Old St Paul’s Cathedral was the medieval cathedral of the City of London that, until 1666, stood on the site of the present St Paul’s Cathedral. Built from 1087 to 1314 and dedicated to Saint Paul, the cathedral was the fourth church on the site at Ludgate Hill.
Work on the cathedral began during the reign of William the Conqueror and took more than 200 years, construction was delayed by another fire in 1135. The church was consecrated in 1240 and enlarged again in 1256 and the early 14th century. At its completion in the middle of the 14th century, the cathedral was one of the longest churches in the world and had one of the tallest spires and some of the finest stained glass.
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The practice of strewing rushes in church as a primitive carpet has long since passed into history but the rush-bearing tradition is still upheld in a few towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Many of our old customs are fading away into the dim mists of antiquity, and all but the name will soon be forgotten. This is much to be regretted, because they were attended with a great deal of pure enjoyment, and were looked forward to by the people for weeks before the event.
One of these is the old custom of strewing rushes, and its attendant ceremony of the rush-bearing, with its quaint rush-cart and fantastic morris-dancers.
Once common to the whole country, it now lingers only in a few isolated places, principally in the hill districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
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The Uppermill Rush-Cart 1880
During the middle-ages it was common for the floors of buildings to be no more than compacted earth. To stop the floor getting muddy in wet weather and to insulate the rooms, rushes or hay were put down (sometimes mixed with herbs and flowers to freshen the air). This floor-covering was known as thresh and a piece of wood or stone put across the bottom of a doorway to keep the thresh inside was known as a threshold.
Seats were not provided in church until the 15th century and even if the floors were flagged the excessive cold after long standing and the kneeling required during devotions necessitated the floor being covered.
The renewal of the rushes at the church commonly coincided with the Saint’s Day to which the church was dedicated and the corresponding “Wake,” the custom quickly developed into a part of the religious festival.
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On Wakes Monday (the first Monday between the 6th and 12th of September) the small village of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire is host to a unique Horn Dance. (Details of the event can be found here)
The dancers start the procession at St. Nicholas Church.
The”horns” are six sets of antlers attacked to wooden skulls, three black and three white (although it is notable that Cecil Sharp referred to the black horns as being painted blue and an account from 1686 says they are red.) The horns themselves have been carbon dated to the early 11th century. These horns are on display in St Nicholas Church for the rest of the year, a replica set being used any other time the dance is performed.
The six “Deer-men” are accompanied by a musician playing an accordion, Maid Marian (played by a man), the hobby-horse, a jester or fool, a child with a bow and arrow and another with a triangle. Until the end of the 19th century the dancers were all members of the Bentley family, before the dance was passed to the related Fowell family.
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