When children ask questions, I believe that it is right to give them the best answer you can. So, when a child recently asked why, if we had a Rose Queen, we didn’t also have a Rose King, I decided I would give the matter some thought. It’s a good question! When I was newly-arrived in this parish, never having had much to do with Rose Queens in the past, I did a bit of research. Some people imagine that it’s an ancient pagan tradition, with its origins lost somewhere in the mists of time… Steve Roud, however, in his book “The English Year”, tells the story of a vicar in Bury who, in 1989, announced that he was banning his church’s Rose Queen ceremony, because, he said, it was rooted in pagan rites and not appropriate to a Christian community. Roud points out that that the hapless vicar:
“had fallen rather publicly into the trap of believing that all traditional customs must be extremely old, and are therefore linked to pagan activities. The Rose Queen was in fact a late Victorian invention encouraged, and perhaps even created, by clergy and respectable churchgoers as a piece of safe and controlled pageantry.”
Roud also points out that Warrington Walking Day goes back only to 1833, and was an attempt by the Rector of Warrington to combat the evils of gambling and strong drink available at the racecourse.
The Victorian enthusiasts liked to believe that they were rediscovering the joys of medieval Merrie England, whereas they were, in fact, mostly making stuff up.
There is, however, a possible precedent to the Victorian notion of a Rose or May Queen. It is to be found in the medieval tradition of ‘Church Ales’. The Church Ale, often held around Whitsun (the feast of Pentecost), and therefore sometimes called the ‘Whitsun Ale’, was a fundraising event for the upkeep of the parish church, which involved food, drink, dancing and games. Not that different from our current Walking Day, in fact. King James I listed Whitsun Ales as suitable entertainment for Sundays, but, with a change in the religious climate, they were banned by parliament in 1644.
Now, this is where it gets interesting! The ‘ale’ festivities were ruled over, not by a May Queen, but by a ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady’. So, if our Rose Queen has a precedent in the Lady who presided over the parish ‘ale’, she should be accompanied by a Lord!
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: it’s not just political correctness to have a Rose King, alongside the Rose Queen. It has historical precedent!
The only other parallel I could come up with was the tradition of the Boy Bishop, in which a boy (usually a chorister) was appointed ‘Bishop’ for a time. He was dressed in a bishop’s garb and given duties to perform, including leading processions and preaching sermons. The boy was usually elected on the Feast of St Nicholas’ (6th December) and served until Holy Innocents’ Day (28th January). So, the Boy Bishop held his post from the feast of the patron saint of children, through the Christmas season, until the day when the church remembers the children slaughtered by Herod in his bid to rid the world of the boy Jesus. The tradition of the Boy Bishop turns the usual order upside down, and reflects the teaching of Jesus about children: we tend to tell children that they should learn from adults. Jesus says that adults need to learn from children (Luke 18:17).
On Pentecost Sunday (15th May) we will select (by ballot from those who put their names forward), a Rose Queen and her retinue. We may also (if there are candidates!) select a Rose King. We look forward to welcoming the children who will teach us the way to serve in the kingdom of God.
 The English Year, A month-by-month guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals from May Day to Mischief Night © Steve Roud 2006, Penguin Books
2 thoughts on “The Rose Queen… and King!”
Very interesting article Alan.
In my view The Rose Queen festival should not be considered pagan but as an import into England following the norman conquest. It was the 5th century saint Medard who started the tradition of nominating the most exemplary girl in the neighbourhood to walk in procession through the village along to the church crowned with roses, She was also given a purse of money.