Manuscripts and Special Collections

May Day in the Presentment Bills

April 30th, 2011 at 08:04

The lengthening days and the bursting out of leaves and flowers are a welcome sight after the dark winter months. May 1st is a traditional and ancient holiday celebrating the start of the summer, and is thought to derive in part from the Roman flower festival of Floralia. In the Middle Ages, a May Queen was chosen from the most beautiful young women in the village or town, and was placed on a throne of flowers. She was accompanied by the May King, or the Lord of the May. Each village had a Maypole, which, unlike modern versions, was a very tall (sometimes around 30 metres) and permanently fixed pole, dressed with hawthorn during the May season to symbolise a growing tree. The association of May Day with fertility and sexual licence, and its pagan roots, led to the erection of Maypoles being banned by the Puritans in 1644.

References to May Day have been found within 17th-century Churchwardens’ Presentment Bills from the archive of the Archdeaconry of Nottingham. A William Longley of Bunny was presented to the Archdeaconry court on 7 May 1596 for painting a Maypole in Gotham on the Sabbath day (AN/PB 292/5/81). John Walker of Newark was caught doing the same thing in the parish of South Scarle on Whitsunday 1621 (AN/PB 326/2/36).

It was unfortunate for the people of Nottingham that May 1st 1625 fell on a Sunday. The very next day, the churchwardens of the parish of St Mary in Nottingham made a presentment (AN/PB 302/226) to the Archdeaconry court, citing 17 people who were discovered drinking in private houses and alehouses when they should have been at church for evening prayer. The Presentment Bill names, among others, a weaver called Cowland, William Rippon the shoemaker, Richard Jacques of Cowlane End, George Rainer the tiler, a person called Noble of ‘under the castle’, the wife of John Bell of St James Lane, and the alehouse-keeper Richard Stoples who entertained a number of these people in the parlour of his house. The Presentment Bills are full of such details of address and occupation, and are a rich source both for local and family historians.

You can browse or search descriptions of Presentment Bills on the Manuscripts Online Catalogue (type ‘AN/PB’ into the DocumentRef field, and any search term into the AnyText field). You can look for particular surnames, or choose one from the list of ‘offences’ reported to the Archdeaconry court, by using the Archdeaconry Person Indexes search form.

Further information about the Archdeaconry of Nottingham, its court, and the Presentment Bills, is available on the Archdeaconry Resources web pages.

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