History of June - Blog - Bluestone Wales

Today, we are delighted to hand the blog reins over once again to our resident historian Terry John, for another look at some of the weird stuff folks used to get up to in the olden days.

If you are visiting Bluestone around 24 June this year, don’t be surprised if you see members of the Bluestone staff hurrying from lodge to lodge and putting various bits of greenery over the doors and windows. They haven’t suffered a fit of summer madness – they are doing it for your protection. No, really, they are!

St John’s Eve falls on 24 June and, as our ancestors were well aware, St John’s Eve is one of the three spirit nights of the year, known in Wales as y tair ysbrydnos, when spirits roamed abroad in the hours of darkness. The other nights were May Day Eve and Halloween.

On these nights supernatural powers were unleashed and the spirits of the dead roamed abroad. Though some of these spirits might be harmless, others most definitely were not and sensible people needed protection from them.

On St John’s Eve, 24 June, it was common in many parts of Wales to place over the doors of houses sprigs of St John’s Wort so that the home was purified of any evil spirits that might lurk within. The flower was also known to keep away ‘licentious demons’ that might threaten the ladies of the house.

This beautiful plant, with its bright yellow flowers, is usually in bloom in June and is also known as the Celestial Sun. Its Welsh names were Dail y Fendigaid (the blessed leaf or leaf of blessings) and Llysiau Ioan (John’s herb).

According the legend, it was used during the Crusades by the Knights of St John of Jerusalem to heal the wounds of the Crusaders. The Knights of St John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, had an enviable reputation as healers and doctors, as well as being formidable fighters. As one of their commanderies was at Slebech, about two miles from Bluestone, it’s tempting to wonder if they grew St John’s Wort amongst the plants in their medicinal gardens there.

The Knights knew that when a leaf of the Wort is held up to the light it is seen to be covered with translucent glands that look like punctures. These were thought to resemble wounds and, according to the belief that God had marked every plant with a visible symbol showing what it might cure, the Wort was clearly meant to heal wounds. 

In addition to battle wounds, St John’s Wort was said by the physician Salmon in 1693 to cure several diseases, for when ‘drunk in Broth or Wine for 40 daies together, it is said to help the sciatica, Palsie and Falling-sickness’. Its yellow colour also indicated that it was a cure for jaundice and for depression. A cream made from the leaves boiled in salty buttermilk was an effective remedy for swellings.

As most people in the medieval period were aware, the time of day at which a plant was gathered was important if you wanted to get the best from it. It was traditional to harvest St John’s Wort when it was still damp with dew on St John’s Eve, because it was then at its most powerful. Some people, however, preferred to gather it at noon on St John’s Day, in order to cure specific ailments. The roots of the plant, if dug up at midnight on the Eve of St John, were good for driving away witches and the devil.

St John’s Wort could also be used for divination, in particular to forecast the length of someone’s life. A piece of the plant was gathered for each person in the house and was cleaned ‘free from dust and fly’. Each portion was named after a person in the house and all of them were then hung from a rafter overnight. In the morning they were carefully examined and those whose pieces had withered the most would die soonest. 

One custom, widespread in Wales during June, was that of the ‘summer birch’. This was a slender tree trunk that was raised in a prominent place within each village at midsummer, on St John‘s Eve. In some places, the branches of the tree were lopped off before it was raised, whilst in others the branches were left in place and decorated.

Like the Maypole earlier in the year, the summer birch, with or without its branches, was decorated with ribbons, coloured paper and wreaths of flowers. The most beautiful wreaths were placed as high as possible on the birch. Occasionally, a weather-cock with guided feathers was fixed to the top, its tail a mass of ribbons that streamed out in the breeze.

The men of rival parishes were always ready to steal or knock down someone else’s pole, so it was carefully guarded by a few hefty lads until the danger was past. If the birch was lost, another could not be raised in its place until the losing parish had stolen one from somewhere else. The ban might last for years, if the villagers were unlucky enough to fail time and time again. On the other hand, a victorious parish earned a great deal of esteem.

Once the sky had begun to darken on St John’s Eve, bonfires were lit and dancing took place, the music being provided by fiddlers, harpists and horn players. The celebrations lasted into the early hours of the morning and it was said that in some places the dancing went on for days.  

The appetite was not forgotten on St John’s Day. A special Midsummer pudding was also made, the recipe now sadly lost, but it did involve the use of milk. In Pendine, about 20 miles from Bluestone, it was traditional for groups of people to go from house to house asking for milk to make the pudding. It was plentifully given.

June was also the month in which the cattle drovers set off with their herds on the long journey to the cattle markets and pastures of England. To protect them on their way, they wore on their clothing sprigs cut from a rowan tree because the rowan was a holy tree and gave protection against witches. Many Welsh homes had a rowan tree planted in their gardens for that reason.  

During the Middle Ages and for long afterwards, saints days were carefully remembered. June must have been a busy month for Pembrokeshire folk because, in addition to St John’s Day, St Petroc celebrated his feast day on 4 June. He was followed by St Dogmael on 14 June, St Ishmael on 16 June and St Govan on 20 June. All these saints were born or lived in Pembrokeshire and all had parishes or places in the county named after them.

If you are staying at Bluestone on 20 June, why not nip down to St Govan’s Chapel near Bosherston and then you can take part in two of Pembrokeshire’s oldest traditions.

St Govan’s Chapel is wedged into a cleft in the rocks overlooking the sea. It is reached by a set of steeps from the cliff top. Take care as you go up and down as they are very steep – but don’t forget to count the steps as you go down and then do the same thing on your way up. It is said that no-one ever manages to reach the same total for both journeys – nor would you want to. Those who get the same number never go to heaven!

The chapel is tiny and peaceful and filled with the sound of the sea. At the back of the chapel is Bell Rock, in which the saint’s bell is said to be embedded. That narrow fissure in the rock is where St Govan hid from marauding pirates. The rock closed protectively about him and the ridges in it are the marks of his ribs. If you can squeeze into the fissure and can turn around three times without touching the sides, your favourite wish will be granted.

Categories:Environment, History

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