The 1499 Medieval May Day Celebration of St Laurence, Reading: Robin Hood

A look at the May Day celebrations in Reading, Berkshire in 1499.

May Day has been celebrated since ancient times - going back to at least the Celts, when the end of April and beginning of May signified a return from the chilly, sparse winter to the lighter, longer days of spring. The erupting pink and purple flowers and unfurling green leaves promised fresh food, warmer weather and fun. And for the Reading townsfolk, fun in 1499 took the place of a performance of Robin Hood. 

Robin Hood, A drawing from 1832, British Library, Public Domain. 

John Donan, in his book History and Antiquities of Reading in Berkshire, written in 1835, handily reproduces the accounts of St Laurence church for this event, so we can see very clearly what the performance consisted of and the materials that were needed. 

The performance was organised by the church - in this case, St Laurence's church, that sits between the grounds of the imposing Reading Abbey and the town's main shopping area. In what is now the modern triangular Market Place, there were shoemakers' shops, butchers, and fish stalls. Near where the Oracle shopping centre is today, there was a Medieval mill over the twinkling river that snaked through the town. Townspeople would have excitedly looked forward to the festival of May Day, and it was a serious business. 

Donan reports the instance where, during the reign of Edward VI in the mid-sixteenth century, Bishop Latimer remembers how he once approached a church door to find it locked. "I found the door fast locked,' he says, 'I tarried there half an hour or more, and at last the key was found, and one of the parishioners comes to me, and says, 'Sir, this is a busy day with us, we cannot hear you; it is Robin Hood's day, the parish are gone abroad to gather for Robin Hood; I pray you (hinder) them not.'"(1)

Parishioners worked hard to get things ready. The expenses for 1499 include costs for a coat for the player who was Robin Hood and supper for him and his retinue, who had come from Finchampstead, 11 miles away. People would have downed tools and come to help set up the performance area as well as get St Lawrence's church ready, where the actors would receive food and drink before they performed. 

The records show that the performers ate pasties and drank ale, of which the church paid in today's money, the equivalent of around £140. (2)

Accounts for a play held eight years later on St Matthew's Day in 1507, tells us that this performance was held at The Forbury. Although the exact location of this play in 1499 isn't given, we can consider it likely that it was also held there, as it was the most convenient public space available nearby. Imagine the spectators flocking to The Forbury within the Abbey grounds to enjoy the Robin Hood festivities. 

Other expenses for 1499 aren't available, but we can use the expenses paid out for the 1507 show, to fill in the gaps. These include payments 'to the labourers in the Forbury for setting up the poles for the scaffold' and 'the beer man, for beer for the play...' (3)

There's no evidence for Maypole dancing in Reading at this time, but the tradition dates back to May Day celebrations from the 1300s, and so it's unlikely that Reading never had one. A Maypole, wrapped with fresh flowers and ribbon, might have been brought out and erected as part of the May Day celebrations to dance around, in 1499, but we can't know for sure.

With a little imagination, we can put ourselves at the May Day fair of 1499 and see Medieval townspeople working hard in and around St Laurence's church cleaning and setting up the show in the Forbury. The actors nibbling on their warm pasties and taking sips of ale, while making last minute changes to their costumes or rehearsing their lines. Bunting would perhaps have been set up for the play, and people excitedly flocking in the fresh spring air to take their places. It would have been a rowdy affair, with plenty of opportunities for laughter, shouting out at the actors in their rich costumes in true panto-style fashion. It was a moment for Reading to let their hair down and look forward to the sunnier, warmer days that were coming. 

This celebration happened during the reign of Henry VII, who worked to end the Wars of the Roses, the fifty-year old battle for the crown during the fifteenth century. I explore the stories of many of the women who were impacted by the wars in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword. Among them, I also look at some local women with links to Reading and what they would have seen or heard.  Order your copy here. 

What do you think? Do you know more about the May Day celebrations in Reading at this time? Let me know in the comments below. 

(1) John Donan, The History and Antiquities of Reading, Berkshire, 1835. Accessed 9 Apr. 2020 p148.
(2) Ibid., p145. The cost has been calculated as an estimate using The National Archives Currency Calculator for the year 1500. 
(3) Donan, History of Reading, 1835. Accessed 9 Apr. 2020. p.145. 

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