The Feast of St Michael

Mary Evans, my long-serving and much-loved predecessor in the Ely Pastorate, had her roots in the Vale of Glamorgan farming community. She used to complain that the city churches’ harvest celebrations didn’t coincide with the actual harvesting of the Welsh countryside’s crops. The reaping, binding and threshing of harvesting apparently belonged more properly to late summer than to the autumn.

Our harvest more closely coincided with what they called Michaelmas, the feast of St Michael the Archangel on the 29th of September. Michaelmas was traditionally the day when courts were held and rents were paid—the sort of things communities do well after the harvest is in and you know how much you are worth. It was therefore also a feast day celebrated with a harvest supper, usually goose. So Mary may have been correct that our harvest suppers, as Michaelmas feasts, don’t coincide with the actual harvest. But they do coincide with the agricultural community’s celebra-tion of that harvest’s profit and loss accounts.

Another traditional celebration in the Michaelmas season consisted in the parish church’s dedication feast, commemorating their founding and honouring their patron saints. In the sixteenth century these were popularly known as “wakes”, a term perhaps signifying the custom of staying awake late into the night to make merry. In practice, the celebration of these parish wakes were staggered over late summer through the autumn to provide opportunities of reciprocal entertainment in neighbouring agricultural communities. In the seventeenth century Sir Henry Spelman dryly suggested that these wakes derived their meaning from the Anglo-Saxon “wak”, meaning drunkenness.

The excesses of these feasts were such that Henry VIII, in 1536, shortly after taking over what would come to be called the Church of England, curtailed them in his first set of articles for church reformation, calling for their celebrations to be limited to the first Sunday of October. In 1532 the House of Commons had complained to the King that holy days in general had become too numerous, encouraging idleness and undermining the very public piety they had been designed to promote. The King had hoped to limit such excesses by confining these celebrations to a day that was traditionally a day of rest, and a day specifically dedicated to religious commemoration.

It didn’t work. Henry was trampling on what would become two important issues in Reformation Protestantism: the opposition to any celebrations connected to the cult of saints, and opposition to drinking, dancing and ribaldry on the Lord’s Day. So a bill to prohibit church wakes altogether was passed by both Houses of Parliament in 1584. But Queen Elizabeth vetoes it, arguing that in passing such an act Parliament was infringing on her control of the Church of England.

Once James I was on the throne Parliament attempted to sanction wakes once again. A bill almost identical to the 1584 bill passed the Commons in 1606 but got stuck in the Lords. Local efforts were more successful. In 1613 parishioners of a Sussex church entered in their parish register their decision to move the wake from Sunday “as we desire to keep this day in holiness after the example of Nehemiah and his people.” A 1614 bill similar to the 1606 bill didn’t even make it through the Commons.

On his accession James I had banned “disordered or unlawful exercise” on the Lord’s Day, so it could be argued that the excesses of Sunday wakes were already illegal. But in 1618 James issued what came to be known as the “Book of Sports”, The Kings Majesties declaration to his subjects, concerning lawful sports to be used. This declaration allowed, after the Sunday service, such sports as dancing, leaping, vaulting, archery, Morris-dancing, May-games and Whitsun-ales, while banning bear and bull-baiting and, among the meaner sort, bowling. Since parish wakes were not specifically mentioned as either permitted or banned in the Book of Sports, “sabbatarian” bills intended to give the force of law to the royal declaration of 1603 and specifically ban parish wakes were passed by both Houses of Parliament in 1621 and again in 1624, but James, as Elizabeth had before him, vetoed both bills for infringing on royal prerogative.

The background to the Book of Sports is interesting. Several Lancashire puritan magistrates had reacted to Elizabeth’s vetoing of the 1584 bill by enforcing the measures of that bill locally. When James came along, he made his declaration of lawful sports specifically to “rebuke” the Lancashire “puritans and precisions”. The puritan opposition to the “honest mirth and recreations” of Sunday sports, he contended, discouraged Lancashire Catholics who may be wavering on the edge of converting to Protestantism. Should life as a Protestant be so bleak? The puritans were also, James contended, standing in the way of the exercise needed by the “meaner sort” to enable them to be fit in times of war. Sunday, after all, was their only time off work in those days.

In 1625 Charles I approved an Act of Parliament that incorporated most of the proposals rejected by his father in the bills of 1621 and 1624. It did not, however, mention wakes. The result was immense confusion and controversy leading to Charles re-issuing the Book of Sports in 1634, this time with the explicit provision that Sunday church wakes were lawful.

These were the years leading up to Civil War. Inevitably in the ensuing political and ecclesiastical conflict, once the Parliament got the upper hand over the King, in 1644, they passed legislation banning these church wakes, along with May poles and all the other mirth and recreation intruding on a proper keeping of the Lord’s Day. And then with the collapse of the Interregnum, at the Restoration, all this, wakes and all, came back.

Unfortunately, there are no historical records telling us what these parish revels actually looked like, and why they got up the noses of the more straight-laced members of the community, caricatured as Ebenezer-Scrooge-style “puritans”. More than likely, they didn’t look much like the annual Harvest Supper of today. Oh, just imagine what we have been missing!

Tom Arthur

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