“The woods, or some near town
That is a neighbour to the bordering down,
Hath drawn them thither, ’bout some lusty sport,
Or spiced wassel-bowl, to which resort
All the young men and maids of many a cote,
Whilst the trim minstrell strikes his merry note.”
FLETCHER, The Faithful Shepherdess.
Whitsuntide Sports—Church-ales—Church-house—Quarter-staff —Whistling and Jingling Matches—St. John’s Eve—Wrestling.
After May Day our villagers had not long to wait until the Whitsuntide holiday came round. This holiday was notorious for the “Church-ales,” which were held at this season. These feasts were a means of raising money for charitable purposes. If the church needed a new roof, or some poor people were in sad straits, the villagers would decide to have a “Church-ale”; generally four times a year the feast was given, and always at Whitsuntide. The churchwardens bought, and received presents of, a large quantity of malt, which they brewed into beer, and sold to the company, and any inhabitant of the parish who did not attend had to pay a fine. Every one who was able contributed something to the entertainment. The feast was held in the church-house, a building which stood near the church. This was the scene of many social gatherings, and is thus described by an old writer—
“In every parish was a church-house, to which belonged spits, crocks, and other utensils for dressing provisions. Here the housekeepers met. The young people were there, too, and had dancing, bowling, shooting at butts, &c., the ancients (i.e. the old folk) sitting gravely by and looking on. All things were civil, and without scandal. The church-ale is, doubtless, derived from the Agapai or Love Feasts, mentioned in the New Testament.”
Whether the learned writer was right in his conjecture we cannot be quite certain, but church-ales subsequently degenerated into something quite different from New Testament injunctions, and were altogether prohibited on account of the excess to which they gave rise. Let us hope that all these feasts were not so bad as they were represented, and indeed in early times great reverence was attached to them, which prevented excess. The neighbours, too, would come in from the adjoining parishes and share the feast. An arbour of boughs was erected in the churchyard, called Robin Hood’s Bower, where the maidens collected money for the “ales” in the same way which they employed at Hock-tide, and which was called “Hocking.” The old books of St. Lawrence’s Church, Reading (to which I have before referred), contain a record of this custom—“1505 A.D. Item. Received of the maidens’ gathering at Whitsuntide by the tree at the church door, ij^s. vi^d.” The morris-dancers and minstrels, the ballad-singers and players, were in great force on these occasions, and were entertained at the cost of the parish. In the churchwardens’ account of St. Mary’s, Reading, we find in the year 1557—