The Maypole Battles and Other Customs
Many villages, hamlets and farms around Bodmin Moor and eastern Cornwall had a peculiar May Day tradition of the Maypole Battles. At the end of April, each village would choose a stripped fir tree between thirty and fifty-foot-high and would fasten it to the highest chimney stack in their home parish at midnight on May eve. Alternatively, it would be attached to the highest tree in the vicinity. In the early hours of May Day, it was trimmed with streamers made of coloured scraps of material and with flowers and vegetables taken from neighbour’s gardens. The moment the pole was up and decorated, each village became a fortress, with other rival villages setting off on raids to try to steal the Maypole of the next village. At some villages, such as Merrymeet, the pole was cemented in and tarred, so it could not be climbed, but the men of St Cleer simply sawed the pole at the base and carried it away. At Trekernal a pole was fastened to the highest tree and decorated in the traditional manner. However, it was quickly taken, before dawn, by a man from North Hill, who climbed the tree with a rope and lowered the pole to the ground.
The maypoles were generally left in position throughout the month of May, and were guarded each night by the men of the village throughout the entire month. At the months end they were then taken down and stored safely until the following year.
Around 150 years ago the biggest Maypole battle to have been recorded, took place between Altarnun and Trewen. The folk of Altarnun managed to steal the Trewen pole and this resulted in a fight where it is reported that the villagers “fought like Dragons”.The descriptions of these East Cornwall maypoles sound remarkably like the Maypole seen every year at Padstow, (above) which are very different to the maypoles decked with ribbon for dancing around.
The East Cornwall maypoles were instead bedecked with garlands and hoops of flowers. Other villages recorded as having these poles include, Berriow, Middlewood, Menheniot and North Hill. St Neot had its own version of the Maypole tradition, recorded by W. Arthur Pascoe in Old Cornwall 12, winter 1930. This was considered the most favoured of all the festivals once observed in the village. One of the last observances of this once popular custom saw one of the large farms cut a pole and raised it in the village, having much faith in their ability to defend it. However, they did not foresee such a mass attack, which they would have to repel. Amid scenes of great confusion, dire threats, the firing of shotguns into the air and discharges of hot water and pepper the St Neot pole was lost and the victors marched off with the pole on their triumphant shoulders, singing a long-lost song of maypole victory. The custom died out around 1890, but until then was firmly entrenched into the St Neot village calendar.
|Bringing in the maypole. Lanreath, 1940s|
The greatest maypole battle celebration was centred on the village of Lanreath, and the tradition is thought to stretch back at least six hundred years, and was still going in the early 1980s, when it started to decline, due to complaints and police intervention. It was all about the virility of the young men of the village, who would steal the biggest tree from the local woods, which would be taken at the dead of night. The poles were huge, and in 1973 the maypole was recorded at 105 feet before it was stolen by the lads of Pelynt. Upon its return it was a bit shorter, and was found hidden within rows of the potato crop.
Games of skittles locally called ‘keels’were played, with the stumps (skittles), having been made from the previous year’s maypole. (See below). The battle of the maypole was often between Lanreath, Pelynt and Lerryn, and local rivalry was intense. Each village would never know who would raid who, and Doublebois and Duloe also often raided Lanreath. The maypole guard would hide in and keep watch from the churchyard, armed with sticks and one night the army arrived from Bodmin’s barracks and tried to take the pole back to Bodmin, however they were unsuccessful.
|Playing 'keels' in Lanreath, 1940s|
Aside from the May Pole Battles, other more sedate form of observance are also recorded from the region. A may-pole used to be erected on West Looe Quay on the 1st May with dancing and street processions with garlands of flowers that were an art form in themselves, which processed through both East and West Looe. The May Frolics followed during the evening, where bands of young people would gather together and walk to a nearby farm. Accompanied by a fiddler, they would dance until midnight. If the weather was foul a barn would be emptied for them, if the weather was fine a field would be used and the dances performed under a starry sky. They would dance four-handed, six-handed and eight-handed reels, riotous quick-steps followed by the more sedate Triumph and Cushion Dances, which were slow and graceful. Metheglin, Sloe and Elderberry wine would be supplied for the occasion along with junkets of cream and rich milk and ‘Whipped Syllabubs’ straight from the cow. Similar festivities were common at Fowey and Polperro.
The following poetic description of the late-night return home from the ‘May frolicks’ at Looe, can be found in the Old Cornwall Journal, Summer 1930 –
One can picture the happy party returning from Hay Farm, each with a lantern, keeping very close together as they turned the corner of Hay Lane, and the trill that shook them as they glanced apprehensively toward Plaidy, fearing they might catch a glimpse of the Phantom Horsemen careering across the beach on his ghostly headless steed. To keep up their courage they would lustily troll a catch, and the “dug-dug” of the maidens’ red-eared festal clogs would be a gentle accompaniment.
First published in Meyn Mamvro, No. 95, Spring/Summer 2018
The Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow
The legends and paranormal activity of the screaming skull stories form a fascinating part of the vast canon of ghost-lore and folk-horror. Within Britain, they seem to be almost entirely restricted to a few counties in England and are generally linked to the guardianship of particular historic houses. There is just one recorded in Welsh folklore that recounts a screaming skull at Ffagnallt Hall on Halkyn Mountain close to the Dee estuary. The skull is believed to be that of Dafydd, a Welsh prince who lived during the reign of Henry I, and if removed a wild shriek will haunt the house until it is returned, and a small fragment of the skull still remains in the house today.
The only known Cornish example of a screaming skull was recorded by Sabine Baring Gould, from a diary entry in 1882. Where he states - “A more curious tenancy is that of Tresmarrow near Launceston, where the house goes with a skull. The farmer now there buried the skull, but the noises, voices, knocks and trampling’s heard at night were intolerable, so they dug the skull up again and restored it - then the sounds ceased.”
I first came across this obscure legend on a visit to Launceston’s Lawrence House museum, where amongst the jumble of military, agricultural and domestic displays is the somewhat out-of-place but intriguing ‘Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow’.
The folkloric history of the skull begins during Cromwell’s war against the crown. At this time Tresmarrow House was owned by Sir Hugh Piper, who was Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I. Piper was a staunch Royalist, and the original Tresmarrow, built in 1578 was razed to the ground by Roundheads marching from Launceston to Bodmin in 1646. After the restoration of the monarchy, Piper rebuilt Tresmarrow House and local tradition suggests that he placed the skull of a Roundhead in a niche in one of the walls of the new building to remind his family of the gruesome fate of Charles I. It may be interesting to note that a skull is carved on Sir Hugh Piper’s memorial in Launceston parish Church.
The skull seems to have been left alone for a couple of hundred years, until the Dawe family purchased Tresmarrow House in the late nineteenth century. One of the family took offence to the skull, and had it buried in the garden. However, loud noises and mighty disturbances began as soon as it was buried, and it was quickly recovered and placed back in its niche on the outside of the house. The screaming skull appears to have been kept in its original niche at Tresmarrow House since 1649, (except for when it was occasionally buried) and was rumoured to have been taken to Canada, when the Dawe family emigrated there in 1908. Tresmarrow House was demolished in the same year. The skull was finally returned to Launceston in 2001, which was when it came to be displayed in the town’s museum. Image below.
Interestingly, there is another tradition associated with the skull, and local historian and journalist with the Devon and Cornwall Post, Arthur Venning, reported that once it was removed from Tresmarrow in 1908, it found its way to London and was exhibited there as the skull of Oliver Cromwell. There were stories circulating in Launceston that suggested that the skull was indeed that of Cromwell, so it may be that a London collector had heard about the artefact and purchased it from the Dawe family when they emigrated. Whatever the case, the screaming skull has seemingly returned to Launceston and seems to have quietened down in its current home.
So, in summary, what if anything, does the only known Cornish screaming skull folk-legend have in common with any other screaming skull tales from across Britain? Well actually not very much. Each tale tells a different backstory. However, the one thing that they all have in common is a kind of guardianship for the buildings to which they are attached, and foreboding paranormal activity occurring when a skull is removed. In the case of the skull at Ffagnallt Hall, if the remains of the skull are taken, a shrieking noise will be heard in perpetuity until it is returned. Similarly, in Somerset, 18th century farmer Theophilus Brome from Chilton Cantelo laid a curse saying that if his skull were ever removed from his farmhouse after his death, he would scream, disturb and moan for all eternity.
There is one other human skull curiosity from eastern Cornwall that needs further investigation. On Looe Island, there was a skull preserved in a cupboard in the sitting-room of the Island House. Maybe this once had similar folklore associated with it? Research is ongoing around this subject, and if anyone has anything to add, please get in touch.
Art by Paul Atlas-Saunders
Ciarán was born on Cape Clear Island, Irish language Cléire, Co. Cork situated off Ireland’s south coast, in the sixth century AD where he was renowned for his miraculous deeds and his love of the natural world. Nevertheless, groups of Irish kings were afraid of his powers and were jealous of his influence amongst the people. On a wild and stormy day, Ciarán was chained to a millstone, and thrown from the top of a high cliff into the sea below. The blustery wind was blowing a deadly gale, the sky was black with thunderclouds and the dark stormy sea was a maelstrom, white with foam, and swollen with massive waves.
As Ciarán was hurtling towards certain death the sun broke through the clouds, and instantly the winds abated and the raging stormy sea became calm. As the stone hit the sea it floated, hundreds in the crowd above, seeing Ciarán alive on the floating stone, were immediately converted to Christianity.
Wind and weather remained favourable for our reluctant spiritual hero, and after many days at sea, Ciarán landed safely on the beach that bears his name today - Perranporth, the cove or harbour of Piran, on the north coast of Cornwall within the modern parish of Perranzabuloe.
In the vast, remote and lofty sand dunes, overlooking the Celtic Sea, Ciarán built a cell and a small church. His first converts to Christianity were a fox, a badger and a bear. The Cornish people flocked to him as news of his teaching spread. It is alleged that he lived to the age of 206, at which time he still had all his teeth, perfect eyesight and showed no sign of old age. He is reputed to have died in a state of drunkeness by falling down a well. Legend states that he is buried at his Oratory in Perranzabuloe, Cornwall.
St Piran's Cross, close to the site of the
6th Century Oratory, Perranporth'
The etymology of Piran?
The letter C in Irish becomes P in the Cornish language. For example, the Irish word cenn meaning head becomes pen in Cornish, as in Pentire, Cornish language for headland. So it is easy to see why Ciarán became known as Piran in Cornwall.
Today St Piran’s Oratory lies within the shifting sand dunes. The Oratory has recently been uncovered by archaeologists, and it is hoped that the ancient building will be preserved and maybe future generations will be able to visit this incredibly important site of cultural and historic importance.
This once flourishing Celtic Christian community of Piran would have rivalled Iona and Lindisfarne in its size and stature. Nearby is the ancient wayside cross of St Piran.
St Piran window from the medieval chapel of
Sen Pyran at Trethevy, Tintagel, Cornwall
These days St Piran is widely regarded as the patron saint of Cornwall and his feast on 5th March is a day of celebration across the Duchy and in Cornish Diaspora across the world. His flag is a white cross on a black background, said to depict the moment that Piran discovered tin, which poured from his blackened hearth-stone and today the flag is proudly flown across the historic nation of Cornwall.
You can read all about my latest research into the Finchingfield Witch Sticks in issue 2 of The Enquiring Eye. This paper takes a complete look at the unique Essex sticks, the folklore surrounding them and compares these artefacts to other similar items in the folklore archive.
Check it out here
Above: The spot where 'Goofy Mumford' is believed to be buried.
Lien Gwerin: A Journal of Cornish Folklore, number 5, is now available to order. This is another bumper edition, even bigger and better than before, featuring leading writers and artists from Cornwall and around the world. Included in this issue is a fresh look at the infamous curse of Mother Ivey, plus some of the the folklore and other mysteries surrounding the famous tidal sea cave holy well, near Newquay, and the retelling of the folktale of the Zennor mermaid. PLUS a look at the folklore of the Scillies and loads more.
Please click the link for full details on our fantastic content line-up and how to order your copy.