Monday, 9 April 2018

Of Hares & Hock-days ~ Turning Spring Upside Down

I haven’t written anything here for far too long, and that is something that I hope to remedy in the weeks ahead. However, as sharing more about our idiosyncratic seasonal festivals and observances, and therefore perhaps offering an invitation to more deeply ground in our land and who we are, is one of the things that I very much hope to do, I didn’t feel that I could miss the opportunity to write about Hocktide.

Hocktide was an English medieval festival, part of the marking and turning of our agricultural year. These Hock-days fall on the Monday and Tuesday after Easter week and, together with Whitsuntide in May or June and Yuletide in December, mark a pause in the farming year. During this period ‘villeins’ or tenant farmers, who were tied to the land as part of the feudal system, were freed from working on the lord of the manor’s land and also on their own. These ‘bonded tenants’ had more rights than they would have done under slavery but were ‘bound to the soil’ and unable to leave the land without the landowner’s consent. In return for a small rented home, with or without land, they were required to work on their lord’s farmland, often in addition to paying a rent of money or goods. They were also subject to a range of legal restrictions and responsibilities, which might be a heavy burden indeed. For instance, they might have to pay a fine if their daughters married outside the manor or if their sons inherited land elsewhere. The term ‘villein’ comes from the Latin ‘villanus’, meaning a man working at a large agricultural Roman villa estate, a ‘forced employment’ which originated in a decree issued by the Emperor Diocletian to prevent peasants fleeing the land and so causing a decrease in food production. The decree meant that peasants had to be recorded on a local register and could only leave their village to deliver a message or go to war with their master. And so the land became a prison, rather than a home and source of freedom. Despite this villeinage ensured access to land and land meant survival. It was certainly a preferable arrangement to that of the landless labourer, whose position was much more precarious. Nevertheless, villeins were considered ‘lesser’ and so the word became the source of our derogatory term, ‘villain’, which is certainly not a label that many of us would hope to attract.

As for Hocktide, its origins are unclear but there is an enduring tradition that it commemorates the driving out of the Danes on St Brice’s Day, 1002 following Danish raids on England every year from 997 to 1001. In response King Aethelred “ordered slain every Danish man that was in England.” Although this action led to swift revenge, the inhuman behaviour of the Danish invaders meant that any victory against them was worth marking. It is sensible when considering the origin of the festival to note though that St Brice’s Day is in November and that Hocktide is firmly tied to Easter festivities! That it is thought to be related to the pushing back of the Danish invasion may be due to a Hock Tuesday play once put on in Coventry during the sixteenth century which told the story of a group of feisty Anglo-Saxon women who had turned back the Danes after their menfolk had been defeated. These plays were frowned upon by Protestant reformers and so were stopped, although, in 1575, supporters did succeed in putting on the play before Elizabeth I, who is said to have thoroughly approved.

Anglo-Saxon dress,

The name Hocktide may originate in the German, ‘hocken’, which means, to ‘attack’, to ‘seize’, or to ‘bind’, and certainly the principal day of the festival was known as ‘Binding Tuesday’. Whereas, Hock Monday was for the men, Hock Tuesday was for the women (echoing the winter festivities of St Martin’s Day, or Martinmas, for men, and St Catherine’s Day for women in November). Reversing the activities of Monday, Hock Tuesday’s shenanigans principally involved women, with much merrymaking, ambushing men via the method of stretching ropes across the public highway, and holding them to ransom until a small fee was paid to be put to ‘pious uses’ (or more often perhaps to buying food and drink for the revellers). In 1497, 13s 4d was gathered by women on ‘Hob Monday’ in the parish of St Mary-le-Hill, London, and, in 1607, women went ‘a-hocking’ in Chelsea and raised 45/-. The Lambeth Book, amongst other references to Hocktide payments, records that in, “1556-1557. Item of Godman Rundell's wife, Godman Jackson's wife, and Godwife Tegg, for Hoxce money by them received to the use of the Church." Indeed at one time records from Lambeth reveal hock money as being the single largest source of Parish income. It is also worth noting that the women collected a lot more money than the men!

                                 "1499. It. rec. of hok money gadereyd of women 20s
                                   It. rec. of hok money gadereyd of men 4s
                                  (St Leonard's church, Reading) 
                                           ~ Dictionary of English Folklore

Eleanor Parker, in her book, ‘Dragon Lords: the History and Legends of Viking England’, describes Hocktide as a sort of ‘post-Easter festival of misrule’, or the World Turned Upside Down, which is a thread running through many of our folk traditions. Certainly it allowed the people of the land to have a day or so away from their serfdom if nothing else. She goes on to say that it was first recorded in London in 1406 and grew in popularity over two centuries, before almost entirely dying out by the end of the seventeenth century. The Bishop of Worcester had banned Hocktide revelries in 1450 so it is clear that it took the common people some time to submit to his instructions. Many of the historical references remaining in relation to Hocktide consist of complaints relating to disorderly conduct and this may explain both why the tradition was frowned upon, and why it was so popular!


I have also come across references to Hocktide being more directly related to Easter traditions through the custom of 'heaving', during which one report claims that local people lift one another off the ground whilst singing, "Jesus Christ is risen again!" Whether this is true I don't know but tradition is a wild being and will change and adapt to the times. That Hocktide may come from the feistiness of Anglo-Saxon women fighting off the Danes, or from the period of the agricultural year given to the collection of rents and making of contracts, or from Christians lifting one another off the ground to celebrate the Resurrection, is part of the glorious nature of our traditions, and it may be one, none, or all of these. We must perhaps listen to the earth beneath our feet to work that out.

Although Hocktide revelleries have dwindled in most places, it remains very much alive in Hungerford on the Berkshire/Wiltshire border, where it is celebrated as ‘Tutti-day’ and confined to the Tuesday of the week after Easter. Early on Tutti-day, following a ‘watercress supper’ the previous evening, the Bell Man, or town crier, goes about the village gathering all commoners to a ‘court', which they will be fined a penny for not attending. If they were to refuse they might also run the risk of losing important privileges granted for free grazing, watercress collection, and salmon fishing on the River Kennet. These privileges relate to land granted to those living in certain houses and dating back to the late 1300s. These are the ‘commoners’ and at hocktide the court and jury elect from amongst them Hocktide officers for the year ahead. It is interesting to note that one of the most important dates of the agricultural year was Lady Day on March 25th. From 1155 until 1752 Lady Day was the English agricultural New Year and it was when rents were due and new contracts were made for the year ahead. A vestige of this remains in the UK’s tax year, which begins on April 6th (Lady Day but adjusted for the 10 day difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars).

Returning to Hungerford, just before the court sessions, the Tutti, or ‘Tithing’, Men (who might also be women) set out around the village wearing top hats and tails and with long poles decorated with spring flowers, blue ribbons, and with an orange on top (said to relate to William of Orange discovering that he was to be king whilst staying in Hungerford). Over the following twelve hours, they endeavour to visit every common rights household and exact yearly tithes. These dues are most usually paid by a penny from the men and a kiss from every woman in the household, who are then gifted with an orange. These are carried by the ‘Orange Scrambler’ who accompanies the Tutti Men with a sack of oranges and pheasant feathers in his hat! They might then be offered a drink before going on their way. In Yorkshire, children were still celebrating ‘Kissing Day’ into the 1950s and this is thought to have perhaps been a remnant of older Hocktide traditions. Certainly the Hungerford Hocktide revelries are accompanied by excited children hoping for sweets.

At lunchtime in Hungerford everyone gathers at the Town Hall for speeches and reports, following which 'the Blacksmith' appears for a ceremony known as the ‘Shoeing of the Colts’. These ‘colts’ are newcomers to the town or to the lunch who are grabbed so that the Blacksmith can hammer a nail into one of their shoes! Traditionally, he will continue hammering until the colt yells “Punch!” and agrees to buy a round of drinks for those present, although it is now considered sufficient to pay only a small token to avoid sending anyone into poverty. One witness reports that he, having attempted to leave the lunch and thus being suspected of trying to avoid being shoed, had been set upon; “I was grabbed on one side by the vicar and struggled for all my worth kicking and was turned upside down with my feet flailing in the air at which point the vicar jumped on my chest and I was laying on the floor…with the sound of the horse shoe into my foot I shouted punch although it was difficult to remember to say this as I was laughing so much.” Following this sombre and ancient ceremony the company then adjourn to a nearby hotel for anchovies on toast! Researching these traditions, I must say that it is easy to draw the conclusion that Monty Python could only really ever have come out of England.


Hocktide it seems is a tradition that is only just hanging on, and yet where it remains it is thriving as a celebration of commoners rights, community, and connection to place. In its more ancient form, it can be included in the myriad folk traditions of this land in which power relations are subverted or turned on their heads, not least because it gave those who were tied to the land by a contract with their lord a few days of relative freedom, a hint of the breaking of chains. That Hocktide's possible roots in the tale of a group of Anglo-Saxon women taking on Danish invaders and winning has been discredited should not necessarily dissuade us from acknowledging Hocktide as a time when gender relations are ‘turned upside down’, with women gaining the upper hand on Hock Tuesday. That this comes at a time when female brown hares are to be seen in our fields ‘boxing’ in order to test the merits of would be suitors is pleasing. 

Here is just one response to Hocktide that I will embrace, no matter how 'historical', or not, it may be...

On this day we honor
The Saxon women who turned away
The attacking Norsemen from the sea
When their menfolk had failed
Or been slaughtered, their bones lying
In graves still fresh and bare.
For when the need arises,
Anyone can find the courage
To face what must be faced
To dare what must be dared
To fly in the eye of the storm
Heedless of life or death.
We honor the spirit in women,
For millennia put down and buried,
But that rises when in need,
And shows its brave spirit...


May the common ground we share give us strength for the journey, aid us in breaking the ties that bind, and may the Hocktide hare-spirit rise in us all.

(European Brown Hare,, Wkik Commons)

References ~

Films of Hocktide and Tutti Day in Hungerford:


  1. Such an interesting and well researched article, Jacquie. I've been privileged to attend the Hocktide lunch for the last two years in Hungerford and you are quite correct - it is all totally barmy, boozy and British!!

    1. Thank you so much, Roz! And oooooh, fancy going to the lunch. It sounds absolutely bonkers. I just found a photo of it in which, some quite respectable looking gentlemen in suits, were rolling about on the floor with their legs in the air and laughing their heads off! We all need more of that!

  2. what a great post---i love folklore and customs. these things, mad carnivals and funny ritual behaviours seem so odd and disjointed to modern sensibilities, only begin to make sense with broad study of european (and global) folk customs. the "heaving", by the way, has analogues in other european springtime rituals/games: it was a way of showing off one's strength in the eyes of peers, prospective farm employers, and fair maids; but it also parallels customs such as "jumping", in which people would hop (like hares...hmmm...) as high as they could in place; the idea being that as high as folk could heave or hop, so high would the grain grow...

    we have forgotten our dependency upon nature, forgotten our kinship with all life. our holidays feel empty because they are commercialised and have come un-moored from the meanings and origins that gave them resonance. and another thing our ancestors knew, which we've forgotten perhaps, is that laughter was sacred! all that horseplay and drinking and silliness, besides being a valuable pressure-valve psychologically and socially, was meant to encourage more growth, more happiness, and more human fertility as well...a divine madness, for a time, that could unleash forces of potency. sounds rather fun, and even sensible, really...

    1. You are so right, and yes, 'holy laughter' is as important as all the serious stuff. I'm sure that we have lost a lot by disconnecting from that way of being. And it is absolutely true that a study of pan-European folklore and tradition does give more of a sense of how our own customs are part of a deeply woven web connecting us to the seasons and to the land. I love it!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what people have to say.