Easter: from Cromwell & the World Turned Upside Down to the 1871 Bank Holidays Act
Hocktide in Bedford
As with many ‘traditions’ trying to unravel how the current configuration of Easter appeared is remarkably difficult.
The key text on British traditions, Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun, notes that in medieval and early modern times Easter could be a period of feasting, games and enjoyment lasting several weeks. It celebrated the coming of Spring, better weather and so on.
Cromwell was not keen on such matters, the Puritan Revolution focusing on a work ethic. He is reputed to have ‘banned’ Easter but what exactly this really meant is less clear. Certainly Cromwell did not ‘ban’ the observance of Easter Sunday since he was extremely keen on Sunday being kept as a day of ‘rest’. He may well have altered how the day was marked in religious terms.
After 1660 and the Restoration of the monarchy some of the old traditions of Easter reasserted themselves. Perhaps the most interesting was Hocktide. This often involved women ‘kidnapping’ men and holding them to ransom until a sum was paid to the local Church. It was one of the most notable ‘world turned upside down’ traditions taking place on Easter Monday or Tuesday.
With the rise of industrial capitalism and, eventually, some limited paid time off from work, the traditional length of Easter celebrations disappeared. This was recognised in the 1871 Bank Holiday Act which designated Easter Monday as one of four ‘bank holidays’- Good Friday and Easter Sunday already being generally recognised as religious days of abstention from work.
The de-coupling of the religious element of Easter, particularly as configured by Cromwell, and the traditional celebration of Spring remains work in progress I suspect.