By Pete Jennings
We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin
We hunted the Wren for Jack of the Can
We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin
We hunted the Wren for every man.
I am sometimes asked where my interest in folklore finishes, and my Pagan path begins. Maybe this modest article will demonstrate that the line is very blurred, if it exists at all. You may have noticed that the Old Glory Molly Dancers are to perform their ritual songs, dances and stories at the PF National Conference 1999. It will be the first time that their tradition will have been presented outside the village of Middleton in Suffolk, or even at a time other than Boxing Day, and they have consented because of my connection with their customs. But what is the Cutty Wren?
When I was still at school in the late sixties, I learnt a folk song. Part of it I learnt from hearing it at a traditional Suffolk "Sing, say or pay" session, and partly from a play I had to study at school; Chips with everything by Arnold Wesker, where it was used as a song of protest by RAF conscripts against their patronising officers. It is a fierce song, and one old boy used to stamp his foot at places when he sung it. I understand it was also used in a Suffolk peasant's revolt of the 1300s against Simon of Sudbury. One version (inevitably there are several folk variants) goes:
1 "Where are you going?"
Said Milder to Malder.
"I may not tell you"
Said Festle to Fose.
"Going into the woods"
Said John the Red Nose.
(Repeat last two lines)
[Hereafter insert italics lines starting "Said"]
2 "What will you do there?" etc.
"To hunt the Cutty Wren"
3 "With what will you hunt her?"
"With guns and with cannon"
4 "How will you cut her up?"
"With hatchets and cleavers"
5 "How will you cook her?"
"Bloody great brass cauldron"
6 " Who'll get the spare ribs"
"Give them to the poor"
As R.J. 'Bob' Stewart points out in his excellent book "Where is Saint George?" the song has a ritual call and refrain form, found in many types of religious service around the world. The priest asks a question, the congregation say it doesn’t know, the answer is given and is then repeated. It is also one of the family of British exaggeration folk songs such as Derby Ram. One hardly needs a cannon and a cauldron to kill and cook a little bird like the wren.
Later in my teens I found a brief mention of a Cutty Wren custom being carried out in Middleton, near Leiston Suffolk by a prolific East Anglian author that lived there called George Ewart Evans. (I would love to locate that reference again if anyone can help!) He said it had been carried out within living memory (therefore no earlier than the turn of the 20th century), at the local pub, The Bell. A wren was killed and attached to a garlanded pole. He said that the verse used to beg for money was:
The wren, the wren, the king of the birds.
Saint Stephens Day was caught in the furze.
His body is small, but his spirit is great.
We pray you good people to give us a treat!
More recently a reference has been relocated of Allan
Jobson's book "An Hourglass on the Run" (1959). In it he says his grandfather
Mr. Barham of Rackford Farm told him about Cutty Wren in Middleton when
he was a boy, back at the middle of the 19th century. He said he would
go round the village (of Middleton) with others on St. Stephens Day. They
would catch and kill a wren and fasten it in the midst of a mass of holly
and ivy to the top of a broomstick. Going from house to house they sang
"The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephens Day was caught in a furze;
Although he is little, his family is great -
I pray you good Landlady to give us a treat!"
Maybe the variant last line denotes a difference when calling upon the pub!
Additionally, a correspondent has referred me to "County Folklore XXXVII - Printed Extracts No. 2 Suffolk" in which Lady Eveline Camilla Gurdon quotes Gage's "History and Antiquities of Suffolk" Thingoe Hundred footnote p.p. xxvii" saying "Hunting the Wren on Valentines Day is not entirely out of use." (reprinted by Llanerch Folklore Society in 1997)
I found this quite exciting as a folklorist, since I had only ever heard of such things going on in Ireland, Scotland. Isle of Man and Wales. What was this Celtic remnant doing in Suffolk? (I later found the Celts had lived in East Anglia before being pushed out by various invaders.) The Cutty Wren was the smallest bird known to the Celts. ("Cutty" meaning small.) and there is an old story explaining how it became the King of the Birds.
Some swallows returning from Africa told how the animals there had a king. "Couldn't we have one as well?" they asked. The wise owl was consulted as to how one should be selected, and she said that what set birds apart was that they could fly (very wise!) so it should be the one that flew highest. Chattering magpies spread news of the competition, and a great flock assembled. A small wren couldn't see what was happening, so pushed her way through the legs of the birds from the back. The sharp eyed kestrel had spotted the eagle flying in from his mountain eyrie. They all knew he was a great flyer, but didn't fancy being ruled by one with such arrogant ways. Contestants dropped out, feeling they had no chance against his great wings. The last call went out just as the wren pushed through to the front and stumbled into the starting place. The jackdaws laughed to see such a tiny competitor, but the wren said if no one else would have a go, then she would. Encouraged by the others, the race began, started by the boom of a bittern.
The eagle took one flap of his wings and was six foot in the air, whilst the wren had to take a running jump and flap for all she was worth to keep up. The eagle looked down his beak and took two more flaps, which took him to the height of a tree. The wren made a brave effort, cheered by those below who liked a plucky underdog. The eagle decided to finish off the contest there and then, and aimed like a dart for the clouds with his big powerful wings. But what was that on his back but the wren, who had caught up and was clinging on grimly. However the eagle twisted and turned, she was still gripping with her tiny claws, and thus flying higher. The birds acclaimed the wren the king, and the eagle headed back to his mountain in disgust, beaten by brains, not brawn.
In 1994 I was singing in a pub session when I was invited to another, at Middleton Bell. I sang the song I knew and told what I knew about the place and the custom. "The new landlord would love to hear that" they said. "He really encourages the traditions of singing, music and step dancing." Sure enough he was very interested, but so were my other friends, several of who danced in a Cotswold style morris side in Summer. It turned out that they were planning to get up a winter side to revive East Anglian molly dance in the area, traditionally danced in working clothes, boots and blacked faces (to preserve anonymity.) Molly is very different in style to other forms of morris dance, and has often been associated with Plough Monday customs. Old Glory, as they became known, are led by a lord and lady (a man dressed as a female) and decided to revive the Cutty Wren tradition in Middleton for the first time in almost a century. The side features green and black ribbon decorations and a wren badge. They kindly invited me to help sing the songs and tell the story. They rang me a bit beforehand and said "We were thinking of having a torchlight procession through the village beforehand, to give it a Paganish feel. Would I mind?" Of course I didn't. Up until then they did not know my spiritual path, although since then they have been pleased at the number of Pagans who turn up to witness it, amongst the 150 - 200 crowd who forsake food and telly for an hour or two. The wren is beautifully carved in wood, and I am proud to bear her mounted on a garlanded pitchfork. The dancers are all male, and the large band all females.
In Ireland the Wren Boys (who often include Wren Girls) often appear outside of the Yule period, and may sometimes bring luck to a village wedding. A leaflet by folklorist Michael Blandford gives an Irish explanation for the custom as English soldiers escaping a rebel attack by being awoken by a wren pecking a drum. He goes on to mention an Isle of Man story of a singing siren being defeated by being turned to a wren and killed. The feathers were meant to protect the bearer from shipwreck. Some traditions have a pole decorated with greenery, whilst others a wooden 'coffin' to house the bird. Another tale suggests he betrayed St. Stephen to soldiers by singing out from the bush he was hiding in. He certainly seems to take on the role of a sacrificial king at times.
1 Joy, health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we will sing concerning our king
2Our King is well dressed, in silks of the best
In ribbons so rare, no King can compare
3 We have travelled many miles, over hedges and stiles
In search of our King, unto you we bring
4 We have powder and shot, to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball, to conquer them all
5 Old Christmas is past, twelve tide is the last
And we bid you adieu, great joy to the New.
I am proud to be partly instrumental in the revival of the Cutty Wren in Suffolk. It has been an interesting privilege to see how the custom has developed in the few years since it has been revived. Small improvements have been added, and although the side is a happy bunch, there is something about the event that seems to make them present a stern face to the world. One termed it "serious enjoyment". It certainly has an indefinable 'dark mystery' to it, and has become an important part of my personal ritual year, and one where an aspect of my beliefs are made very public in an acceptable way. Most of the people attending do not share them, and yet have some sense of awe at what is happening in their midst, causing them to return each year.
I would recommend anyone wishing to get in touch with the genus loci (spirit of the place) of the land in which they live to get involved in local customs. If there is an existing one, see if they need any help, whilst remembering that the other participants may be there for reasons very different to your own. If there is nothing surviving in your area, why not research what was there and revive it?
Like most traditional customs, it is difficult to convey the intense feelings and atmosphere engendered at the event. I hope you can witness it for yourself either at the conference or in Middleton itself one Boxing Day. You can obtain further information by looking at the Old Glory web site:
There is a stirring Cutty Wren song
on the CD Steeleye Span - Time (Park PRKCD34) as well as on their old LP
'Live at Last' (Chrysalis CHR 1199)
Look out also for "Hunting the Wren" on John Kirkpatricks Wassail! album (Fellside FECD 125)
Four Scots & Irish wren tunes appear on the CD Boys of the Lough - The Day Dawn
A selection of traditional Cutty Wren recordings of Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man can be found on "A Celtic Christmas" (Saydisc CD-SDL 417)
'String Whistle' have a whole section of their CD Spirits of the Past (Elly Music EMCD 02) devoted to the Cutty Wren; Can Hela'r Dryw (Hunting the Wren) from Denbighshire & Flintshire + song, folowed by Sheig Y Drean (Hunting the Wren) from the Isle of Man, The Wren Boys of Dun and another Wren Boys song from Ireland.
Don Shepherd sang a beautiful version of the Cutty Wren on the LP 'The Sun & the Moon (Sweet Folk & Country SFA 013) and there is even a version on the flip of a Spinners single.
"Where is Saint George: Pagan imagery within English folksong" by Bob Stewart has been published in various editions, including one by Moonraker Press, but I am unsure if it is currently in print. It is a book worth searching for.
The Chieftains regularly invited straw clad Wren Boys & Girls to dance with them during Yuletide concerts, and some details are given in The Chieftains authorised biography by John Glatt (St Martins Press). They recorded a Wren medley for the Xmas album 'Bells of Dublin' and featured them on the accompanying video.
"The Golden Bough" by J.G.Fraser reports that there were similar customs carried out in France. (Published by Papermac and others)
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