Turning Year: Floral festival of Corpus Christi

Arundel Cathedrals carpet of flowers.
Arundel Cathedrals carpet of flowers.

If you were given armfuls of flowers, what would you do? Most likely, give some away and place the rest in vases. Maybe you’d make some May garlands. You probably wouldn’t lay them out on the floor.

But that’s just what they do at Arundel, in Sussex, where they’ve celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi for over a hundred years. The highlight of their festival of flowers is an amazing carpet of blooms that fills the central aisle of Arundel Cathedral.

This year Corpus Christi, a Christian festival that celebrates the Eucharist, takes place today, Thursday. Before the Reformation English towns used to stage special plays on the day. Known as mystery plays, they tackled the whole Bible story from Creation to the Last Judgement.

The plays weren’t called “mystery” because they confused the audience — this was the term for crafts or trades whose secrets were learned through apprenticeship. They were governed by medieval guilds, and it was their members who built the sets and acted the roles in the plays.

York is one of a handful of cities to have revived their mystery plays, and they’re being staged this year. But this time, there’ll be no mobile stages trundling through the streets. For only the second time since the fourteenth century, the plays are being performed in the nave of York

Minster.

As usual, there’s only one professional actor in the cast of around 200 — Philip McGinley, who plays the role of Jesus. The plays begin today, and continue until June 30.

Royal Oak

In 1660, Charles II returned to claim the throne, entering London on his birthday, May 29. Houses were decorated with greenery. Maypoles sprang up. Hats, lapels and horses’ bridles were adorned with sprays of oak leaves, often with an oak gall or oak “apple” attached.

This recalled Charles’s narrow escape in 1651, after the Royalists’ defeat at the Battle of Worcester. To avoid capture he climbed an old oak tree and hid among the leaves, while Roundheads passed below without suspecting a thing.

People loved this story so much that Restoration Day on the 29th came to be known as Royal Oak Day. Everyone wore oak leaves, old and young — if they didn’t, they’d be thrashed with a bunch of nettles — yet interest dwindled after 1859 when the public holiday was abolished. Today there’s been a revival under the name of Oak Apple Day, and of course you can still find pubs called the Royal Oak. And every year on May 29 King Charles goes riding in Derbyshire, disguised as a flowering shrub.

The mound of leaves is the Castleton Garland, which conceals the king so well that only the royal legs are visible. Charles and his Lady ride in procession accompanied by a silver band and girls carrying flowers. When they arrive at St Edmund’s Church the six-stone Garland is hoisted to the top of the tower, where it remains until all the flowers have withered.

Castleton’s custom could have begun as a rush-bearing ceremony as these were widespread in Derbyshire, but it could also be an old May garland custom, given a royal makeover in honour of Charles II.