Whitsun Ale at Woodstock
19 August 2021 (Updated 7 September 2021)
Whitsun, or Whit Sunday, is a Christian holy day celebrated in the British Isle on the seventh Sunday after Easter. In various parts of the UK it was celebrated with Whitsun Ale, ale brewed by the Churchwarden to raise money for the church.
More ale, Vicar?
As you might imagine, with people showing their support for the church through drinking, the festivities could get somewhat out of hand on occasions! This led to the practice being supressed by religious authorities at various points.
However, the tradition prevailed in some areas. The author Thomas Little describes encountering somewhat debauched scenes at Woodstock in the year 1826 in his book 'Confessions of an Oxonian'.
Little describes strolling in Blenheim Park and hearing the sounds of music and revelry coming from nearby. Following these sounds, he discovers a scene of revelry centred around tents that had been erected for drinking and dancing, with many attendees in outlandish costumes.
'Bring out his Lordships gelding!'
It seems that during the Woodstock Whitsun Ale celebrations, tricking unsuspecting passers-by with forfeits was an additional way for locals to raise money. This also allowed locals to have some fun at the expense of people who, in the normal scheme of things, they would not be able to get away with poking fun at.
Thomas Little describes being approached by a man 'dressed up in the motley garb of a Tom Fool, or clown'. The man indicated a painted wooden horse that stood in the middle of a nearby ring and asked Little what he would call it. When Little replied 'a wooden horse' the man declared this incorrect and insisted on Little paying a shilling as a forfeit. When Little refused to pay, the man cried 'Bring out his lordships gelding, here's a Gentleman wishes for ride! Tell her ladyship to be mounted!'.
At this point, Little was seized by 'four of five clumsy clod-poles' (as Little refers to the local agricultural labourers) and placed on the wooden horse, behind 'an ugly, red-haired, freckled trull who personated the lady of the revels'.
Faced with this public ordeal, Little decided that he would in fact prefer to pay the forfeit, and on handing over a shilling, was permitted to dismount the wooden horse!
Her ladyships owl?
Unfortunately for Little, his ordeal was not yet over. He was then accosted by one of the women playing the part of 'her ladyship's maids of honour' who drew his attention to a large stuffed white owl that was hanging from a nearby tent. Little attempted to play along, declaring that it was 'the very handsomest Owl I had ever seen'.
This was apparently the wrong answer (Little was told later that the owl represented 'her ladyship's canary-bird') and the woman insisted Little pay another shilling as a forfeit.
On refusing, Little was seized by a group of women who pushed him towards 'a fat, ugly wench, with a nose and cheeks reddened with brick-dust, and bearing a toasting-fork in one hand and a dish-cloth in the other' while shrieking "Bring out her ladyship's cook, the gentlemen wishes to marry her!".
Little quickly pulled out another shilling and thus narrowly avoided being subjected to a mock-marriage ceremony that would apparently have included him being pricked three times on each buttock by the toasting fork and having his nose blown with the filthy dish-cloth.
At this point, Little decided to beat a hasty retreat!
Notes on location
Thomas Little is vague about exactly where the Whitsun Ale festivities he witnessed took place. He mentions that he was walking in the park when he heard the sound of revelry, and passed through the park gates before he encountered the crowd. Whitson Ale celebrations would typically have taken place near the parish church that it was raising money for, so I have placed this posts map marker in the street outside the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in the High Street.
- 'Confessions of an Oxonian' by Thomas Little (archive.org)
- 'Folklore of Oxfordshire' by Christine Bloxham (Tempus Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 9780752436647)