Midsummer Magic in Tudor England

“Whatever is dreamed on this night, will come to pass.” —

William Shakespeare, A MidSummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare wrote of the enchantments of summer solstice. Each year, on a day between June 20-June 24, we have solstice — the longest day of the year. This day has been celebrated throughout history as a day of magic. Many countries in the northern hemisphere receive 24 hours of daylight. Let’s look into the mystery of this celebration and see how Midsummer was experienced in Tudor England.

The word solstice derives from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). This reflects what our ancestors knew about the sun and its travels across the sky. The summer solstice was used to establish noon and to mark the middle of the year. When people watched the movement of the sun across the sky, they were seeking knowledge about time. This knowledge also helped predict when to plant and harvest. To watch the sun’s movements, they watched the horizon and noted where the sun would appear at a given time each day. According to the English Heritage website, “The Stonehenge we see today is aligned on the midwinter setting sun and the midsummer sunrise.” The summer solstice has the most hours of daylight but it is the one day of the year when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.

Midsummer marked the accomplishments of the year. The earth was pregnant with her soon to be delivered harvest and the sun was in his glory, in the height of his power. Midsummer was the day the wheel of the year turned onward toward harvest then Yule, the shortest day.

Stongehenge courtesy of Peter Trimming

The summer solstice was one of the pagan festivals taken over by the early Christian church, which aligned it with the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24th. By the sixteenth century, Midsummer Day had an interesting mixture of Christian and Pagan meaning.

“Tudor festivals played a major role in 16th-century life,” says Rachel Costigan, Visitor Experience Officer at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, England. “They gave our Tudor ancestors something to look forward to in their everyday life. Midsummer was a mix of celebrations which took place between St John’s Night and the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. It also marks the Summer Solstice, and was considered by Tudor people to mark the middle of summer, which started on May Day and finished with the first harvest or ‘Lammas’ at the beginning of August.”

SUN AND FIRE

Fire was the theme of Midsummer celebrations as it symbolized the sun. There was an impulse to make merry in the sunlight at Midsummer, before the year waned into autumn. People made bonfires using the charred logs from the previous year. Often bones were tossed in for good fortune. (The term for bonfire derives from late Middle English: bone + fire; fire with bones for fuel.) The fires were thought to lure the sun to stay longer in the sky. People danced and leapt between the flames while feasting.

This was a time of merry making, of settling differences between neighbors, and giving to the poor. In the country, bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and livestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires. This practice was possibly used as a protection against disease. Causes of diseases in animals and plants were not understood then. They believed that any contagion was airborne, hence the fire was a cleansing agent against disease. Giants and hobby horses went through the streets on ‘Marching Watches’. (The origins of the hobby horse originated in the medieval era when they were used for jousting practice. By the Tudor era, it was believed they brought good luck to festivals.)

Of all the Tudor midsummer activities, the most expensive activities were the Marching Watches, which were parades accompanied by lit torches. These events sound sensational. In London one is recorded as including four thousand marchers. There were Morris dancers, giant straw puppets and hobby horses, and pageants. Even though this was considered a religious festival, you understand how the celebrations retained hints of their Pagan past. Often festivals had mythological or historical themes. In 1521, the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, Morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays were popular additions to the marches. In 1541, the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae. (Aqua vitae is Latin, defined literally as “water of life.” It was a term for unrefined alcohol. In England in the 1540s, the term was used for brandy and whiskey.)

Courtesy of Lily Wight

Fire and the sun are the main themes for Midsummer, in whatever form they derived. The Fire Wheel is an ancient British ceremony. The wheel is based on four equal parts which represent the four seasons. The wheel was set on fire and rolled down a hillside. This is another ritual with obvious pagan roots, with the wheel representing the sun as it passed through each season. If the fire burned until the wheel reached the bottom of the hill, it was thought to bring good fortune to the entire community.

FLOWERS AND SYMBOLISM

As the sun was represented by fires, so flowers represented the earth in the festivities. It was traditional to decorate one’s home — especially the main entry door — with garlands or wreaths. The colors of the flowers used were red, yellow, orange, all colors identified with the sun, and green for fertility. The circular shape of the wreaths suggested both the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons, again harking back to old Pagan beliefs. John Stow, a seventeenth century writer, remembered green birch being hung on all the local signposts. He wrote:

“Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers.”

These plants had powers which were thought to be associated with their religious symbolism. Birch symbolized protection, exorcism, and purification. Fennel was a healing and protective herb. Another protective plant was trefoil. Its three-part leaves suggested the Holy Trinity. The white lilies Stow mention derived their power from their association with the Virgin Mary — they are still called Madonna lilies.

Courtesy of Lily Wight

The yellow flowers of St. John’s Wort were seen as an emblem of the sun, and thought to have magical powers. In Tudor England, this plant was connected with St. John because its leaves were flecked red and symbolized the blood of the martyred saint. It is the association with St. John which made this herb so important at Midsummer. Wreaths of St. John’s Wort were placed on the horns of cattle, and even their sheds were decorated with it. All wreaths were left outdoors and allowed to ‘die’ with the sun. Fern spores collected at Midsummer gave miraculous knowledge and power, and it was believed that these could even make you invisible. All herbs were particularly potent under the midsummer sun, so it was the most powerful time of the year for making potions and medicines.

MAGIC

Witches and the fairy folk were considered to be overly active at Midsummer. This is why Midsummer celebrations began at sunset the evening prior to Midsummer. In folklore, the hours between dusk and dawn are said to be closer to the underworld and a time when fairy activity is at its peak. This time was believed to be the time when witches harvested their magical plants. This magical influence is referenced in Tudor stories and immortalized by William Shakespeare in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”.

Perhaps the figure most depicted as a traditional fairy is the character of Puck, “the oldest of the Old Things” due to his depiction in folklore. Pouk, or Puca, was the term used on the British Isles for the Pagan Sun deity also known as the Stag King or the Horned God. In other cultures, this archetype was represented by deities such as Bacchus, Pan, and Hermes. The Puca was a respected yet vengeful fairy creature. Puca evolved into a medieval term for the Devil. Yet, Puca also had a mischievous side in English folklore and was known as Robin Goodfellow. An expression for being lost is “Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight.” Reference to this quote are recorded in Tudor manuscripts as early as 1531.

As history and literature records, Shakespeare gave Puck some great PR and an image makeover in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”. He became the mischievous sprite who causes mayhem with a few droplets of a magical flower. (Note: Shakespeare introduces Puck in Act 2, Scene 1 as Robin. This is a reference to the mischievous prankster, Robin Goodfellow.)

Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms.

Divinations for love, prosperity and health were practiced throughout the island. However, for some people, the importance of midsummer festivities wasn’t about magic, it was about community. Tudor England also viewed Midsummer as a chance for Christian charity, for merry making, and for neighbors to make amends. It was a holiday celebrated much as we celebrate today on New Year’s Eve. It was a time for the fulfillment of wishes and desires, and the beginning of new dreams.

Midsummer was an expensive holiday. The feasting and drinking lead authorities to fear civil unrest. In 1539, Henry VIII banned the Midsummer Watch in London due to the exorbitant cost and drunken crowds. This action outraged his subjects. The Midsummer celebrations were reinstated in 1548, and we can imagine from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” that by the reign of Elizabeth I a good time was had by all at the Midsummer celebrations.

Then as now, may your dreams come true this Solstice night.

Edward Robert Hughes

SOURCES:

www.english-heritage.org.uk

www.NationalTrust.org.uk

Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes In Tudor England

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

www.LilyWight.com

Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England

All photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Portions of this blog were originally published by the author via Medium & English Historical Fiction Authors on June 19, 2015.

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Medicine, Magic and Music: The Healing Properties of Music Observed in the Life of Anne Boleyn

PART 1 – ANNE BOLEYN

Painting believed to be Anne Boleyn

When we think of Tudor England, various images flash through our mind. Kings, many queens, dashing courtiers, spies, and ruthless intrigues enter the mix. Add a dash of Renaissance fashion and religious upheaval and you have a heady, or often headless, concoction of brutality and inspiration. All at the same time. Tudor England was the springboard into The Empire and the seed of the modern world.

We look at the savagery and dogged pursuit of the throne by the king, Henry VII. His surviving son, Henry VIII changed the face of Europe forever when he founded the Church of England. His daughter Elizabeth I, another ‘long shot’ set the standard for today’s world through industry, exploration and education.

The medical arts were vastly different in the Tudor era than they are today. Due to religious practices of the time, it was unheard of to dissect a human body following death. Because of this there was a limited amount known about the causes and cures for disease at that time. There was little knowledge with regards to how the human body functioned at all. Tudor physicians thought the body was made up of four fluids or ‘humours’. In a healthy person of the Tudor Era, all four humours were considered to be balanced. However, if you had too much of one of the humours, it was believed that illness manifested.

Personality was affected by the humours. People with too much blood were sanguine-translate that today as hot blooded. Those with too much phlegm were considered or dull and apathetic. Choler made people and ill tempered. Melancholiacs were the depressed and unhappy-they suffered from black bile.  Physicians would counsel on diets if necessary, since food was considered medicinal if prepared properly. The humours had so many characteristics that they became useful for explaining many aspects of daily life. This logic linked health to astrology, physiognomy and music.

The English and Welsh belief of the Medieval Mystical Tradition, especially by females, is well known through literature. Think of the tales of Avalon and the importance of women in these stories. So it continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the English Renaissance, ushered in by the Tudor Dynasty. There was a thin veil between magic and medicine during the reign of the Tudor monarchs. What we might call magic today seemed perfectly logical and scientific to that era. This rational contained ideas which were accepted practices by all levels of society. Knights told of balms, called “weapon salves” which would protect them and even heal them if they were applied before a battle. Then as now, the belief in the cure often aids the patient in healing. They called magic, now we call it science.

Likewise, astrology was not a form of entertainment. It was a highly respected medical theory taught at the universities. It could be seen by watching the tides, the mating seasons of animals and the growth of plants seeded at certain planetary cycles. In Tudor times, astrology was considered a science. It was considered exact since it revealed the planets as they circled the earth. During the Tudor era, it was believed that the sun, moon and planets circled the earth. With that in mind, the King was the centre of their universe. When Henry VIII was ill, his physicians treated him with herbs, he even kept an apothecary cabinet in his quarters. Astrology charts, or star maps as they were known then, would be drawn to decipher the best medical treatment for his leg or his various other ailments. The same practice was used for any patient which could afford it.

When a patient visited a physician, the visit would begin by asking for your date of birth. From there, your horoscope would be cast via a star map. Then a horoscope would be cast for the exact moment your ailment began, so that the physician could cast the horoscope of the illness and relate it to that of the patient. In prescribing medications, the healer would ask which parts of the body were affected because each area of the body comes under the influence of different planets. You would be treated according to which planet ruled the medicine best suited to your ailment. Astrology had an important placement in Tudor life as well as Tudor medicine.

Herbs were the best known cure for any physical ailment and have been used as cures since ancient times. Those who grew plants for medicine would plant seeds at the new moon and harvest at the full moon to get the greatest benefits from them. It was part of the education of any physician. Young Tudor women learned to mix potions, or ‘simples’ as they were called. These women would have great expertise in the healing properties of different herbs. As a general rule, the wise women were taught with traditions handed down from their mothers and grandmothers. Herbs and the healing chants of the wise woman were the most cost effective medical route for the majority of Tudor households. One Tudor headache cure for a headache was to drink a potion of lavender, sage, majoram, roses and rue. Another cure? To press a hangman’s rope to your head. The physicians, then as now, were considered the most learned scholars yet the average household could not affordable this luxury, hence the need for the wise women in the communities.

To heal a toothache, the wise woman would write ‘Jesus Christ for mercy’s sake, take away this toothache’ three times before saying the words aloud and then burning the paper. Another cure for a fever was for the healer to write ‘Arataly, Rataly, Ataly, Taly, aly, Ly’ on paper, and wrap the paper around the patients arm for nine days. Each day the patient was to say three paternosters to St. Peter and St. Paul. At the end of the ninth day, they were to remove the paper and burn it.

Hans Holbein
Public Domain

We have a basic understanding of how medicine worked during the Tudor Era, now let’s concentrate on maintaining the balance of melancholia. Music was thought to be the best way to keep the humours in an harmonious state. Three queens during the Tudor Era had a great love of music. This led to the downfall of two of the queens, and it possibly enabled the third one to maintain her status and keep her head, both literally and figuratively. The first queen we will note is Queen Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn is the most well-known of King Henry VIII’s wives. Her captivation of the King became his obsession. For seven years he pursued her and practically destroyed or denied any and everyone who stood in his way. This was to change the political and religious landscape of England forever. For Anne, the King was willing to divorce his first Queen, break with the Catholic Church, establish and make himself Head of the Church of England. What should have been history’s most enduring fairy tale romance became one of love’s most enigmatic nightmares when, after achieving his ambitions, and only three years of marriage, Henry VIII had Anne executed on multiple charges of adultery, including her brother George Viscount Rochford and the musician Mark Smeaton.

Anne is believed to have been born in the early years of the 16th century in Blickling Hall. In 1513 she became a maid in honor in the household of Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. Margaret was famous for her patronage of musicians and she owned an extensive musical library, which was a rarity for the time. Anne’s father eventually arranged for her to move the French court where she attended Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who was to marry Louis XII. She later served the French Queen Claude, staying in France until she returned to England in 1522.

Her early years in the great courts of Europe shaped her later interests in music and fashion. Because of these influences, she developed interests in various segments of the arts-poetry, dance, and literature. Anne Boleyn’s most famous legacies, besides her daughter, are fashion and the games of flirtation. Her greatest pastime by all recorded accounts was music, she was an accomplished lute player.

A songbook believed to have been owned and used by Anne Boleyn has survived. It is housed in the Royal College of Music, London. Its origin is debatable, and the only evidence that the book of 42 songs was ever owned or near Anne Boleyn is an inscription, written in what is described as an early 16th-century English handwriting: “Mistres ABolleyne nowe thus”.  This signature is followed by musical notes. She is called “mistress” which indicates this was written before she became queen in 1533; “nowe thus” was the motto of her father, Thomas Boleyn, which would also imply that she was unwed.

Anne Boleyn’s (possibly) Songbook.
Available on Amazon, of course.
Public Domain

There is evidence of the songbook’s connection with Anne Boleyn due to the compositions included. The late historian Eric Ives suggested that some of the book’s contents belong to the period around 1527 when Henry and Anne were openly courting, and making plans for a future together. These musical themes lie within the compositions found in the songbook. Flemish and French musicians who Anne would have known about in her early years in the European courts are included, the most represented are John Mouton and the Josquin Desprez.

One song, Jouyssance vous donneray was extremely popular during the period and the words must have had a significance with Anne and Henry due to the words ‘I will give you pleasure, my dear … everything will be good for those who wait’ – there is a suggestion that this is a song that Anne herself sang to Henry, and this seems completely believable. The song is preserved near the end of the book and noted in a hand writing style of English origin. The lyrics were composed by the French court poet Clément Marot, who gifted Anne Boleyn with a copy of his Le Pastor evangélique, at her coronation in 1533.

The poem included a prophecy that Anne would provide Henry with a son, must have pleased both bride and groom greatly on the day, but as history has shown, proved to be her undoing. Her love of music also played a role in her downfall. Towards the end of April 1536, musician Mark Smeaton was secretly arrested. He initially denied being the Queen’s lover but later confessed, perhaps he was tortured or promised freedom, according to popular legends. During the May Day festivities, it appears the King was notified of Smeaton’s confession and the alleged conspirators were arrested upon his orders.

Henry Norris was arrested on May Day and denied his guilt, and swearing that Queen Anne was innocent. The most damaging evidence against Norris was an overheard conversation with Anne at the end of April. Sir Francis Weston was arrested two days later on the same charge, as was William Brereton, a Groom of the King’s Privy Chamber. The final accused was Queen Anne’s brother, George Boleyn, arrested on charges of incest and treason.

Tower of London

On 2 May 1536, Anne was arrested and taken to the Tower of London by barge. By May 17th she was convicted of high treason, incest and adultery. She was beheaded by order of King Henry VIII on the morning of May 19, 1536.

Coming soon, PART 2

Mary, Queen of Scots