Quills, maypoles, and intolerant curates

St Andrew and Gherkin
St Andrew Undershaft in the shadow of the Gherkin

Yesterday saw the Changing of the Quill ceremony at St Andrew Undershaft Church in St Mary Axe, and more of that shortly. The derivation of the name St Mary Axe has been dealt with in an earlier post, so this post will explain how Undershaft got its name.

John Stow 2
The effigy of John Stow with its new quill

First, back to yesterday’s ceremony, part of the John Stow Memorial Service. There is a bust of Stow in the church, part of a monument erected there by his wife Elizabeth; the couple were regular worshippers at the church. Every three years there is a changing of the pen ceremony, central to the John Stow Commemoration Service. The old pen is removed from Stow’s stone hand and a new one presented to the Lord Mayor of London who then places it in the effigy’s hand. (This event, formerly an annual event, is organized by the Merchant Taylors, of which Stow was one, and LAMAS, the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society.) EAS_4139Back to the derivation of the name Undershaft. The simple explanation is that it takes its name from the church of St Andrew Undershaft, but that’s too simple, and is begging the question. The name from the church itself came from a huge maypole that once stood in front of the church, so tall that it rose above the tower. A maypole was the centre of many of the May Day celebrations – a carry-over from ancient festivities of nature worship. People would dance around the maypoles, elect May Queens, and carry on other activities that were generally fun and harmless – until 1517. EAS_4136By that time, there had been a growing resentment among London apprentices at the number of foreigners in the city. On May Day 1517 – Evil May Day – this resentment erupted in rioting at the St Andrew Undershaft maypole. The rioting spread and the pole was pulled down; though never re-erected, it was stored along the houses in nearby Shaft Alley and remained there for over 30 years. A local clergyman then decided to preach a sermon denouncing the maypole as a heathen object; Stow himself reported on how the householders, who had so long lived with the pole over their doorways, reacted. “I heard his sermon at Paules cross, and I saw the effect that followed; for in the afternoon of that present Sunday, the neighbours and tenants to the said bridge, over whose doors the said shaft had lain, after they had well dined, to make themselves strong, gathered more help, and with great labour raising the shaft from the hooks, whereon it had rested two-and-thirty years, they sawed it in pieces, every man taking for his share so much as had lain over his door and stall, the length of his house; and they of the alley divided among them so much as had lain over their alley gate. Thus was this idol (as he poor man termed it) mangled, and after burned.” Incidentally, the clergyman was a certain Sir Stephen, curate of St Katherine Christ’s church, who was, said Walter Thornbury, another wonderful London historian, “considerably intolerant”. In reaction against heathen practices, by which Sir Stephen meant also Catholicism, he advise “all men to alter the Popish names of churches and the names of the days of the week, to eat fish any day but Friday and Saturday, and to keep Lent any time but between Shrovetide and Easter”. The fun had more or less gone out of May Day celebrations after 1517, and then the Puritans banned them completely anyway. They were reinstated after the Restoration of Charles II; in a memo to the king from the Duke of Newcastle, it was suggested that maypoles and their related festivities would “amuse the people’s thoughts and keep them in harmless actions which will free your majesty from faction and rebellion”.

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4 thoughts on “Quills, maypoles, and intolerant curates

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