Lancashire Legends, Traditions, Pageants, Sports, &c./Part 2/Wakes in Lancashire

Part II: Pageants, Maskings, and Mummings; Wakes in Lancashire.


"So blithe and bonny now the lads and lasses are,
That ever as anon the bagpipe up doth blow,
Cast in a gallant round about the hearth they go,
And at each pause they kiss. Was never seen such rule
In any place but here at bonfire or at Yule;
And every village smokes at wakes with lusty cheer.
Then "Hey" (they cry) "for Lun and Lancasheere,"
That one high hill was heard to tell it to his brother,
That instantly agreed to tell it to some other."


It is necessary to distinguish between two ancient anniversaries. Every church at its consecration received the name of some patron saint, whose feast-day or festival became of course the festival of that church, which the people naturally celebrated with peculiar festivity. The day on which the edifice was actually dedicated was also kept as the established feast of the parish. These two feasts were clearly distinguished among the Saxons, and in the laws of Edward the Confessor the Dies dedicationis is discriminated from the Propria festivitatis sancti, that is, the dedication day was distinguished from the saint's festival. These feasts remained till the Reformation; when, in 1536, the dedication day was ordered to be kept, and the festival of the saint to be celebrated no longer. Anciently the dedication day could not have been observed with the same regularity as that of the patron saint, which was denominated "the church's holiday," and still remains in many parishes to the present time; while the dedication day is forgotten in most if not in all. The eve being of old considered a part of the day (Sunday commencing on Saturday at sunset), the services of the church commenced on the evening before the saint's day, and were called vigils or eves, and, from the late hour, wæccan or wakes. In a remarkable letter of Pope Gregory, written about the year 601, to the Abbot Melletus, he says—"When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend man our brother bishop, St Augustine, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, thought of; namely, that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed. Let holy water be made, and sprinkled in the said temples; let altars be erected, and let relics be deposited in them. For since those temples are built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of the devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, not seeing those temples destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the same places to which they have been accustomed. And because they are wont to sacrifice many oxen in honour of the devils, let them celebrate a religious and solemn festival, not slaughtering the beasts for devils, but to be consumed by themselves, to the praise of God. Some solemnity must be exchanged for them, as that on the day of the dedication or the suffering days [natalitia] of holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves booths of the boughs of the trees about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the devil." In compliance with these injunctions, in every parish, on the returning anniversary of the saint, little pavilions or booths were constructed of boughs, and the peopled indulged in them in hospitality and mirth. The feasts of the saint's day, however, were soon abused; and even in the body of the church, when the people were assembled for devotion, they began to mind diversions and to introduce drinking. The growing intemperance gradually stained the service of the vigil, and so scandalised the Puritans of the seventeenth century, that numbers of the wakes were disused entirely, especially in the east and some of the western parts of England; but they are commonly observed in the North, and in some of the midland counties. The wakes gradually led to the establishment of the commercial or trade marts which are called fairs. The people resorted in crowds to the festival, and a considerable provision was needed for their entertainment. This induced the little country hucksters and traders to come and offer their wares; and thus arising many temporary erections for hospitality in the neighbourhood of the church, various booths were set up for the sale of different commodities. In larger towns, surrounded by populous districts, the resort of people to the wakes would be great, and the attendance of traders numerous; and this resort and attendance constitute a fair. The festival being a feria or holiday, it took itself, and connected to the mart, the appellation of feria or fair. These fairs were generally held in churchyards, and even in the churches, and also on Sundays, till the indecency and scandal were so great as to need reformation.—For this and additional information see Whitaker's Manchester, vol. ii. 440-448.