Little slices of London's history

May Day celebrations, riots, and Puritans

EAS_4139As it is May Day (also known as International Workers’ Day) today, it’s a good time to revisit Undershaft (which does happen to be close to, if not on, the route for the Moonwalk London 2014). Yes, this single-named street takes its name from the church of St Andrew Undershaft, but why Undershaft?

St Thomas Undershaft in the shadow of the Gherkin

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 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.

By 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.

Our favourite London historian John Stow 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.”

Stow quill
John Stow’s quill

Stow himself has a strong connection with the church: he and his wife worshipped there and, following his death, she had a monument to him erected inside the church. Every three years there is a John Stow Memorial Service, following which the quill in his effigy’s hand is ceremonially changed by the Lord Mayor of London.

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”.

Back to the Moonwalk: if you want to support Walk the Walk and its efforts on behalf of breast cancer charities, you can sponsor me by visiting my fundraising page here.

3 responses to “May Day celebrations, riots, and Puritans”

  1. […] ← May Day celebrations, riots, and Puritans […]

  2. […] is to officiate at the Changing of the Quill ceremony, part of the John Stow Memorial Service at St Andrew Undershaft Church in St Mary Axe. This year’s event was presided over by the incumbent Lord Mayor, Fiona Woolf, who […]

  3. […] With all due respect to the blog that inspired this particular post, it is hard to talk about St Mary Axe without mentioning another weird and wonderful City of London street name: Undershaft. […]

About Me (and my Obsession)

My obsession with London street names began in the early 90s when I worked in the Smithfield area and happened upon Bleeding Heart Yard. In my wanderings around London, I kept adding to my store of weird and wonderful street names. Eventually it was time to share – hence my blog. I hope you enjoy these names as much as I do.
– Elizabeth


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