WE HAVE arrived at yet another May Day, recently appropriated in several countries to honour organised labour. Long forgotten is the custom of dancing round the maypole. In fact it was already beginning to die out when Washington Irving wrote in Bracebridge Hall: "I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a maypole. It was on the banks of the Dee, close by the picturesque old bridge that stretches across the river from the quaint little city of Chester."
The London church of St Andrew Undershaft in St Mary Axe was so named because of the shaft of the huge maypole erected there annually. But it was destroyed in 1549 after the curate of St Katherine Cree had denounced it as a pagan idol.
He was of course correct since the Queen of the May custom is a relic of heathenism. The Queen is supposed to have been a representation of the goddess Flora worshipped by the Romans.
The St Andrew shaft was known as the Cornhill Maypole and it is mentioned by John Stow who was buried in the church in 1605. What a remarkable man he was. Though a mere tailor by profession, his hobby was to collect and record information about the city in which he lived. To this hobby we owe most of what is known today about medieval and Tudor London, as well as a vast amount of other English history.
How pleasant nowadays it is to visualise Stow's London where "on May Day in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walk into the sweet meadows and green woods, there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty and savour of sweet flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praising God in their kind."
THE TOWN of Douai in northern France recently played host to five English Benedictine monk-historians.
The monks, Doms Aidan Bellenger (Downside), Bernard Green and Terence Richardson (Ampleforth), and Geoffrey Scott and Richard Jones (Douai, England), revisited many of the sites and studied many of the archives associated with the revival of the Benedictine order.
Douai already had an English College — founded in 1568 by Cardinal Allen — when Abbot Caverel of Arras offered a home to a group of monks who, in 1607, formed the community of St Gregory the Great, now resettled at Downside. This was the first English Benedictine monastery to have been founded since the Reformation and it established a school which many consider to have been the Catholic Eton of its day.
Its school buildings survive on a grand scale. Following the French Revolution — when the Gregorian monks decided to settle permanently in England — they were used by the monks of St Edmund's, Paris, a Benedictine community originally founded in 1615 to provide a centre for English monks at the University.
In 1903 they were forced by the anti-clerical Combes law to -take refuge in England. They found a home at Woolhampton in Berkshire, retaining the name Douai in recognition of the debt of British Catholics to that town. The community now administers 12 parishes and an independent boarding school for over 300 boys.
The recent visit was stage managed with great skill by Madame Nicole Corteel, the Mayor of Douai's assistant for international affairs. It included various social functions as well as an extensive examination of the archives at Douai, Arras and Lille. Mass was celebrated in the chapel of the Lycee Corot, a Gothic building by Pugin which has remained almost unaltered since the monks left in 1903.
I HEAR there has been a sequel to an incident which I reported in advance before Lent. Thirty nine defendants will appear in various London magistrates' courts between now and the end of June charged with criminal damage after an "act of witness" at the Whitehall Ministry of Defence on Ash Wednesday. They have all pleaded not guilty and will be conducting their own defence.
Over 50 Christians of different communions, including priests, nuns and religious, marked the walls 9f the Ministry of Defence with blessed ashes and charcoal in an "act of repentance for the national sin of nuclear war preparations." Supportive statements were given at the time by one Catholic and two Anglican Bishops, namely Bishops Victor Guazzelli, Tony Dumper and Peter Selby.
The protest was organised by Catholic Peace Action, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi and Christian CND. I gather that the latter (tel. no: 01-250-4010) is willing to give names of the defendants and times and places of the hearings in case anyone — even those who disagree — want to attend the court to listen to such legal and moral arguments as will be put forward.
I HAVE been hearing from a member of the College of Arms about a strange sect based in London calling itself the Aetherius Society. Its adherents believe that beings from another planet are constantly visiting the earth.
Some of its members run an equally strange group styled the Royal Knights of Justice. They sell knighthoods which, though not officially recognised, have emboldened some of the recipients to put "Sir" on their passports.
There are apparently about 50 such "knights" in Britain and about double that number in the USA, nearly half the latter being senior police officers. They claim to have been founded by Henry VII and revived by "Sir" Sydney Lawrence in 1981.
In Catholic circles too there are quite a few totally obscure, self-styled "orders of' knighthood" which have no official standing and have been more than once condemned by the Holy See.
Some have splendidly grandiloquent titles, my own particular favourite being the "Constantinian Lascaris Angelical Order of the Golden Militia." Other orders favour such prefixes as Sacred, Chivalric, Capitular, Nobiliary, Angelical, Celestial, Imperial, Delcassian, etc.
If you spot any such prefix, watch out!
LAST SUNDAY'S ordination of Fr Colin Wolczak by Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor at the church of St Gabriel, Billingshurst, Sussex, was of special satisfaction to the former parish priest, Fr Gerard Candy, one of the most popular men in the Arundel and Brighton diocese.
Since Fr Candy first became parish priest over 30 years ago he was replaced the year before last, on retirement, by Fr Gordon Simmons — he had always hoped that one of his parishioners would become a priest. In 1956 he baptised Colin Wolczak whose father, a gallant ex-member of the Free Polish Army, had settled locally after the war.
Now Fr Candy's dream has come true as the six foot six exstage manager, a former Wonersh student, was ordained in a packed church. It is not the same church which was the scene of Fr Colins baptism which occurred in a temporary forerunner. St Gabriel's, however, keeps its silver jubilee this year, yet another cause for celebration in Billingshurst.
Congratulations to all concerned, especially to the one and only Fr Candy.
THE SEASON for visiting country houses and gardens round Britain and Ireland has come round once again. The experienced tourist with such interests knows, of course, only one "bible," the annually published Historic Houses, Castles and Gardens. I was using it to great advantage over the Easter weekend.
The 1987 edition, I notice, is the largest ever produced and is excellent value for a year's enjoyment. It covers opening times, admission charges and special attractions in about 1300 historic properties and carries excellent historical notes on most of them.
This latest edition contains over 40 new entries, the most interesting and unusual of which is, perhaps, Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. This is the only home of the Benedictine nuns in Ireland.
The castle was acquired by the nuns in 1922 (not 1920 as stated in Historic Houses). Thus preserved was a precious heirloom, both for and on behalf of the people of Ireland and visitors from all over the world.
The originar foundation was made from Ghent in 1665, and the nuns were known as the Irish Dames of Ypres. They stayed at Ypres until shelled out in 1914, taking refuge in England and moving to MacMine, . Co Wexford, in 1916, before finally settling at Kylemore.
I remember with the utmost pleasure my last visit to this beautiful Abbey set in spectacular lake and mountain scenery about fifty miles west of Galway city, near the coast. Go on a Sunday and stay for Vespers in the afternoon. You won't regret it.
I was intrigued to notice incidentally that last year's most popular place listed in the current Historic Houses was Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire with no less than 239,500 visitors. An impressive record.