Folklore History

May Morning in Oxford

Over a hundred years ago, Alden’s Oxford Guide described “a curious ceremony annually observed at Magdalen College”. This ceremony was the May Morning hymn, and it’s continued (literally) to this day. On the 1st of May, the choir ascends Magdalen Tower to sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus as the sun rises. Beneath the tower, people gather to listen to the hymn and the bells, then head into the rest of the city to celebrate the arrival of spring with dancing, eating and drinking, and the observance of various May Day traditions.

Alden’s guide is correct in suggesting that Oxford’s May Morning is “a relic of Pagan times”, because the practice of greeting spring with festivities in Northern Europe is a pre-Christian tradition. Maypoles, Morris dancing, decorating with flowers and greenery, and various other nature-based spring customs can be traced back to Germanic, Celtic, and even Roman paganism. In 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University forbade dancing in masks, disorderly noise, and people “wearing wreaths and garlands made of leaves of trees or flowers or what not”. We know that Oxford has been doing something for May for a long time, and that Christian scholars weren’t too happy about it.

In 1583, the Oxford pamphlet writer Phillip Stubbes described a vivid scene of people staying out in the woods overnight before May Day and returning with a decorated Maypole that he referred to as a “stinking idol”. Maybe with some jealousy, he recounted how two to three hundred people would gather “to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idols”. In 1648, Puritans persecuted May Day revellers by taking away musicians’ instruments, dispersing Morris dancers, and “not suffering a green bough to be worn in a hat”. On May Day 2017, there was still music, Morris dancers, and lots of green boughs in hats!

Alden’s guide suggests that the hymns sung at the tower could have started as a memorial to Henry VII, who was a benefactor of Magdalen College. At the moment, no one knows if this is true. The memorial is a possible origin, as is a celebration of the completion of the tower in the early 1500s. When it’s first mentioned, in the 17th century, it’s already referred to as an ancient custom. The Rector of Magdalen College had made a £10 payment to keep it going. The Hymnus Eucharisticus itself dates from the 17th century as well, composed by the Doctor of Music Benjamin Rogers in 1685, based on an earlier hymn from 1660.

Accounts of the performance vary from a two hour concert of singing and music that began at 4am, to just the hymn itself. It didn’t become a formal part of the Oxford social calendar until the mid 19th century, when Dr John Rouse Bloxam decided that it was “more like a Bacchanalian song than a sacred hymn” and reformed the event. He made sure the choir was dressed properly, took their hats off, and stopped throwing eggs at the May Day partiers below, who used to answer by blowing horns to drown out the singing. With less eggs and horns, the ceremony became closer to what it is today, watched by crowds and people on boats in the river. Here, we may see the origins of the dangerous tradition of jumping into the River Cherwell – young men showed off by jumping from boat to boat, and often fell in. The entire bridge was closed several times due to injuries caused by people jumping from the bridge into the shallow water, but it was reopened in 2011 with safety measures.

In 1888, the artist William Holman Hunt attended the ceremony and painted the choir in the tower. He imagined Druids doing something similar, and felt that people of all cultures shared a common reverence for the sun. To depict that, he included a Parsi priest, modelled on a person from the Indian Institute in Oxford. My experience of May Morning definitely included a sense of the same inclusion that I think Hunt was trying to get at. This year was the biggest one recorded so far, and it was a really surreal experience. It was as if the whole city centre had became a space outside of daily life in which we all came together to greet the spring as our ancestors across the world had done.

A painting of a choir singing on the top of a church tower at sunrise.
May Morning on Magdalen Tower, (William Holman Hunt, 1890).