Of Churches & Liquor: Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green & the Revels of May

By Romany Reagan

How is the Green Man linked to the Jack-in-the Green? When was green—instead of red—the colour of lust? And what does any of this have to do with church carvings and pubs? Come with me on a journey through May celebrations of yesteryear. 

As we ready ourselves for a rather unique May bank holiday weekend this year, I thought I’d explore the celebrations of Mays long past, to share the curious revels of long ago while we wait for our time for celebrations to come again. The good ol’ Jack-in-the-Green seemed a good place to start. I thought I’d uncover a rather straightforward history of this fellow. However his story—I’m delighted to say—is not straightforward at all. 

The most famous Jack-in-the-Green Festival today is probably the annual madness that takes place in Hastings. I have yet to attend this delightful festival myself, but I spent a very memorable Halloween there several years ago for that street fair celebration—and I can tell you Hastings does nothing by half measures. 

Videographer Justin Lycett captured the magic in 2016 so you can familiarise yourself with the imagery before I delve into the history: 

Jack in the Green 2016 by Justin Lycett from Justin Lycett on Vimeo

One of folklore’s most tricky seductions is the idea of antiquity. For practitioners and celebrants, the idea that these customs have been handed down to us, unbroken, from our ancestors imparts a feeling of cultural stability and connections to a shared past. For researchers, the hunt for identifiable original source materials stretching back through generations offers security for their conclusions. While researching my PhD thesis, I came across Carolyn Steedman’s book Dust, which is a must-read for anyone working with archives. She writes of the seduction of the archive, how as researchers and creative history practitioners we try to rebuild  the stories of people’s lives out of a receipt for a nutmeg grater. This desire to weave narrative runs deep across many disciplines, and the story behind the Green Man is no exception.

Green Man of the Church or the Boozer?

Calling leafy-headed church carvings the ‘Green Man’ actually began in the 20th century. Specifically, in a paper by Lady Raglan for the journal Folklore published in 1939. Raglan’s paper, ‘The Green Man in Church Architecture’, suggested a connection between a foliate head church carving in Llangwm Church in Monmouthshire and figures of folklore, custom, and legend.

‘Green Man’ in Llangwm Church Monmouthshire, John Lord, Flickr

In doing so, she forged a connection between concepts that previously were considered separate. And once they were linked, there was no stopping the runaway train of associations. In 1978, Kathleen Basford published her study on the Green Man aiming to get to the heart of the real history, but as she notes: “No one, I think, ever called a foliate head a ‘Green Man’ before Lady Raglan; now we all do, even though we may not accept her hypothesis.” (Basford 1991 238)

Raglan’s original hypothesis reads as follows:

It seemed to me certain that it was a man and not a spirit, and moreover that it was a ‘Green Man’. So I named it. This figure is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life, and the question is whether there was any figure in real life from which it could have been taken. The answer, I think, is that there is only one of sufficient importance, the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack in the Green, Robin Hood, The King of May, and the Garland, who is the central figure in the May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe. (Raglan 1939)

Lady Raglan lumps together many famous figures of the May pageant—including Robin Hood, which I wrote a post about last week—into the idea of a generalised ‘Green Man’. She does include Central Europe in her description, which is accurate as far as Germany goes, as their leafy May figures are referred to as der Grune Mann. Of course, as Centerwall points out, any leaf-covered figure is bound to be called the ‘Green Man’ sooner or later. Folklorist Roy Judge demonstrated in his 1991 study that the Jack-in-the-Green character was essentially a money-making scheme developed by chimney sweeps in the late 18th century. However, the characters of Jack-in-the-Green and Green Man have been often used interchangeably throughout the 20th century and today. 

The part of this story that is probably most familiar to us today are the ubiquitous Green Man pubs. 

The Green Man pub in Soho, London

I’ve spent many an evening at the Green Man in Soho, not ever thinking that the very pub name itself is a little act of rebellion. 

The majority of the Green Man pubs today use the foliate head as their image—although a few do have Robin Hoods or gamekeepers, but for the most part it’s the leafy fellas you see above. Despite the antiquity of the church carvings that Raglan references, the Green Man did not exist as an innkeeper’s sign prior to the 17th century. “Much of what has been said about the connexion of the Green Man as he appears in ecclesiastical and secular buildings with folklore is presumption—a presumption based on a desire I certainly share and have been warned against. That desire is for every tradition to be as ancient as possible.” (Anderson 1990 26) 

The Green Man of church architecture has no relation to the Green Man of May pageantry. These characters were regulars of pageants and entertainments of the 16th and 17the century, especially of the London Lord Mayor’s Pageant where they functioned as whifflers (men who clear the crowds with flaming torches and fireworks ahead of the main parade). It is these characters of the pageant that the taverns, innkeepers, and distillers were referencing with their signs. 

Source: Centerwall, Brandon S., (1997) The Name of the Green Man, Folklore, 108:1-2, p25-33, Journal. 

The above distiller sign is from 1630. The ‘Green Man and Still’ shows that the Green Man is covered with leaves. He is distinctive from the other pageant character of the Wild Man, who is covered with hair, although these characters have also often become confused with one another: 

Source: Centerwall, Brandon S., (1997) The Name of the Green Man, Folklore, 108:1-2, p25-33, Journal. 

So, was the pageant Green Man just a leafy Wild Man? Green Man inns and taverns have been popular since the first half of the 17th century, however Wild Man establishments have been quite rare (although I’d like to frequent one, I’m sure). With the choice to clearly show the Green Man as their symbol and not the Wild Man, publicans and distillers were making a clear distinction. “Opinions varied, but the Wild Man was generally envisage as human in shape but lacking both a human soul and human intelligence, and therefore devoid of even the most rudimentary culture—no clothing, no shelter, no fire, not even the gift of language. […] Such a primitive creature would know nothing of alcohol and would be incapable of producing it—a point not lost on tavernkeepers and distillers. Indeed, the medieval Wild Man appears to be as ignorant of alcohol as he is of everything else. Medieval accounts of the Wild Man do not dwell upon the possibilities of intoxication.” (Centerwall 28) 

Antiquarian John Bagford (1650-1716) tells us that the ‘Green Man and Still’ continued to be a common emblem of distilleries in his day. When Bagford states that the Green Man is ‘a fit emblem for those that use that intosticating licker which berefts them of their senses’, he implies that he is well familiar with Green Men acting as if drunk. 

This returns us to the pageant Green Men, for their function was not merely to control the crowd, but also to serve as an opening act, employing various antics to elevate the mood of the onlookers in anticipation of the pageant proper. From Bagford’s remarks it can be concluded that the characteristic drollery of the pageant Green Man was to behave as though thoroughly intoxicated. This explains why inns, taverns, and distilleries overwhelmingly favoured the Green Man over the Wild Man as their emblem: the Green Man was pleasantly stupefied, whereas the Wild Man was merely stupid. (Centerwall 28) 

Being a ‘Green Man’ basically meant wearing a leafy costume to clear the way for the pageant and carried no other associations except that of drunkenness. The later associations we have of the Green Man being linked to spring renewals and pagan fertility rites are a fiction. While there surely are a vast array of folkloric springtime renewal rituals stretching back through pre-Christian times, the Green Man, in this incarnation, really has nothing to do with it. 

The Wild Man had been deeply rooted in medieval iconography for several centuries before the emergence of the leaf-covered pageant Green Man in the 15th century. […] The convergences of the Green Man upon the Wild Man was probably due to a combination of fading Green Man traditions (whatever those might have been) and the natural tendency for persons to see leaf-covered figures and hair-covered figures as interchangeably representative of an uncivilised state. The only distinction maintained into the 17th century was the pageant Green Man’s predilection for alcohol. (Centerwall 32) 

Although perhaps begun as an interpretation of the Green Man of church architecture, by the end of the 16th century, the Green Man has lost all such metaphorical significance, becoming a popular pageant clown of bacchanalian revelry. Due to this reputation, the leafy Green Men of pageantry were widely adopted as a signboard by taverns and distilleries.

In this contemporary account by Richard Flecknoe in 1665, you can hear the delicious disdain he had for religious reformers coming to take away the town’s fun. Puritans were on the scene, and these sozzled Green Men and their hints at pagan sultriness had to go:

They complain of the Signs in the City, cry out against them, as the abomination of all abominations, to see so many Popes-heads, so many Triple-Crowns, Bishops Miters, and Cardinals Caps, with Friars and Nuns, Beads, Agnus Dei’s, and the like, which makes London look like a very Babylon. As for the Signs, they have pretty well begun their Reformation already, changing the Sign of the Salutation of the Angel and our Lady, into the Souldier and Citizen, and the Katherine Wheel into the Cat and Wheel; so as there onely wants their making the Dragon to kill St George, and the Devil to tweak St Dunstan by the Nose, to make the Reformation complete. Such ridiculous work they make of their Reformation, and so zealous they are against all Mirth and Jollity, as they would pluck down the Sign of the Cat and Fiddle too, it durst play so loud as they might hear it. 

Despite the fact the Green Man was merely a figure of revelry, religious reformers saw him representing pagan unrule, so he was purged from the scene. It was due to this that, by the latter part of the 17th century, pub signs and other emblems changed from the leaf-covered Green Man, to another, more seemly interpretations such as Green Men foresters, gamekeepers, and Robin Hoods.

Only the distillers stuck to their guns and kept the leafy Green Man as their emblem. By the early 18th century, the Green Man had faded in meaning as an iconic emblem for the booze business, leaving in his wake the now largely misunderstood Green Man pubs, taverns, inns we see throughout England today. 

Sanitising May Day

The ancient agricultural festival that celebrated the changing seasons of new growth and fertility in Celtic Britain was the Beltane festival, held on the eve of May Day.

Belane Festival, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland The Scotsman, Photo: Ian Georgeson

Beltane meant ‘bright fire’ and bonfires were lit at night and animals sacrificed to the sun god. These practices changed in later centuries to dancing around fires and walking through the embers for good luck. The lighting of these fires continued in Scotland until about 150 years ago, and in Wales into the beginning of the 20th century. As you can imagine, the early Christian church did its best to overtake these festivals. The Beltane fires and May revels were considered to be primitive and pagan. Towards this end, the first of May was appointed the feast of St Philip and St James in a bid to give the festival some respectability—but try as they might, May Day debauchery was just too popular. 

18th-century engraving, ‘The chimney-sweeps’ May Day ‘Jack in the Green’ in London. The portly ‘May Queen’ on the right of the picture is probably a man.

That is until the Puritans came along and put a full stop to all things ‘sinful’—and Maying was definitely on that list. Our current view of May Day festivals is of innocent festive fun, but this is mostly due to its Victorian revival, which reinvented the day in a family-friendly way. The 19th century was an era of looking back, of romanticising the past and longing for a vanished and cosy ‘Merrie England’. “May Day was stripped of its roughness and replaced by a more sanitised, charming event—‘a pretty affair for children.’” (Rowe, Robson 4) 

Symbolic Meaning of Green: The Colour of Lust  

An examination of the Green Man story wouldn’t be complete without a look at the colour green itself and the symbolic meaning it held for Celtic, Germanic, and Christian religions relevant to early British culture. These meanings change through time, so our associations that we have today—a friendly colour of growth, renewal, and good environmental practice—were not what they once were for the wider population. In many parts of Britain, the colour green used to be considered unlucky. Just as fearsome dragons are now endangered species in children’s stories, and conniving murderous mermaids are now gentle victims, we’ve changed some things that used to have quite dark associations. 

In alchemy the colour green was a positive symbol, the colour of the green lion or dragon, which was the ‘raw material’ at the beginning of the alchemical process in the quest for the elixir of life. The Celts, to whom the natural and supernatural worlds were closely linked, regarded the colour favourably, and still do in many parts of Ireland. It really seems to be Christianity that gave the colour green its negative imagery and this was because Christians associated the colour with fertility (especially sexuality), paganism, and the supernatural. Medieval Christianity, despite the enlightened efforts of thinkers such as St Francis of Assisi, had a problem with the natural world and the forces of nature. Unlike the Celts, the Christians emphasised the supremacy of man over the rest of God’s creation. And the emphasis of the importance of virginity and chastity in Christian theology, which probably derives mainly from its Eastern roots, always sat uneasily in relation to Western societies. There have indeed been periodic flirtations between Christianity and the World of Nature. […] But often religious iconography has connected the colour green, fecundity, and sexuality with the Devil, or with the pagan deities who influenced his portrayal. (Doel, Doel, 25-27) 

Lusty Pagans

It is interesting to note here that Christianity put humans as the rulers of the world, with the rest of the earth and its creatures only here to serve us. Looking at the state of the world today, a look back to an earlier greener time, more in touch with the earth and with respect for its inhabitants, is certainly a vote for the neo-paganism we see resurging in the West from the late 20th century through today. The changing meaning of the colour green is a welcome one on that front. 


So, what does all this have to do with Jack-in-the-Green, I hear you cry! Basically, just more pagan-esque confusion. Jack-in-the-Green is generally referred to these days as the ‘Green Man’ and there are a number of revived May customs featuring this character. For those who are not familiar with the Jack-in-the-Green, it is a construction of a wicker frame about 8-feet in height in a cone shape almost like a Christmas tree. It is covered in leaves and fits over a dancer inside who is the focal point of May Day processions to the sound of flutes, the clacking sticks of Morris Dancers and drumming. Lots of drumming. 

Jack-in-the-Green Festival Hastings, 2012, dummers

The Jack-in-the-Green has no relation to the foliate heads on church carvings, it is only his leafiness that bears a resemblance. A seemingly non sequitur character mentioned in the 19th century is the ‘Jack o’ the Green’, who is simply described as carrying a walking stick and a floral wreath. Another ‘Green Man’-type character regularly associated with the May Day celebrations is Robin Hood. “Both these characters are, however, commonly confused with the Jack-in-the-Green and are frequently mistaken for the same. This tells you something else about folklore; such a perplexing area of research that quite often folklorists, researchers, and (especially) newspaper journalists will fail to notice specific local subtleties. It is common for them to simply group all the elements from one particular location or event and associate them with another.” (Rowe, Robson 14-15) Today, the Jack-in-the-Green is now considered the King of May, the spirit of the coming summer, and of new growth, fecundity, rebirth, and life. That’s not how he started, however. 

The first specific reference we have to the Jack-in-the-Green is in 1795, which is disappointingly late for making a possible connection with the medieval Green Man carvings. However, finding early specific references is a perennial problem with many traditional customs. […] Although the iconography and symbolism of the presentation of the Jack-in-the-Green would be a surprising total invention for the late 18th century, we must be cautious of assuming that anything specifically like Jack-in-the-Green existed in the medieval period. However, its antecedents and its emotional and symbolic force may derive from an early period. The name ‘Jack’ is often given in folklore to early supernatural figures such as Jack Frost, Jack ‘o Lent, Jack Sprat, and Jack the Giant Killer. (Doel, Doel 86-87)

‘The Milkmaid’s Garland, or Humours of May Day’, Francis Hayman, 1742

Like so much connected with these festivities, his origins are obscure, but the Jack came to be the character we know today in the late 18th century when he joined the chimney sweeps and milkmaid’s money-gathering parade. The milkmaids went about with elaborate headdresses comprising a pyramid of silver salvers, cups, and tankards borrowed for the occasion and garlanded with flowers and ribbons. “Frequently escorted by musicians, the milkmaids danced through the streets and would call at the houses of their regular customers to collect tips. May Day was also observed by Chimney Sweeps as their holiday and they would parade through the streets. It became quite usual to see the milkmaids and the sweeps in procession with each other.” (Rowe, Robson 13-14) 

The exact origin and meaning of this tradition is unclear as is the associated festival of the chimney sweeps who also chose the first of May for their festival in which they paraded the streets in mock finery of various sorts dancing and banging their brushes as they went. They were usually accompanied by a fiddler and a Jack-in-the-Green—one of their number completely concealed within a wicker pyramid covered with greenery who led the procession. It is in this connection with the sweep’s festival that we have the first known reference in England to Jack-in-the-Green with a description of his leafy attire. The tradition appears to have been mainly confined to London and the southeast and was described by Dickens in one of his Sketches by Boz. In some latter-day revivals of the tradition, it is not unusual for one or two of Jack’s attendants to have blackened faces reminiscent of the sweeps.  (Coulter 16)

Jack-in-the-Green Festival Hastings, blackened sweeps

This late 18th-century Jack-in-the-Green has no clear association with his tip-collecting compatriots, the milkmaids and chimney sweeps, other than just being a sight for the revellers to enjoy. By contemporary reports, the festival was a ‘drunken and vulgar’ affair. As Georgian debauchery gave way to Victorian decorum, the festival increasingly met with public disapproval. This is most likely due to the new aspirational middle class desiring to separate themselves from all such behaviour that seemed working class; but also, in a rather direct way, an 1840 Act of Parliament forbade the use of ‘climbing boys’, who risked their lives in the dangerous narrow work of chimney sweeping. And so without this rowdy set in the chimney sweep workforce, the tone of the day changed. The Jack-in-the-Green character held fast, however. He was a welcome member of May Day festivities right up until the First World War, and at the end of the 20th century up until today, he has enjoyed a popular resurgence. 

Green Man & Jack-in-the-Green Festivals Today

Today, there are many festivals that celebrate our green pagan(esque) origins. The Green Man festival in Wales is at the end of summer, in mid-August. Founded in 2003, the Green Man Festival has evolved into a 25,000 capacity 4-day event, showcasing predominantly live music (in particular alternative, indie, rock, folk, dance, and Americana), with additional tents hosting literature, film, comedy, theatre, and poetry.

Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons, Wales

The festival has expanded into other ventures and also set up a charitable wing called the Green Man Trust, which “supports emerging artists and offers real-world training to get people engaged with science and inspiring positive change”, according to their website.

The oldest continual annual Jack-in-the-Green festival has been held every year (except during the war years) in Knutsford since 1890. “However, the Knutsford Jack was not like one of the early Jacks. Like many others in the last 19th century, it was a much-tamed Victorian revival having first appeared in May 1864 ‘based on earlier traditions and festivities’ by the Rev. Robert Clowes the Vicar of Knutsford.” (Walton) 

Jack-in-the-Green, Hastings, 1983, https://www.hastingsjitg.co.uk/

The most famous Jack-in-the-Green festival we have today is the one in Hastings, with which I opened this story. The Hastings festival was a revival brought about by Keith Leech MBE and Mad Jack’s Morris in 1983 after he moved from London to Hastings. They both worked with folklorist Roy Judge to piece together late-19th century references for the inspiration for their neo-Jack-in-the-Green extravaganza. 

Jack-in-the-Green, Hastings, 2010, https://www.hastingsjitg.co.uk

And, thus, time moves on. We have our festivals today that have as much meaning for the people who build and attend them as they ever did in days of yore. Some devotees will profess that these festivities harken back to a medieval custom celebrating the Green Man, or that it is the Celtic Beltane. To me, it makes no difference if he was once a Jacobean boozer, a chimney-sweep’s money-making mascot, or friendly fellow for children—today he means a connection to nature and communities coming together to celebrate the idea of rebirth and renewal to save our planet.

All hail our green god. 


Sources and further reading…

Anderson, William, Green Man, (London: Harper Collins) 1990. Book.

Basford, Kathleen, The Green Man, (Ipswich: D.S. Brewer) 1978. Book. 

          – ‘A New Vision of “Green Man” Sculptures’, Folklore, 102, p237-9. 1991. Journal. 

Centerwall, Brandon S., (1997) The Name of the Green Man, Folklore, 108:1-2, p25-33, Journal. 

Coulter, James, The Green Man Unmasked: A new Interpretation of an Ancient Riddle, (Milton Keynes: AuthorHouse) 2007. Book. 

Doel, Fran; Doel, Geoff, The Green Man in Britain, (Stroud: Tempus Publishing) 2001. Book. 

Gentile, John, ‘Shape-Shifter in the Green: Performing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Storytelling, Self, Society Special Issue on Myth, 10:2, p220-243, Journal. 2014. 

Rowe, Doc; Robson, Carolyn, ‘British Folk Customs: May’, The Full English: An English Folk Dance and Song Society Project, Heritage Lottery Fund, Folk Music Fund, and Folklore Society, 2014

Walton, Chris, ‘British Folklore: The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green’, Folklore Thursday, 30 August, 2018 https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/the-traditional-jack-in-the-green/

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