The Ancient Rushbearing Festival

Rushbearing

Rushbearing is an old Lancashire custom from the early Middle Ages that still survives in a few rural areas today.  It began as an annual Catholic festival to rededicate the local parish church, and soon developed into a day-long village celebration.  In olden times the floors of churches were made of packed earth.  These were covered with rushes, herbs, and grasses to provide a sweet-smelling insulation against the cold and damp – a practice that continued until flagstones were finally installed.  One day a year, at the end of summer, or on the Saint’s Day associated with a particular church, the old rushes got swept away and new ones were put in their place.

Over time, this religious ceremony developed into a community festival that contained many carnival elements.  The rushes were harvested and dried out several weeks in advance, and then fashioned into a bee-hive decoration on the official rushbearing cart – a float also adorned with garlands and flowers.  The cart was traditionally pulled by all the young bachelors of the parish, and a village maiden chosen as the Rushbearing Queen rode on top.  The procession was often accompanied by banners, Morris Men, street performers, dancers, bands, and minstrels.

The day began with a slow progress through the crowded streets.  Those towns that do not use an official cart appointed several Rush Maidens instead, who carried a white sheet containing the new rushes.  Once they arrived at the church everyone ceremoniously helped to spread out the fresh flooring.  It was originally customary to ring the church bells, and to provide wine, ale and cake for the rushbearers – but the ceremony later developed into a day-long drunken revel, which unfortunately encouraged a lot of criminal activity.

By 1579 this festival had become so bawdy that Queen Elizabeth 1st outlawed the custom, disapproving of the drinking and frolicking taking place in local churchyards.  It was reestablished by King James 1st as part of the “diverting exercises” endorsed in his Book of Sports. 

Rushbearing can be seen each August at Newchurch-in-Pendle.  Other Lancashire towns have replaced the ceremony with similar village processions such as Club Day or Carnival Day.

Sources:

Ashworth, Elizabeth. Tales of Old Lancashire (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2007)

Wiki: “Rushbearing” Accessed on 4/6/2015

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