Whitsun Ale

Whitsun Ale

In late medieval and Renaissance England some parish churches financed themselves by holding church ales. These community parties, held at the local church, featured the sale of beer brewed specially for the occasion. Sometimes the parties included food as well. Most church ales were held on holidays and so provided people a way to celebrate as well as furnishing the local church with needed income. These events took place most frequently at Whitsuntide (Pentecost and the week that followed), but might also occur around Easter, May Day, Christmas, and on patron saint days. The English often referred to Pentecost as Whitsunday, so these Pentecost parties became known as Whitsun ales.

One writer of the time described a Whitsun ale in Cornwall (southwestern England) as follows:

For the church-ale, two young men of the parish are yerely chosen by their last foregoers to be wardens, who, dividing the task make collection among the parishioners, of whatsoever provision it pleaseth them voluntarily to bestow. This they employ in brewing, baking, and other acates [purchased provisions], against Whitsuntide, upon which holidays the neighbours met at the church house, and there merily feed on their owne victuals, each contributing some petty portion to the stock, which, by many smalls, groweth to a meetly greatness; for there is entertayned a kind of emulation between these wardens, who, by his graciousness in gathering, and good husbandry in expending, can best advance the churche's profit. Besides, the neighbour parishes at those times lovingly visit one another, and frankly spend their money together. The afternoons are consumed in such exercises as olde and yonge folk (having leysure) doe accustomably weare out the time withall. When the feast is ended, the wardens yeeld in their accounts to the parishioners; and such money as exceedeth the disbursement is layd up in store, to defray any extraordinary charges arising in the parish, or imposed on them for the good of the countrey or the prince's service; neither of which commonly gripe so much, but that somewhat stil remayneth to cover the purse's bottom.

In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement known as the Protestant Reformation gave birth to Protestant Christianity. In England one of the new sects, a group of conservative Protestants called Puritans, objected to many folk customs connected with holiday celebrations, among them church ales. They denounced the events as irreverent intrusions onto holy ground that encouraged drunkenness, disorder, and sexual misconduct. Their campaign against Whitsun ales may have dampened England's enthusiasm for the events. The decline of the Whitsun ale was secured, however, by the fact that by the late seventeenth century church ales had ceased to be an important source of parish funding. Although churches stopped sponsoring these events, people in many parishes continued to gather together for a Whitsun feast, which they organized and paid for themselves.

Further Reading

Hackwood, Frederick W. Inns, Ales, and Drinking Customs of Old England. London, England: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996.
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In 1516-17, in 1519-20, and in the 1540s, Robin Hood presided over the Yeovil Whitsun ale and collected contributions from the whole parish.
Yeovil chose no more Robin Hoods until 1557-8, and we have no evidence that the brief Edwardian Robin Hood revival meant a concurrent revival of either the Whitsun ale or any sort of mimetic activity.
The only clear trace of mimetic activity in Sherborne's pre-1539 accounts is the king who presided over the parish Whitsun ale, though the Corpus Christi procession did involve, in some unknown way, 'tents' erected near the church door.
The development of community institutions in Sherborne perhaps focused on the parish school, on a church house built in the 1530s, on the Whitsun ale, and on the fifteenth-century parish almshouses, built with moneys raised by massive gatherings (to which we may contrast the fifteenth-century Yeovil almshouse, founded by a single Londoner).
Almost uniquely, there are next to no indications of ecclesiastical disapproval of these customs, and the Whitsun Ale held in the parish of St Michael at the Northgate in 1642 is the last known to me to have been held as a parish-sponsored event.
In 1606, a courtier named Thomas Coryate, of Odcombe, Somerset, served as lord of a Whitsun ale that travelled from Odcombe to Yeovil, some three miles away.
His extraordinary oration addressed all the assembled throng as friends and confederates, expressed his love for their town, apologized for the boldness of his troop, and stressed emphatically that they came not as an army to conquer and pillage, but to offer themselves in a league of friendship, and to fulfill a religious purpose: to spend their own money at Yeovil's Whitsun ale for the benefit of Yeovil Church, in hope that the Yeovillians in their turn would reciprocate by coming to Odcombe.
At Bawdrip in 1585, claiming authority from Baron Poulett, the churchwardens and others set a Maypole atop the church steeple at a Whitsun ale.
Merrie England," with its public poetry (May games, Whitsun ales, Morris dances, the art of the cathedrals and parish churches), was not, he thinks, entirely a myth.
9) Ronald Hutton surveys the ubiquity of festive customs in Tudor England and their relative decline in the Stuart era, highlighting their fundraising role in parish finances, while pointing out the persistence into the seventeenth century of Hocktide and annual Whitsun ales in "villages near London and towns along the Thames between the capital and Oxford" in Rise and Fall (120).
Roud proceeds to outline the real history, starting with the Lord and Lady of Whitsun ales, with doses of literary reconstruction (Irving's Bracebridge Hall of 1822 and the like), Tennyson's poem, John Ruskin's influence at Whitelands College, and the ready acceptance by middle-class leaders in communities up and down the land keen to shape and guide the sometimes raucous recreations of the working class, which often centred around the consumption of alcohol and were accordingly perceived as threatening.