Guest post: Waes Hael: a living folk tradition in Gloucestershire

Robin Burton of the Glos Trad Project has written a special guest post on the history of wassailing in Gloucestershire, and its rich repository of folk songs and practices. Robin is a singer, a folkorist and a co-ordinator of the annual Stroud Wassail, and has recently run a workshop for Media students enrolled on the MD4303 Songwriting module. Students of mythology (especially those taking HM4301 Fundamentals: Myth and Drama) will be fascinated to learn about these local traditions and may even plan a visit this January. We’re tremendously grateful to Robin for taking the time to contribute this history, and the great photos, to our blog.

Waes Hael: The Story of the Stroud Wassail

‘He is wit’s peddler, and retails his ware
At wakes and wassels, meetings, markets, fairs.’  Love’s Labours Lost (1595)

Stories from the Edge of Memory

On November the 19th, 1979, Gwilym Davies, a local folk song collector met an unidentified 75 year old man in a pub.  This man sang him a snatch of song:

Waysail, waysail all over the town,
Our bread it is white our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made from some maplin tree,
With my waysailing bowl we will waysail unto thee

He went on to describe how groups went around with a wassail bowl collecting money and singing that song around 1914 when the man himself would have been about ten years of age.

A Mrs Muriel Phelps, in a 1979 article in the Folkrite Magazine, also recounts how her ancestors had gone wassailing in Stroud armed with concertinas.   They went out on Christmas morning, calling at houses in Parliament Street and Summer Street, ending up at the Leopard pub in Parliament Street before going home to Christmas dinner.

This all seems to have stopped by the 1920s.

Revival 2015

Fig. 1. Enter the Broad

Then, 100 years or so after the last known Stroud Wassail, a group got together to resurrect the custom.  This was done in a small way in 2014 and in a much grander form in 2015. Given the paucity of information about the Stroud Wassail itself, a group of enthusiasts, including Gwilym Davies, decided to investigate local wassail customs in the Gloucestershire area.   

Originally the word, “Wassail”, is thought to come from the old greeting “Waes Hael”.  This literally means to be healthy or whole.   From the 9th Century it turns up as a greeting or toast and in the expression ‘wes thu hal, Maria’ meaning ‘Hail Mary’.

Over the years there have been many mutations of this word including notably in Gloucestershire the word “Waysail”; which is perhaps a better phonetic representation of the original “Waes Hael” than the more common “Wassail”.

Nothing to do with Apples

Fig. 2. The Lady of Misrule

When most people think of a Wassail, they think of apples and cider.   However the Gloucestershire “Waysails” have nothing to do with either. Instead it is a tradition in which neighbours go from house to house wishing each other good luck for the coming year.  It is typically performed around the Christmas and New Year period up until 12th night.

It has a number of components including:

·       The Broad:  a representation of an ox.  This usually comprises a head on a pole covered with sacking under which a dancer hides.   Often the “broad” goes inside the house to chase out anyone who is reluctant to come out to meet the wassailers.

·         A Wassail bowl:  This is usually made of wood and decorated with greenery.   Sometimes it is used a receptacle for money.

·         The “Lord of Misrule”:  A sort of master of ceremonies who is elected at the beginning of proceedings be virtue of finding the bean in a slice of cake which has been distributed to the wassail company.

·         The concept of disguise:  Often wassailers would get up to high jinks, perhaps playing tricks on those who failed to reward the wassailers with food or drink.  The disguise was to protect them against retribution…

The 2015 Wassail

The day began with a gathering of wassailers and Morris dancers outside of the Subscription Rooms in Stroud.   An “election” was then held to choose the “Lord of Misrule” by inviting the crowd to take a piece of cake.   If you had the piece with the bean in it, then you were elected.

In 2015 we had a “Lady” of Misrule.   Her first duty was to read out a declaration:  “May the locks on your hearts be broken…”

Then the assembled crowd knocked on the door of the Subscription Rooms and the Broad was sent in to chase out those inside.

 Fig. 3. Outside the Subscription Rooms in Stroud

Out came the manager with a tray of beer for the wassailers who sang the wassail songs, together with a number of other songs. Then the whole group departed on a tour of the pubs in Stroud being feted with more and more beer…
A procession was held over to the Museum in the Park where once again songs were sung and drinks consumed.   This was followed by dancing in the courtyard. The day was rounded off by “revels” in the Price Albert Pub.

Fig 4 Revels in the Albert


Everyone concerned had such a good time that the 2016 Wassail is planned to be bigger and better.  This time it will also feature a torchlight procession and mummers plays.  The international mummers’ convention will be collocated in Stroud during the Wassail weekend so there will be mummers from all over the world.  This time schools are also being invited to take part with children making raggy coats and singing songs.

Does it matter that we have added to what was known about the Stroud Wassail?   I don’t think so.  We have created a midwinter festival that is rooted in what is known of the past.  It brings the community together to wish each other health and success.
Why not join us this year in Stroud on January 9th?
Waes Hael!

All photographs are published courtesy of Robin Burton.
Copyright Robin Burton 2015.

Discover hidden treasure: Heritage Open Days this weekend

September is so busy that many of us miss out on the fantastic Heritage Open Days that take place nationwide every year. Architectural and cultural sites, many of them closed to the public normally, throw open their doors during the second weekend of September for free visits and tours.

Our university chapel at Francis Close will be hosting talks, tours and events, organised by the University Archives and Special Collections, on Friday 12 September. You can read all about it on  their blog.

If you’re in Cheltenham you can visit All Saints Church Pittville, Holst’s birthplace, and the town’s beautiful Regency synagogue. Across the county, places of interest include Chedworth Roman villa, Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucester Cathedral, and many more. Wherever you are this weekend, spend an hour at a fascinating place you didn’t know about – or thought you knew.

To see what’s on, click here.

Alfred Tennyson in Cheltenham

Most people associate Alfred Tennyson with Lincolnshire, with good reason. The sights and sounds of the North Sea coast at Mablethorpe haunt his poetry – ‘Break, break, break/On thy cold grey stones, O Sea’. However, the poet spent lots of time in Cheltenham in the 1830s and 1840s, partly because his widowed mother and his siblings took a house in the town, but also in the hope of improving his health. You can see his house with its plaque in St James’s Square.

Tennyson’s father, Dr George Tennyson, had ‘taken the waters’ at Cheltenham Spa like many other eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century health-seekers. By the 1840s, a new and more dangerous procedure had become the rage. Practitioners believed that bad circulation produced chronic disease, and that stimulating the circulation with cold baths, cold wraps (patients swaddled in sheets dipped in icy water and left for several hours) and cold showers, plus plenty of cold water to drink, would allow the body to purge toxins. ‘Hydropathic’ establishments often appeared in spa towns like Cheltenham and Malvern, not simply for the water supply but because they were social centres; the fashionable could take a ‘cure’ while enjoying a holiday. Tennyson endured treatment at Prestbury, today a pretty section of east Cheltenham, and at Malvern, a few miles north in Worcestershire. It can’t have been fun.
Last weekend,  the Tennyson Society celebrated the poet’s local connections with a conference, Tennyson in Cheltenham. We gathered to hear research papers from Professor Roger Ebbatson, Professor Marion Shaw (Emerita, University of Loughborough), Dr Ann Thwaite FRSL, Dr Valerie Purton, and from your Course Leader; and then on to Malvern on the trail of the notorious Dr Gully and his water cure. Judging by his fancy house, this treatment made money. The Malvern Museum has a great display on the water cure and other aspects of local Victorian life.

After that we visited another of this region’s architectural beauties, the Camelot-like Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. Look who was once a distinguished guest.

Photos of Eastnor: H.Weeks. G.F Watts’s famous ‘moonlight’ portrait of Alfred Tennyson dates from about 1859.