Until we can safely meet again indoors for our monthly talks (probably not until September), we’ve researched some interesting and surprising UK customs around Easter.
Royal Maundy Distribution (the day before Good Friday)
Already an established custom at the time of Elizabeth I, this custom derives from the Last Supper at which Christ washed the feet of his disciples.
It is recorded that Edward II washed the feet of the poor as an act of humility. In the modern ceremony, the Sovereign distributes specially minted silver coins to the recipients, the number of which corresponds with their age.
Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scramble in Hallaton (Leics) on Easter Monday
The proceedings start with the parading of a giant hare pie, which is blessed by the vicar, great greasy handfuls of which are thrown into the hungry scrambling crowd. After that, things get even sillier! The Bottle Kicking can commence which, confusingly, involves neither bottles nor kicking! Instead, the two village teams face each other at Hare Pie Bank and fight over three small beer barrels decked in ribbons.
The casks are released in turn and the opposing teams attempt to roll or carry them to their village boundary. The scrum is rules-free and notoriously bloodthirsty. The whole event can last for hours, with both teams sharing the beer contained within the final cask. Sounds like Bury Rugby matches!
Bottle Kicking is recorded as early as 1770 but its origin is thought to be much older; it is believed to be linked to the sacrifice of the hare in the Dark Age worship of the goddess Eastre. In 1790, the rector tried to ban the event
because of its pagan origins and the next day graffiti appeared on the vicarage wall: “No Pie, No Parson”. Unable to beat them, the church joined them.
Hocktide Festival “Tutti Day”, second Tuesday after Easter
Hungerford (Berks) is now the only place in the country still to maintain the annual Hocktide Festival, which dates from the 14th century when Prince John of Gaunt gave the rights of free grazing and fishing to local commoners. The town-crier blows his horn and calls together the Hocktide Court in the town hall. Here, all commoners living in the High Street must pay a fine to ensure their rights of fishing and grazing. While the court continues, ‘Tutti-Men’ or Tithe Men (originally rent collectors), with florally decorated poles, are led through the streets by the ‘Orange-Man’ to collect a coin from the men and kisses from all the ladies resident in the High Street, while they receive an orange in return.
Beating The Bounds on Ascension Day
Before the Roman invasion, rituals connected with spring were performed each year as part of the pagan festival of Beltane. Birch twigs or besoms (brooms) were struck against the boundary marks as part of the ritual.
Beating the Bounds also played an important part in Anglo-Saxon times to formalise rights over property and people. In medieval times, the ceremonial processing around the land also served to reinforce the power and influence the Lords and Barons had over tenants and serfs. Christianity arrived in Britain in the 4th or 5th century AD and incorporated a number of pagan, Roman and Anglo-Saxon festivals and customs. Beating the Bounds was not originally part of a religious celebration but was gradually integrated as church jurisdiction succeeded that of the manorial estates. It should also be remembered that, in many cases, early Christian churches were built on sites considered sacred by ancient Britons.
This ancient Lancashire custom was once widespread and is still to be found in parts of the county today. Pace-Eggs are hard-boiled and then specially decorated for an Easter-time festival. Pace-egging was taken seriously; for example, in the household accounts of King Edward I, there is an item of “one shilling and sixpence for the decoration and distribution of 450 Pace-eggs”.
In the Wordsworth Museum at Grasmere (Cumbria), there is a collection of highly decorated eggs originally made for the poet’s children. Pace-eggs were usually eaten on Easter Sunday or handed out to the Pace-Eggers who were once a common sight in Lancashire villages. They were groups of fantastically dressed ‘mummers’ complete with blackened faces, wearing animal skins and festooned with ribbons and streamers. They processed through the streets singing the traditional Pace-egger’s song and collecting money as a tribute.
The procession included various characters… the Noble Youth, the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave and the Old Toss-Pot who was a drunken buffoon wearing a long straw tail stuffed with pins. It was not wise to grab the Old Toss-Pot’s tail.
In Preston, the crowds still gather today to watch the old traditional eggrolling contest down the grassy slopes of their local park, and hundreds of children compete to see whose egg can roll the furthest without cracking.
Beware as empty Pace-egg shells must be crushed for they are popular with Lancashire witches who use them as boats. You have been warned!
For further information about our group, please visit our website or contact our secretary, Stella Chamberlin: 01359 242601 / www.elmswell-history.org.uk