Ed Webster, Flickr

The history of May Morning

There are many traditions associated with Oxford, but one of the best known festivals is May Morning. The event happens on the first of May and it involves a crowd congregating by Magdalen tower, in order to hear the college choir sing a traditional hymn at 6 o’clock in the morning. The spring festival has also been connected with all kinds of activities and revelry associated with the celebration of May Day.

Despite May Morning being an age-old tradition, much of its history is still shrouded in considerable doubt. It is sometimes said that the Magdalen College Choir has been singing on May Morning – an event immortalised by Holman Hunt in 1890 – for over 500 years. This article summarises what we known about the history of the event, using an earlier work on the subject (see below).

Origins of May Morning

It is not uncommon to hear that the festival has either an ecclesiastical origin or that it has pagan connections. There is evidence to suggest that singing has taken place on Magdalen Tower on May Morning since at least the late Seventeenth Century. A guidebook of 1817 suggested that it was done

in lieu of a requiem, which, before the Reformation, was performed in the same place for the soul of Henry VII. The rectory of Slimbridge, in Gloucestershire, is charged with an annual payment of ten pounds for the performance of this service.

The college had received the advowson (the right to nominate a priest) of the living in Slimbridge from Lord Berkeley in 1484 in return for daily prayers and keeping an obit for him after his death. Henry VII then inherited the estate and allowed Magdalen to keep the advowson in return for the same services to him. The college also succesfully petitioned to have £10 a year provided to them from the Slimbridge tithes.

Magdalen Tower

Magdalen tower was built between 1492 and 1508-9 and it is possible that some kind of May Day dedication may have occurred (the bells being installed in 1504-5). Nevertheless, the first reference to it was in the seventeenth century when Richard Parsons mentioned a £10 payment made by the Rector of Magdalen College to keep up an ancient custom of May Day of vocal and instrumental music on top of the tower. In 1688, during the college’s dispute with James II, there was also a reference to the tradition being neglected for ‘want of choristers and clerks’. In 1749, John Pointer mentioned a concert of music being held there every May-day at 4 o’clock in the morning in commemoration of Henry VII. This may well have been the kind of event that continued until the end of the eighteenth century.

From the 1860s it became increasingly common for the event to be a social event attended by old scholars, many of whom wanted to ascend the tower to hear the singing. Tickets were introduced to limit the numbers, but in 1869 there were said to have been at least 200 on the tower.

The Hymn

The hymn, Te Deum Patrem colimus, was written by organist and choirmaster (1665-1686), Benjamin Rogers and was regularly used in the college as its ‘after grace’ (the words thought to be written by Thomas Smith, Fellow of the college from 1666-1692). It is unclear when this was added to the ceremony. Dr Routh, President from 1791-1854, suggested it had previously been accidentally introduced, when only the organist and choir had showed up. The organist supposedly made them sing the hymn. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until around the 1790s that it assumed a more central role in the proceedings.

The Changes in 1844

One of the most influential accounts about the event came from Revd J. R. Bloxam, Fellow of Magdalen from 1835-1863, who suggests that in the early eighteenth century the proceedings were rather ‘irreverent’ with unruly choristers often throwing rotten eggs down on those below. More regimented rules were then implemented in 1844, which included certain protocols, like choristers wearing surpluses. Bloxam was a tractarian who wanted to focus attention back on the religious significance of the ceremony. Although he is often credited with reviving this part of the festival, from the 1870s onwards there was more speculation about whether the event had had some pagan connections.

A town or gown event?

Oxford has a long history of tensions between town and gown. There was certainly a degree of antagonism between the sides when it came to May Morning, as can be seen not only by the egg-throwing, but also the townsfolk using May horns to try and drown out the proceedings on the tower. Horns were being used from at least the eighteenth century, although it was not until the nineteenth century that they were used in a more confrontational manner. By the end of the Victorian period this horn blowing was dying out, partly because of the efforts by police to keep them quiet. By this point the event was also associated with many other additional activities like Jack-in-the-Greens, children with garlands (and other attempts to solicit money), and some companies parading decorated horse and carts around the area. The festival was certainly very popular by this point and a number of newspapers mentioned its growing prowess.

The Meaning of May Morning

May Morning has been depicted in many different ways and it is clear that it has meant different things to different people over time. It has been viewed as a festival with religious, patriotic and pagan significance, but more recently it has simply been a celebration of an age-old tradition (without referring to much as to why!). Jumping into the Cherwell river (or attempting to do so!) was of course a recent and now outlawed activity, but it will certainly be interesting to see how the events surrounding it continue to evolve in the years to come!

The main source for this article is Roy Judge’s definitive article ‘May Morning and Magdalen College, Oxford’ in Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 1 (1986), pp. 15-40. 

Image by Ed Webster, Flickr

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