The Month of June

Charles II hiding in the boughs of an oak tree

The gypsy folk of times past often said that when there was no “R” in the month then it was “safe” to eat pork, how true this is has yet to be verified even by Brewers’ Phrase & Fable. However, it certainly indicates how familiar they were with the old Judaic and Muslim taboos and their relevance to a healthy lifestyle. In Greek society the timing and location of regular festivals imbued the political and social life of the community with a rhythm and sense of continuum and even a spirit of divine communion with the gods in Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. These were not linear moments but intrinsically cyclic feasts and wakes with the understanding that the cycle of the year was an eternal process not a “one-off annual spectacular”. However, the civic calendar was something quite separate from that of the sacred or religious calendar and this was true of many other religious and secular communities. What we now know of the earliest known record of such a calendar dates from the time of Solon (6th century) from surviving fragments. To the ancient Celts the period approximating to this time May/June was known as the “Time of Brightness” and sacred to the Oak Tree although in the lunar calendar it was known as “Fallow Moon” and to the Scandinavians as “EggTide”.

Robert Frost’s poem sums up an unexpected turn in the annual cycle:

Ancient Oak in Cumbria

If tired of trees I seek again mankind,
Well I know where to hie me–in the dawn,
To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.
There amid lolling juniper reclined,
Myself unseen, I see in white defined
Far off the homes of men, and farther still,
The graves of men on an opposing hill,
Living or dead, whichever are to mind.

And if by noon I have too much of these,
I have but to turn on my arm, and lo,
The sun-burned hillside sets my face aglow,
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze,
I smell the earth, I smell the bruisèd plant,
I look into the crater of the ant.

Appleby Horse Fair

The name of the month derives from the Latin or Roman Goddess Juno (the feminine counterpart of Zeus) who was worshipped and celebrated for her patronage of the civic arts, education and law. In the Christian calendar June was a time to celebrate the Holy Trinity which fell some eight weeks after Easter and was instituted and consecrated as a feast day in 1162 in honour of Thomas Beckett. However, many other pagan customs and traditions were subsequently attached to this sacred month from a variety of sources. The Scots, for example had the tradition of walking the bounds, the Danes of granting portions of common land to the peasants, and the Anglo-Saxons to the dedication of the local parish church. The festival of Corpus Christi (lit: “Body of Christ”) is typical of the latter. In this instance this festival was introduced by Pope Urban IV in 1264 which celebrates the central mystery of the Eucharist whereby the body and blood of Christ was considered to be present within the sacraments. This was of course a contentious issue for Protestant believers who repudiated such “pagan beliefs” perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it spawned a number of local guilds that sponsored education, training and active vocations or apprenticeships funded by the rich and influential parishioners. Processions would be held to celebrate their existence and the good work they funded and disseminated. Later these included tableaux, pageants, and biblical dramas or “mysteries”. It is said that William Shakespeare derived a great deal of inspiration from these events while travelling around Warwickshire. The practice of carrying the crucified Christ through the streets so common in Continental and S. American countries was however abolished with the advent of the Reformation. One might still attend the Appleby Horse Fair (founded in 1750 by the local borough) which is now organised by Romany and Gypsy folk and held at the summit of a local hill. Here horse races, exhibitions, fortune-telling, trade fairs and entertainments are still enjoyed although running horses through the town streets has now been banned. Another strange custom common to the British Isles is that of the “Mock Mayor” who was selected by his townsfolk for being exceptionally stupid. This still takes place in Oxford and was intended as a satirical parody from the down-trodden to the filthy rich. The Throstle by Alfred, Lord Tennyson takes note of the change from Spring to Summer:

Bottom is transformed into an Ass, the subject of Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass”

‘Summer is coming, summer is coming,
I know it, I know it, I know it.
Light again, leaf again, life again, love again!’
Yes, my wild little Poet.
Sing the new year in under the blue,
Last year you sang it as gladly. ‘New, new, new, new!’
Is it then so new
That you should carol so madly?
‘Love again, song again, nest again, young again,’–
Never a prophet so crazy!
And hardly a daisy as yet, little friend;
See, there is hardly a daisy.
‘Here again, here, here, here, happy year!’
O warble unchidden, unbidden!
Summer is coming, is coming, my dear,
And all the winters are hidden.

On the 2nd Saturday of the month is also the occasion of the Queen’s Official Birthday although she was actually born on April 21st. The reason for this anomaly is that June is more clement for outdoor celebrations than is April. In the United Kingdom this year people will be celebrating an important Royal occasion, namely the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee as she approaches her 70th year on the throne, which is quite an achievement. Queen Elizabeth the 1st reigned for some 44 years which was again something of a record for a European monarch in the 16th century. The 11th of June is known as Barnabus’s Day, celebrating the death of an early Christian martyr who it was said was a companion to St. Paul in Cyprus. Although it should take place 11 days later it is now largely forgotten it was supposed to be a Christian alternative (ie: Midsummer Martyr) for the Midsummer Druidic sacrificial victim. The association was lost due to the adoption of the Julian calendar. The 15th of June is the anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John (1215). Only four copies of this document survive today, two are in the British Library, one in Lincoln Cathedral and another at Salisbury Cathedral. The 24th June is sacred to St. John the Baptist, another Christian Martyr, when fairies and sprites went abroad and were often encountered by innocent travellers. This belief may be the origin of the title of Shakespeare’s play Midsummer Night’s Dream although the action in the play specifies the period of enchantment as May Eve. The play was composed to celebrate the marriage of William Stanley and Elizabeth de Vere (the daughter of Edward de Vere) which took place at the Savoy Chapel in the presence of the Queen but an official ceremony took place four days later at Greenwich followed by a reception at Burghley House. Furthermore, that astrologically Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably first performed on the conjunction of the New Moon with Venus which took place on February 19th 1596 when Venus was exalted and that the ceremony took place at a private venue, not in a playhouse. More likely midsummer was an auspicious time for divinations of all types especially where it came to questions of love. Moreover, the month culminates with the Midsummer Festival (21st), ostensibly symbolising the triumph of the light over darkness. A traditional saying declares:

The Royal Banner

Marriage in the month of June
Life will be one long honeymoon.

The Feast of Corpus Christi was instituted by Pope Urban IV in 1264 to celebrate the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ into the bread and wine of the Catholic Eucharist. It was celebrated on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday which took place some 8 weeks after Easter and might fall anywhere between the 10th May and 20th June. It was re-launched by Pope John XXII in 1317 to commemorate the central mystery of the Eucharist and was therefore a bone of contention among the Protestant clergy and their parishioners. St. John the Baptist Day fell on the 24th June although his death was celebrated on the 29th August. His birthday being on the 6th January (Twelfth Night). However, its annual celebration was embraced by a number of guilds and by the middle of the 15th century it was the third most popular religious and secular event in the Christian calendar, next to that of the Virgin Mary and the Trinity (see above). Towns and cities with a long history of its occurrence include York, Shrewsbury, Durham, Coventry and Lichfield that gained a reputation for lavish staged productions and street processions. The event coincided with the pagan calendar of the Midsummer Solstice just as Christmas dove-tailed conveniently into the pagan Yuletide. The Feast of Corpus Christi and the widespread support it received may be the origin of independent English theatre. This is also the so-called Rogantide or Rogation Days which occur the Sunday before Ascension Day and probably of Roman origin in honour of Mars and derived from the Ambarvalia, or Terminalia in May-June. This was a time when animals were driven through boundaries and prayers offered for the safety of the crops. They were also known as “gang days” as gangs of people were known to roam the countryside beating the bounds.

Rosa Canina, the Dog Rose

Amongst other things June is renowned for its orchid displays, and there are numerous varieties in the British Isles for the amateur botanist to examine more closely and in the flesh so to speak. There is the common spotted, heath orchid, and several bee orchids. The native Dog Rose (Rosa canina) is now out in bloom, the honeysuckle spreads its alluring fragrance for moths, butterflies and bees are widespread, the yellow flowering iris, also known as Yellow Flag (Iris pseudocorus) can be seen in full flower along the margins of ponds, streams, lakes and marshes. On warm early Summer evenings in rural and urban settings butterflies abound in suitable habitats, the brimstones in woodlands, the holly blues near climbing ivy, meadow browns in meadows and pasturelands, tortoise-shells in fields and along hedgerows, and cabbage whites around allotments and gardens. In the avian kingdom Swallows, House Martens and Swifts are especially visible and active where they are most regularly found devouring insects on the wing. In the woodlands and hedgerows Elder announces its quite inconspicuous existence with its luxurious white umbelliferous flower clusters. The flowers can be collected and made into medicinal cordials that combat allergic illnesses. The close relative of the Hawthorn, Cock’spur Thorn also begins to bloom. If you can find the secluded or remote habitats in the nearby countryside this is a good time to secretly observe stoats, weasels, badgers, foxes and hares either late at night or early in the morning. They have all been known to frequent deserted sheds, woodpiles and ruins, under floors, tree hollows and holes in garden walls. Swallows, Martens and Swifts can still be seen acrobatically scanning the skies for insects. Among the plants thought to be sacred to this time are St. John’s Wort, Plantain, the purple-flowering Orpine, Mugwort and Hemp. Ferns were also supposed to have supernatural powers as they slowly unfold their delicate fractal stems. The Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris) was sacred to this time being picked and used to decorate poles and doorways.

Ancient Rush-bearing Festival

There is an age-old custom or tradition of patrolling the borough boundaries in June known colloquially as “beating the bounds” or riding the bounds. It is often synonymous with an historical victory, synonymous with the triumph of light over darkness as the Sun enters midsummer. It was coincidentally a time for national and regional processions or pageants celebrating victories of yore and those more recent. Moreover fox-hunting and other sporting activities were encouraged as well as country fairs throughout the land. St. Anne’s Day (26th June) is now celebrated in Westmoreland on the first Saturday in July as the “Rush-Bearing Festival”. Its’ origins probably derive from Egypt or Syria where the rush is synonymous with heavenly paradise. The 22nd of June is the Feast of St. Alban and in Herefordshire roses feature as garlands or displays. Robert Burns wrote of this time:

O my love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
My love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

The Rosey-Mary is an Elizabethan euphemism for a prostitute

In London they celebrate with the annual Trooping of the Colour and in Surrey the annual Derby horse race is held. Named after the 12th Earl of Derby it was inaugurated in 1780. The third Sunday of June is a festival date originally imported from the United States namely “Father’s Day”. In the Cheshire village of Appleton a hawthorn tree is adorned with ribbons and garlands (aka “Bawming the Thorn”). Local children form a procession and dance around the tree which is equally revered with the Glastonbury Thorn whose adornment takes place in January. Sacred Hawthorns were held to be of Anglo-Saxon origin, sacred Ash of Celtic origin and sacred Sycamore of Phoenician origin. In parts of Lincolnshire the 28th June is St. Peter’s Day a time when witches and fairies appeared and played havoc in personal relationships. The Feast Day of St. Peter and St. Paul is held the following day.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,