The term ‘Whitsun ale’ is somewhat ambiguous, being used in both a general and specific way. The ‘ale’ part signifies a festival or celebration; originally one in which ale was specially brewed and sold by the organizer for profit, and from the 15th and 16th centuries church ales were regularly held to raise money for repair and upkeep of the parish church. Ales could also be held for other purposes, and could be at any time of year, but Whitsun was a favoured time as being already a holiday and a time when the weather was normally improving. Ales included the whole range of popular activities—food, drink, sports and games, music, and dancing—and as the Church authorities gradually turned against, first, clerical involvement in the celebrations, and later the festivities themselves, there was an inexorable move towards the establishment of church rates as a more reliable and respectable method of ecclesiastical funding, and church ales slowly disappeared from the scene, to be completely suppressed by the Puritans in the 1640s. After the Restoration, the Church was content to leave matters as they stood, but others sought to revive the ales, for a combination of profit and community goodwill, usually with the agreement or support of the local landowners or gentry, and again many of these were held at Whitsun. The post-Reformation ales retained some of the features of their predecessors, in particular the semi-formal ceremonial aspects of electing a Lord and Lady, a Fool, and other office-holders to organize and preside over the event. A greenery bower, and morris dancers were also prominent features.
The following account summarizes the mock solemnity and humour of a Whitsun ale at Woodstock, Oxfordshire:The Woodstock Whitsun Ale was held every seven years; it began on Holy Thursday, and was carried on the whole of Whitsun week … The day before Holy Thursday the maypole was set up, provided by the Duke of Marlborough, which remained up for the rest of the feast. It was a bare pole ornamented with ribbons and flowers. Near it was as drinking booth, and opposite this a shed some fifty feet long with benches round the sides, decorated with evergreens, also provided by the Duke, known as ‘The Bowery’. A ‘Lord’ and a ‘Lady’ were chosen, who were attended by a ‘waiting-man’ and ‘waiting-maid’. Both ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ carried ‘maces’, which were short sticks stuck into small squares of board; from the four corners of which semicircular hoops crossed diagonally, the whole being covered with ribbons. The lord and lady were also attended by two men carrying a painted wooden horse, to which was fastened two stout poles that stuck out in front and behind. This was followed by a band of morris dancers. The procession would then go round the town, the ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’ carrying in the centre of their maces a small cake like the modern Banbury cake, called the ‘Whit cake’, and these were offered to people to taste in return for a small payment. A man carrying a basket of these cakes for sale also followed. In front of the ‘Bowery’ was hung up an owl and a hawk in cages, and two threshing flails, which went by the names of ‘The Lady's Parrot’ and ‘The Lady's Nut-crackers’. Anyone who misnamed them (i.e. called them by their real names) had to forfeit a shilling, or else be carried behind the lady, shoulder high on the wooden horse, round the may pole. If they still refused to pay the forfeit, their hats were taken in lieu of payment. Many University men would come over from Oxford to ride the wooden horse for the fun of the thing, and frequent fights took place between them and the morrice-dancers, when they would not pay forfeit … (Folk-Lore 14 (1903), 171–5)