The term ‘Green Man’ today evokes the leafy face which is the subject of our survey. It was coined by Lady Raglan in 1939, in an article she published in Folklore, and before her time, few people took much interest in the motif. If it had a name it was the unromantic ‘foliate head’. Fascinated by an example she saw at a church in Monmouthshire, however, Lady Raglan named it the Green Man and decided that it was ‘the central figure in the May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe’ - essentially the same as the Jack in the Green, Robin Hood, the May King and others. For some years afterwards, the Green Man was widely interpreted as a figure uniting a wealth of traditions in one ancient, pagan spirit of nature.

Few authorities today accept so wide a generalization. Nonetheless, the traditions below all in their different ways evoke the romance of the greenwood and a revitalizing closeness to nature. If Lady Raglan has come into criticism as a scholar, no-one could doubt her genius as a publicist; before long people were noticing Green Men everywhere.

Jack in the Green
Jack-in-the-Green furnished the title for an album by Oxfordshire folk band, Magpie Lane. You can play the title track here. Celebrating springtime rebirth, the song is a modern one written in traditional style by Martin Graebe. The tune which follows is ‘Jack’s Alive’ from a dance collection of 1816. The album cover is a painting of the 1830s, depicting the ‘Jack’ in London chimney sweeps’ parade. The ‘Jack’ is a man inside a mound of foliage now much associated with morris celebrations of May Day. Morris dancing certainly dates back to the Middle Ages - there are written references from 1458 - and it was once assumed that the ‘Jack’ was always part of the scene.

Patient research has revealed a different story. Roy Judge, in his 1979 study The Jack in the Green, a May Day Custom, discovered that there was no traceable evidence of the dancing ‘Jack’ before 1775 at the earliest. He seems to have been invented by London chimney sweeps during the industrial revolution, as a feature of their street parades. From London the custom spread during the early 19th century to chimney sweeps in the South and Midlands of England.

In the city of Oxford, a Jack in the Green was first reported in 1828, and performances went on from time to time until May Day, 1871, when an event was stopped by police on the grounds that it constituted begging.  For many years no further reports appeared in the newspapers. When the city’s Hathaway family of sweeps decided to go out and about with a Jack in the Green on May Day 1886 it was written of as 'a very old custom which has not been seen in Oxford for many years'.

Photographer Henry W. Taunt recorded the appearance of the 'Jack'.  On May Day morning he had the party pose for a picture in front of Balliol College, across the road from his shop on Broad Street. When the photo was reproduced in the Oxford Mail on May Day 1969, a reader was able to identify many of the participants. (Bob Potter, a legendary Oxfordshire fiddler, is at the left).

Henry W Taunt wrote of how the Hathaway family had taken great pains to build their Jack and dress their performers in traditional fashion. The Jack was made of wicker work covered with leaves and laurel with flowers in between and ‘reeled round one way and the performers danced round it in reverse, clanging their poker and shovel and pot and ladle as they swung past, while the violin squeaked out a merry old English dance...’

For information on the ‘Jack’ in Oxfordshire we are indebted to Keith Chandler whose series of essays on Musicians in 19th Century Southern England includes studies of fiddler Bob Potter, and of the Jack in the Green party of 1886. See

The Wild Man of the Woods
A historic feature of street shows and pageants was the Woodman, Wodehouse or Wild Man. He was huge and hairy but recognisably human, often clad in a costume of green leaves, wielding an enormous club. For example, when Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth Castle in 1557, she was met on a return from hunting by ‘one clad like a savage man all in ivie’ who delivered a neat speech to her. In Tudor and Stuart times these leafy figures used to clear the way for street processions with firecrackers as well as their big sticks. It was reported that a St George’s Day procession of 1610 featured men in green leaves ’with black heare and black beards very owgly to behold, and garlands upon their heads with great clubs in their hands with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintaine way for the rest of the show.’

Pubs called The Green Man were once very common in Britain and many survive (the Green Man at Mollington, near Banbury is the northernmost pub in Oxfordshire). We know that the names sometimes referred to the wild men of pageants because they were shown on the pub signs, festooned with leaves and wielding clubs. The Woodstock Arms on Woodstock Road, Oxford, has two classic images of the Wild Man on its pub sign.

The Wild Man differs from the Green Man of parish churches in being an outlandish figure without being a magical one. He is festooned with leaves but does not shape-change into foliage. If the church carvers wanted to depict the Wild Man, would they not have shown him in traditional fashion, full length, with his trademark club?

Robin Hood
Other pubs called the Green Man generally took their name from foresters who wore green as a sign of their occupation. Or they took their name from Robin Hood, who famously went dressed in Lincoln Green. Tales of the merry outlaw, skilled in archery and a master of disguise, were being told in England from the 1370s onwards, and he was a hugely popular hero in folk song (he is shown here on a 17th-century ballad sheet).

In truth, however, Robin Hood has little in common with the half-human/half foliate figure that we know as the Green Man. Robin’s adventures contain no magic or mysticism, none of the supernatural occurrences found, for example, in the tales of King Arthur. He is an entirely human hero, and there is certainly no evidence that Green Man images in churches were ever meant to depict the outlaw.

May Day
How many of the crowds who throng down Oxford’s High Street on May Morning notice one of Magdalen’s Green Men, watching festivities from the college wall?

The celebration of May Day is a very old custom, which may have originated in pagan festivities. The first written references occur in about 1240 when Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, complained about priests joining in the ‘games which they call the bringing-in of May’. The practice of going out into the countryside to gather flowers and green boughs was always a central feature. People would bring in the greenery to decorate their houses and welcome the season. The setting up of maypoles appears in written records rather later, in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Oxford is particularly famous for the singing of a Latin hymn on May Day morning, from the top of Magdalen College tower. The 17th-century hymn Te Deum patrem colimus is sung by the college choir, and you can listen to the first verse on the Magdalen College website ­ or by clicking here.