purpose, and in most places gradually faded away. A few have proved more tenacious and have the custom still, while others have revived it in recent years (see Grasmere, Ambleside).
Alfred Burton, Rushbearing (1891);Hole, 1975: 85–8;Kightly, 1986: 199–201;E. F. Rawnsley, The Rushbearing in Grasmere and Ambleside (1953);Brears, 1989: 178–203;Linda Fletcher, Folk Life 36 (1997/98), 66–71.