Merry Mount and May Poles

A friend of mine posted something about May Day, which was written by a friend of his. It begins with a description of a May Day celebration involving May Pole festivities, along with a picture of prim-looking women arranged in orderly fashion around a May Pole. Then it concludes with a comparison to the present:

While I reconise the many advancements that have been made since I was born 71 years ago; when it comes to progress I feel that history shows us in a much more uncivilised light today than it did our forefathers. Instead of dancing around a Maypole in jolly spirits and good heart as was once tradition, many of today’s young have moved their dancing from village green to the city streets where they bare their bums and mid-drifts for all to see as they waddle like ducks to the next watering hole.

Then as the night progresses into early morning hours, neighbourhood slumber is sharply broken by the sirens of racing police cars and the screaching of ambulances as youths fight in lumps, pull their trousers down in public or puke up in shop doorways. Their ‘good night out’ will usually end for the luckier ones in either ‘sleeping it off’ or ‘having it off’ in some shop doorway. For those less fortunate night riders, they’ll either fill the local police station cells until their parents bail them out the following morning or start clogging up the local A&E departments and hospital space. And while the drunks block vital hospital beds, pensioners with alzheimer’s who (unlike the young boozers didn’t start out to lose their mind that day), roam the streets in their night garments as people with heart attacks and paralysing strokes lay on house floors waiting and waiting and waiting for the arrival of overworked ambulance staff to arrive. Progress?

As Shakespeare might have penned: ‘May Day or Mayhem, that is the question?’

In the comments section (of the Facebook post), I questioned this assessment. I wrote:

Of course, those early May day celebrations would have been very different from that picture. I’m sure they went on late into the night involving raucous yelling and fighting, states of undress and nakedness, intoxication by heavy drinking and probably some other natural drugs, and as it was a fertility celebration lewd dancing and a lot of sex in public. 

It wouldn’t have been a calm religious ritual, especially not as the festivities progressed into the night. Instead, it would have been more like a carnival such as Mardi Gras.

From an American perspective, our history of May pole celebrations began with Merry Mount. It was nearby the colonial settlements in New England. The celebrations included cavorting with the natives. Their Puritan neighbors judged it demonic and used military force to attack the town in order to permanently destroy it. That is what morally upstanding Americans think about those free-spirited fertility celebrations.

My friend asked for “references/citations”. Fair enough. I told him I’d have to look back at my books to recall where I’d read about this before, specifically the topic of Merry Mount. Fortunately, my Kindle has a useful search function. Further below, I offer what I was able to find. But before ending my own thoughts on the matter, I’ll want to further consider one angle.

In other comments, I mentioned some related facts of history. Merry Mount was founded by Thomas Morton. He was associated with the Inns of Court in England. This also connects to Shakespeare, which is interesting as the friend of my friend offers an invented quote of Shakespeare in reference to May Day.

What was the Inns of Court? First of all, it was in London, an important city of course. The Inns of Court, however, was a particularly famous location. It was where many people went to get legal training, including later on many Americans (e.g., John Dickinson who helped write the Articles of Confederation). This is why it was called the Inns of Court. There were inns where law students lived. It was also a social gathering place for cultured people.

The Wikipedia article on Thomas Morton explains this regional background, specifically pointing out the significance of the Inns of Court:

Thomas Morton was born in Devon, England around 1578, into a conservative Anglican family of the Devon gentry. Devon at that time was considered the “dark corner of the land” by Protestant reformers, due to its traditionalist intransigence, which included not only a High Church Anglicanism, that shared many traits with Catholicism, but also a paternalistic populism combined with a rural folk tradition that for the Puritans came close to paganism. To the local inhabitants however it was merely “Old England.” It was this culture that was firmly ingrained in him.

In the late 1590s Morton was studying law at London’s Clifford’s Inn where he made many influential contacts and lasting friendships. He was also exposed here to both a popular Renaissance Classicism and the ‘libertine culture’ of the Inns of Court themselves, where the bawdy revels included the Gesta Grayorum performances associated with Francis Bacon and Shakespeare, and it is most likely that he first met Ben Jonson here, who would remain his friend throughout his life. Though an ardent Royalist, Morton became a proponent of the Common Law against the emerging direct legal powers of The Crown and the Star Chamber.

The early years of the 17th century saw Morton traveling between London and the Devonshire countryside as the legal champion of displaced countrymen ‘whose economic straits filled new tent-cities, furnished prisons and gallows, and pushed Devon men to the Bristol sea-trades’. He eventually settled into the service of Ferdinando Gorges, the governor of the English port of Plymouth, and a major colonial entrepreneur. Gorges, who was an associate of Sir Walter Raleigh and had been part of Robert Devereux’s Essex Conspiracy, was heavily involved in the ‘permissive’ economy of the seas, and with many interests in New England was to become the founder of the colony of Maine. Morton initially served him in a legal capacity in England, but following his failed marriage plans, due to the influence of a Puritan stepson, in 1618 he decided to become one of Gorges’ ‘landsmen’ who oversaw his interests in the colonies. Neither experience would enamour him of the Puritans.

More interesting than the Inns of Court is Devon and the region around it. In my mind, I was mixing up the two locations. They are both in southern England, but Devon is significantly to the West of London. During the English Civil War, the Puritans did gain control of London and the surrounding area. The region including Devon, however, was one of the last strongholds of the Cavaliers/Royalists.

Devon within England



In the life of Thomas Morton, we see the ‘paganism’ of Old English Devon combined with the libertine Inns of Court. No wonder he became the ultimate foe of the Puritans.

In posing the question “May Day or Mayhem, that is the question?”, Shakespeare (if he were to actually have written it) would have been referring to his own society from four centuries ago. And no doubt similar questions were asked in Shakespeare’s lifetime, when the last of paganism still could challenge the Christian order. This issue of mayhem is far from a new problem. The kids ‘these days’ have been rabble-rousing for longer than modern society has existed. And the adults have been complaining for equally as long.

Now for the “references/citations” about Merry Mount.

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A MOST CONFUSING THING in American History, as we read it, is the nearly universal lack of scale. This parochialism is helped by such balanced statement as A. C. Adams’ preface to Thomas Morton’s The New English Canaan— in which the incident of the May-pole at Merry Mount is related. Adams has compared that “vulgar royalist libertine,” Morton, and the Puritans of the Plymouth Colony too closely. He has seen the time too near. He has accepted the mere chance presence of Morton in the neighborhood of Plymouth as the outstanding fact, letting his mind dwell upon that, trying one party against the other, as they quarreled in the flesh— till both are worn, in our eyes, to some unrecognizable, indifferent proportion . The description, “a vulgar royalist libertine, thrown by accident into the midst of a Puritan Community, an extremely reckless but highly amusing old debauchee and tippler,” is not adequate to describe a man living under the circumstances that surrounded Morton; its tone might do for a London clubman but not a New World pioneer taking his chances in the wilderness. It lacks scale.

Williams, William Carlos (2009-10-01). In the American Grain (Second Edition) (New Directions Paperbook) (p. 75). New Directions. Kindle Edition.

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The first generation of New England settlers recognized that some degree of cooperation with the native inhabitants was essential to their survival, but they became extremely suspicious whenever individuals sought contact with Indians beyond what was clearly necessary for practical purposes, especially if they seemed to enjoy “brutish” company. Thomas Morton and his followers embodied most flagrantly the moral corruption that leading Puritans associated with Anglo-Indian intimacy. When Morton assumed control of Captain Wollaston’s private plantation in 16i6, Wollaston having left for Virginia, he renamed the settlement Merry Mount, with obvious sexual connotations. The godly settlers in nearby Plymouth Colony looked on in horror as Morton and his “dissolute” companions “pour[ed] themselves into all profaneness.” They “set up a maypole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together.” Morton also composed verses “tending to lasciviousness” that he attached to the maypole, including the following invitation: “Lasses in beaver coats, come away,/ Ye shall he welcome to us night and day.” The “licentiousness” that held sway at Merry Mount under its “Lord of Misrule” combined pagan festivities that the godly thought to have left behind them in England with erotically charged capers that involved Indian women. Morton himself characterized these high finks as “harmless mirth made by young men” who “lived in hope to have [English] wives brought over to them.” But his neighbors denounced what they saw as a reassertion of Old World “vices” in the company of New World “savages” who would further pollute the atmosphere at Merry Mount with their own brand of degeneracy. Given this peculiarly disturbing conjunction, it is hardly surprising that the Puritan worthies of Plymouth hated Morton with such ferocity.24

Richard Godbeer. Sexual Revolution in Early America (Kindle Locations 2273-2282). Kindle Edition.

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A veteran of the Protestant wars against Catholics in the Netherlands, Endecott was usually seen carrying his thirty-inch steel blade. It was the same sword he had used to hack down a “pagan” maypole shortly after his arrival in Massachusetts, a story recounted by Governor William Bradford, retold by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Maypole of Merry Mount, and very much at odds with the traditional view of the first English in Massachusetts.

At the center of the maypole drama was Thomas Morton, a London lawyer and partner in a new crown-sponsored trading venture. Morton was among the colonists with interests that were more commercial than spiritual. He sailed to America in 1624 and quickly decided that life among the Puritans—including the diminutive Miles Standish, whom Morton derided as “Captain Shrimp”— was not for him. Leaving Plymouth with a band that consisted mostly of freed indentured servants, Morton moved to a nearby settlement called Mount Wollaston, renamed it Merry Mount, and soon earned a reputation among the Pilgrims as a libertine. As Pilgrim chronicler William Bradford recorded, “After this, they fell to great licentiousness and led a dissolute life, pouring out themselves into all profaneness. And Morton became Lord of Misrule, and maintained as it were a School of Atheism.” 27

Morton also earned the ire of the Pilgrim fathers because he was trading guns and powder with the Indians. He was arrested, put in the stocks, and later shipped back to London; his Merry Mount settlement was renamed Mount Dagon, after a god of the dreaded biblical Philistines. In 1629, the recently arrived John Endecott raided the town, destroyed the remains of the “pagan idol” maypole, and burned the settlement to the ground. (The site of Merry Mount, or Mount Wollaston, is marked in present-day Quincy, Massachusetts.)

Davis, Kenneth C. (2009-10-13). America’s Hidden History (Kindle Locations 974-988). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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Morton, however, was a different case. A full-spirited Elizabethan and son of a gentleman soldier, Morton had a bit of Falstaff in him, hardened by a streak of defiance. He learned the law at the Inns of Court and played lawyer before seeking adventure and fortune, arriving in Massachusetts in 1624 as one of a group of about thirty men, most of them indentured servants. The group’s leader soon departed for Virginia. But Morton became a fur trader and stayed.

He had offended Plymouth first, a few years earlier, by encouraging the servants in his own settlement to free themselves of their indenture. Plymouth’s leaders feared this would mean they could “keep no servants…[because] all the scume of the countrie…would flock to him.”26 He offended them even more in his manner of living. He flaunted being, in his own words, “a carnal man,” sleeping with Indian women and calling his small settlement “Merry Mount.” In this, he mocked them, and he mocked them as well by erecting a huge Maypole, “a goodly pine tree of 80 foote longe,” and dancing with his Indian women about this great, tall, stiff rod. Finally, he traded guns to Indians to increase fur production.

Plymouth deemed his way of living “licentiousness” and “a school of atheisme.”27 They claimed to “stand more in fear of their lives and goods from this wicked and deboste crue, then from the Salvages themselves.”28 They were also offended because he cost them money. His Maypole served as “a faire sea marke” to attract coastal traders, and he routinely bested Plymouth traders in competition for furs, Plymouth’s only export. Although he lived outside Plymouth’s territory—where it had no jurisdiction—the colony arrested him and sent him back to England.

In England the law had set him free. He had promptly returned and resurrected Merrymount. Endicott had then moved against him, and he had moved with force, without any legal justification—even a Puritan account concedes the charges were “trumped up.”29 King James had expressly approved of Maypoles. Endicott had torn Morton’s down anyway, then imprisoned him to await this General Court.

The Bay colony had the power to deal with Morton as it chose. It chose rough treatment. The court ordered him “sett into the bilbowes” and extirpated all sign of his existence by burning Merrymount “downe to the ground in the sight of the Indians.”30 It also sent Morton “prisoner into England” a second time. And he was sent penniless, his goods having been seized to pay for his transportation, his debts, “& to give satisfaccon to the Indians for a cannoe he unjustly took awaye from them.”31 Back in England the law freed him again. And Morton would seek later vengeance on Massachusetts.

The punishment of Morton was symptomatic of a Calvinist order Winthrop and the other magistrates imposed.

Barry, John M. (2012-01-05). Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Kindle Locations 2558-2582). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.

Thomas Morton, whom Massachusetts had expelled after looting his fortune and destroying his giant Maypole, presented his own case and other legal arguments against the colony to the council. In response, the council created a Commission for Regulating Plantations.

Barry, John M. (2012-01-05). Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Kindle Locations 3312-3314). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.

Then one of Salem’s Old Planters, a man sympathetic to the Church of England, received a letter from Thomas Morton. Morton, apparently considering him a friend and ally, gleefully related that he was near success in revenging himself upon Puritans for his banishment, the destruction of Merrymount, and the loss of his fortune. He was preparing to argue the case to rescind Massachusetts’s charter before the King’s Bench, and there was to be force behind his argument. Not only was the charter about to be recalled but a governor-general representing the crown—and Laud—was to be sent over to take control of the colony. On August 4, the man gave the letter to Winthrop.

Morton’s report—and the earlier rumors—proved true. The Privy Council had authorized Gorges to travel to Massachusetts to seize the charter and take charge of New England. The next General Court overwhelmingly decided they would neither give up their charter nor yield power to Gorges or any other governor appointed by the crown. Instead, they prepared for war.

Barry, John M. (2012-01-05). Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Kindle Locations 3425-3433). Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.


* * * *

But there were more immediate threats. The most dramatic erupted in a strange commercial settlement that suddenly appeared thirty miles to the north, on the near side of Boston Bay.

The original group of some thirty or forty workers that settled there in 1625 under a Captain Wollaston had been a potential danger until Wollaston became disillusioned and turned south to make what profit he could by selling his servants in Virginia. But a small rump remained at Mount Wollaston (modern Quincy) under one of the strangest, most flamboyant, and most belligerently impious people ever to wander into the coastal scene.

Thomas Morton had probably been in New England once before, with Weston’s group , and seems to have fallen in love with the region’s landscape, its flora and fauna— and also with its commercial possibilities. His English background is vague. At one point, he had probably been a lawyer of sorts—at least he claimed some association with one of London’s Inns of Court— and as such his reputation, perhaps gained in the West Country, was said to be rather shady. What is certain is that he prided himself on being, if not a sportsman , at least a nature lover, a pleasure seeker, and a Rabelaisian celebrant of secular rites . Uninhibited, capable of high-spirited mockery of precisely such solemn pieties as those of the Pilgrims (whom he would lampoon in his New English Canaan in 1637), he was also a ruthless profiteer eager to squeeze every penny from the people and land around him.

When word reached Plymouth of his exploits, Bradford and the other leaders were appalled. The Lord of Misrule, as Bradford called him, was conducting, it was said, not only tumultuous revelries, perhaps orgies, together with the Indians both male and female, but also drunken, pagan, May Day celebrations performed around a huge beribboned maypole topped with antlers . (“ Inviting the Indian women,” Bradford wrote, “for their consorts, dancing and frisking together like so many fairies , or furies, rather; and worse practices … of the mad Bacchanalians.”) Beyond that, he was “inveigling of men’s servants away from them.” And beyond even that, and more important, he had begun a trade with the Indians that threatened to destroy them all. 28

His sale of liquor to the natives— proscribed in the formal regulations of every settlement— was dangerous enough, but his exchange of guns for furs threatened the very survival of the fragile European communities on New England’s shores. Further, the position of his encampment, at the mouth of Boston Bay, was perfect for deflecting the outward flow of furs away from the Pilgrims. And finally there was the danger that Merrymount, as Morton called his profitable playground, would become a refuge for all sorts of profane characters— runaway servants and criminals, a “wicked and debauched crew” that would be more of a threat to respectable people than the Indians themselves.

Word of the physical danger of guns in the hands of the Indians and the economic danger of furs in the hands of this threatening entrepreneur came into Plymouth from a number of the scattered fishing and trading stations. It became clear, after negotiations with Morton failed, that drastic action would be necessary. In May 1628 Standish and eight armed men were sent to the offending settlement to take Morton by force. There, after a comic-opera escape which Morton related with exuberant embellishments (“ he’s gone, he’s gone, what shall we do, he’s gone! The rest … like rams ran their heads one at another full butt in the dark”), the half-drunken “host” at Merrymount was captured and carried off to Plymouth, then to the Isle of Shoals, where a passing vessel took him back to England. With him went a full bill of particulars and the assurance that if Morton had not been stopped, his group would have grown “by the access of loose persons” to such size that it would have been impossible to restrain them, living, as they did, “without all fear of God or common honesty, some of them abusing the Indian women most filthily, as it is notorious.” 29

Bailyn, Bernard (2012-11-06). The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Kindle Locations 6468-6499). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Michael Zuckerman, in “Pilgrims in the Wilderness: Community, Modernity, and the Maypole at Merry Mount,” NEQ, 50 (1977 ), 255– 77, argues that Morton and his Merrymount crew have been misinterpreted as a result of the Pilgrims’ animus against them. Morton, Zuckerman claims, a nature lover, simply delighted in the “sensual splendor” of the New England landscape, believed that the Indians were innocents, “full of humanity,” and sought to share food, drink, and sex with them. That frightened the Pilgrims, who “could not countenance carnal pleasure for its own sake,” evoking their fear that intimate association with the natives “would weaken the discipline they maintained so tenuously over their own impulses.” For another sympathetic view of Morton, based on his intercultural familiarity with the Indians, see Van Zandt, Brothers Among Nations, 96– 97.

Bailyn, Bernard (2012-11-06). The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Kindle Locations 11294-11301). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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