The Hock-tide Observance
at Hexton in Hertfordshire ;
together with some suggestions
regarding its origin and significance
W. B. Gerish
HOCK-TIDE AT HEXTON ;
TOGETHER WITH SOME SUGGESTIONS REGARDING
ITS ORIGIN AND SIGNIFICANCE.
By W. B. Gerish.
OUR Hertfordshire customs are so few and so rapidly
passing out of knowledge that it seems desirable, as the
opportunity occurs, to place them upon permanent
record. The observance of Hock-tide was one of these which
(although probably in the Early and Middle Ages prevalent
throughout Hertfordshire and other counties) has long been
discontinued. Even at Hexton, when Francis Taverner set
down his account of the festival nearly three hundred years
ago, it was, one would judge, more in the nature of a recollection
than a survival. He says :
I am conceited that in this place the Danish yoke lay heavy
upon them (the inhabitants) ; for I have not heard in any
place in this kingdom that Hoc Monday, or the feast of
Hoc-tide or Hux-tide, which signifies a tyme of skorne and
contempt, which fell upon the Danes by the death of Hardi-
canute, their king, by whose death the English were freed
from the Danish yoke. I say, that in the memorie of some
yet lyving, this Hoc-tide feast was yearly solemnized by
the best inhabitants, both men and women, in Hexton, in
the fields and streetes, with strange kind of pastime and
jollities. Some of their sports, and, namely, that of pulling
at the pole, I will relate.
They did yearly, against everie Hock Day, elect two
officers called the Hockers, a man and a woman, whose office
it was to provide the hock ale, and to gouern and order the
least for that yeai* ; these hockers had each of them a large
birchenn broome ; and on Hock Monday morning which falls
out, as I take it, between Easter and Whitsoutyde, many,
and amongst them the most substantiale of them (for boyes
and girles were not admitted) did go together to the toppe
of Weyting Hill ; on the very toppe of which hill, being the
highest in this parish, was one of those borowcs or grave
hills (which now the mattock and the plow have worne downe).
And ther was yearlie a long and a very strong ashen pole
fastened into the ground, which the women with great
courage did assale and pull downe, striving with all their
force to bring it downe the hill, which the men did defend
pulUng it up the hyll ; but by reason of the great stepeues
of the mountayne, the women, by that advantage, hayled it
to the fote of the hill ; and, though the men were so waggishe
as that when they perceived the women to pull most stronglye,
then, they would all wholy lett goe, wherby the women fell
over and over ; yet for that the women would not give
over, and, when they had brought ye pole to levell ground,
then some good fellowes would helpe the women, the hockers
laying lustiiye about them with their bromes, and allwayes
the matter was so handled that the women overcame, thrust-
ing the men into the ditches and into the brooks (the men
hockers allwayes taking the womens parte) ; and if they
got an}' of the weaker men into their hands whom they could
master, them they would baffle and besmear, and thus they
laboured incessantly e two or three houres, not giving over
till they had brought the pole and sett it up at the Crosse
by the Towne House doore, where a great number of
people were attending their coming. And then, the women
havmg provided good cheere, they brought it into the Towne
House, and did there all eate and drink together, and that
without any affront or dislike taken at anj' hand. And,
after they had eaten, then the hockers did gather money
of everie one what they pleased to give, part of it then
given to the poore, the remaining money the hockers
delivered unto the churchwardens, who lay'd out the same
in the reparation of the Church and bells, and the like. I
fynde, in an old book of churchwardens accounts, beginning
about the 24th of King Henry the Eighth, that the hockers
usually gave to the churchwardens of that t^^me, which was
collected in this manner, about 20 5. sometymes more and
Now in the after noone, they went all into the play close,
where, amongst other sports, the women ran all on one side
at base against the men ; and if they toke any of the weaker
men prisoners they would use them unhapilye inoughe. I
thincK these nicer tymes of ours would not only despise
these sports, but also account them ymodest, if not pro-
phane. But those playne and well meaning people did
solace themselves in this manner, and that without ofience
I have the rather revyved the memory of this sport of pulling
at the pole, because, in my understanding, it doth lyvely
represent unto us the deliverance from the Danes. In their
assayling of the fort, and that, chiefly by the women for their
hate to the Lurdanes, their beating them wdth poles, with
besomes, then kicking them into the kennells and bemyring
their faces, and that with all maner of hockerie and scorne
unto them. After all which they ate and dranck and gave
money to the poore.
And these solemnityes of hocking contynued for some few
yeares within the reigne of Queene Elizabeth, and soe likewise
did their maying feasts, with their playes of Robyn Hood
and Little John.
Some brief notes upon the custom may be of interest. First,
the origin of the term Hock. This has proved a crux to
philologists : even that great work " The Historical English
Dictionary " gives it up as hopeless. Whether Hock and Hook
may not be synonymous, and Hock refer to the rope or chain
having a hook* by which the victims were captured, is a debat-
able question. On the other hand, the word may have been
used metaphorically, typifying that the Danes were rendered
powerless as a horse that is hocked, i.e., the hind sinews cut.
The authorities in question (the editors of the H.E.D.) reject
the suggestion that it means high (a high or good time), or
mockery and derision (referring perhaps to the rough, uncouth
behaviour of the participants in the game), so thus the problem
is left unsettled.
The next point is, what event, if any, does the observance
celebrate ? The most popular beUef was, that it commemorated
the massacre of the Danes on November 13th, 1002, at the
instigation of iEthelred the Unready. The first to record this
incident seems to have been Henry of Huntingdon in his
" History of England to the time of Stephen " (circa 1150).
Simeon of Durham in his " History of the Kings of England
from 616 to 1130," and Alured of Rievaulx, in his " Chronicle "
describing Stephen's Battle of the Standard, both mention the
massacre, as also do Ralph de Diceto, the Saxon Chronicle,
Florence of Worcester's Chronicle, Peter Langtoft's Chronicle
of England, and Robert of Gloucester's History, but all these
writers make no allusion to the Hock-tide celebration of the
Of the other chroniclers of the period, Higden in his " Poly-
chronicon," says the event happened on St. Brice's Night.
Fabyan states in his " Concordance of Historyes," that it
occurred on St. Brice's Da}^ 1012 ; he adds, that the place
where it began is uncertain, some saying at Welwyn, Hertford-
shire, others at Howahil, Staffordshire. Grafton, in his
" Chronicle," follows him in the same words. Holingshed's
" Chronicle " makes it to have taken place on St. Brice's Day,
1012. Matthew of Westminster in his " Flores Historiarum,"
gives more particulars of the slaughter than any other historian ,
and dates it 1012, but says nothing of Hock-tide in this con-
nection. Stowe in his " Annales or a General Chronicle of
England," mentions the event as having occurred on St. Brice's
Day, 1002. t
* The Staff, having a hook for reaching down carcases, used by butchers,
is called a hock.
t Dugdale, in his " History of Warwickshire," 1656, p. 166, speaking of
the sports at Kenilworth Castle in 1575, before Queen Ehzabeth, says:
" Hither came the Coventry men and acted the ancient play, long since
used in that City, called ' Hock's Tuesday,' setting forth the destruction
of the Danes in King Ethelred's time.''
The story of the massacre and its consequences is vividly
depicted by Green in his "History of the EngUsh People"
(vol. I, pp. 116-117). He says :
A sudden panic betrayed him (^thelred) into an act of
basest treachery which ruined his plans of defence at home.
Urged by secret orders from the King, the West Saxons rose
on St. Brice's Day and pitilessly massacred the Danes
scattered among them. Gunhild, the sister of their King
Sweyn, a Christian convert, and one of the hostages for the
peace, saw husband and child butchered before her eyes ere
she fell threatening vengeance on her murderers. Sweyn
swore at the news to wrest England from ^thelred. For
four years he marched through the length and breadth of
southern and eastern England " lighting his war-beacons
as he went " in blazing homestead and town. Then for a
heavy bribe he withdrew, to prepare for a later and more
terrible onset. . . . In 1 01 3 his fleet entered the Humber
and called on the Danelaw to rise in his aid. Northumbria,
East Anglia, the Five Boroughs, all England north of Watling
Street, submitted to him at Gainsborough. .Ethelred
shrank into a King of Wessex, and of a Wessex helpless before
the foe. Resistance was impossible. The war was terrible
but short. Everywhere the country was pitilessly harried,
churches plundered, men slaughtered. But with the one
exception of London, there was no attempt at defence. . , .
Even London at last gave way, and ^thelred fled over sea
to a refuge in Normandy. With the flight of the King
ended the long struggle of Wessex for supremacy over
From the difference in the date of the massacre, which took
place on November 13th, and its supposed commemoration in
March or April — apart from the fact that the event did not by
any means free the Saxons, save temporarily, from the Danish
yoke — it is difficult to comprehend how its celebration became
connected with the Hock-tide festival.
The explanation given by Tavemer is more reasonable,
namely, that it celebrated the deliverance of the country from
the wanton insults and harsh exactions of the Danes, by the
death of Hardicanute on June i8th, 1042.
The Rev. Mr. Denne in a paper upon Hoke-day printed in
" Archseologia," vol. vii., 1784, saj^s :
No similar objections can be urged to contravert the
notion that the decease of Hardicanute was celebrated at
the Hokedav feast, because by his death the English were
for ever released from the wanton insults and boundless
exactions of him and his countrymen. And, perhaps, the
time and manner of keeping the Hoketyde, with other
incidental circum.stances may be found to warrant the
appropriation of it. . . . Of the manner of keeping this
celebrity no information is to be had from any of the early
historians. I have examined John Ross, or Rouse, who must
have collected his materials for the History of Warwick-
shire after the middle of the fifteenth century, and he asserts
what was vulgarly called Hox Tuesday, to have been a token
of the deliverance of Englishmen from the servitude of the
Danes by the death of Hardicanute, and writes thus of
the observance of it " ludunt m villis trahendo cordas
partialiter cum aliis jocis." Lambard coincides in opinion
wdth Ross as to the origin of this festival ; and adds, " that
ever after the common people in joy of that deliverance have
celebrated the annual da}^ of Hardicanute' s death (as the
Romanes did their feast of fiis:alia or chasing out the kings)
with open pastime in the street's, calling it even till this our
time Hoctydo. . . . But to whatever cause the death
of Hardicanute may be attributed, it unquestionably occa-
sioned a revolution so veiy fortunate for England, as to afford
a competent reason for instituting, by general consent, a
yearly joyful commemoration of it. And I am inclined to
imagine, that the long tradition of the Hokeday's having a
reference to a deliverance from the Danes whose domination
was considered as an Egyptian bondage . . . furnish a
presumptive proof ot its origin."
Of Hardicanute, Green (" History of the English People,"
vol. I, pp. 127-12S) says :
The love which Canute's justice had won turned to hatred
before the lawlessness of his successors. The long peace
sickened men of this fresh outburst of bloodshed and vio-
lence. " Never was a bloodier deed done in the land since
the Danes came," ran the popular song. . . . Hardi-
canute, more savage even than his brother Harold, dug up
his body and flung it into the marsh. . . . His death
was no less brutal than his life ; "he died as he stood at his
drink in the house of Osgod Clapa at Lambeth."
Here the same difficulty presents itself, for the dates do not
agree : but it may have been deemed desirable to substitute
the first two days of the week after Easter, as this was a time
when work generally was suspended, and in order to interfere
less with agricultural operations than if it were kept later in
The account given bj^ Nathaniel Salmon in his " Survej^ of
England," 1731 (vol. ir., pp. 414-416), is interesting, as it
differs considerably from that given under Hexton in his History
of Hertfordshire published three years before. He saj^s :
From Verulam, I go through Luton, in Bedfordshire, to
Ravensborough Castle above Hexton, in this county, twelve
miles, as saith the Itinerary. This I take to be the Duro-
cobrivoe of Antoninus. . . . The Danes had been
beaten hereabouts the year after they had been successful
at Hokenorton, in Oxfordshire. The account of this defeat
we have from Matthew Florilegus, from the Archdeacon of
Huntingdon and from the Saxon Annals. There is amongst
them a difference of about five years, but that is tolerably
exact for writers of that age. The first writes under the
year 914. " Eodem anno facta est Danorum strages maxima
in finibus Luitonice et provincioe Hertfordiensis."
The second author hath, under the year 911, " Et post-
quam redierunt domum (Dani) statim exiit alia Caterva et
ivit ad Ligetune."
After discussing whether Ligetune is represented by Leighton
Buzzard or Luton and giving preference to the latter place, he
This Ravensborough is called a Castle, as is many a camp
in England. Dr. Stukcley brings the name from Rornans-
Borough ; to confirm which there is another Fortress in
Northamptonshire of the same name.
The Dean of York upon Durocobrivoe makes it to signify
Aquarum Concursus. Dour doubtless in British signifies
water. Here are two remarkable waters, one is just below
the Camp at Hexton, where is such an extraordinary Flux
from one spring head, as would drive a mill within a few
5'ards. In Saxon times this was dedicated to St. Faith. The
other in its neighbourhood is called Roaring jNIeg, from the
hideous noise the fall of v.'ater after rain makes from Pexon
Barn, and the steep hills thereabouts.
The Camp consists of about sixteen acres single ditched,
of an oval form, prodigiously fortified by Nature, accessible
but at one point where the ascent is not difficult. Hence
lies a road to Sandy, in Bedfordshire, the Magiovinium, I
presume, of the Romans. Hexton, the Parish in which
Ravensborough stands, was usually written by the Saxons
Heckstanestunc. In the record of Domesday 'tis Hega-
staneston. This of Heckstanestunc by alteration of one
vowel, would be Hockstauestune*. Hock or Hoke hath
relation to the Danes, and thence probably Hokenorton,
in Oxfordshire, already named. Hoke or Hock is a word
expressing joy. Hocks-Tuesday is the day in which the
Danes are said to have been massacred throughout England.
Hockey Cake is that which is distributed to the people at
harvest home. The Hockey Cart is that which brings the
last corn and the children rejoicing with boughs in their
hands, with which the horses are also attired.
In a Church Warden's Rate of Bishop Stortford in this
count}^ are two or three articles explaining the word into
Rejoycing. This rate is for 22 of Edward IV. and for four
years of Henry VII. :
* This derivation finds no favour with Professor Skeat (" Place Names
of Hertfordshire," 1904, p. 47), who states that it means " Heahstan's
town,'- literally, " the town by the high stone.''
For Hokkyng Ale . . . . . . . . 14s.
De exitu cujusdam Potationis vocat. Le Hok-
kyng Ale . . . . . . . . . . 13s.
Pro baking 6 mod. Fnimenti erga le Hokkyng
Ale . . . . . . . . . . . . 4d.
Memorand recept eod an pro Hokkyng Ale . . i is. 8d.
El. dc profic, les Grcyns de cad . . . . 8d.
The history of the Fight between the Danes and Edward
the Elder hereabouts, and the remarkably long Barrows
[these are or were situated near the intersection of the Watling
and Ikening Street, in Bedfordshire] incline me to believe
the town of Hexton was originally Hockston from that
remarkably victory, and probably one army had taken the
camp at Ravensborough the night before it.
As far as can be traced it \^■ould seem that as early as the
thirteenth century, the Monday and Tuesday after Easter were
known as Hoke-days (in the Church's calendar they were called
Ouindena Paschoe). Hoke Tuesday was in former times an
important term-day upon which rents were paid and the like.
Thus Hoke Day and Michaelmas Day divided the rural year
into its summer and winter halves. As early as the fourteenth
century, and probably earlier, it was a popular holiday festival,
signalised by the collection of money for church and parochial
purposes* by roughly humorous methods and sportive customs.
It survived the Reformation, and as a festive season with
traditional customs, existed in many places (notably at Hun-
gerford) down to the nineteenth century. The common custom
seems to have consisted of seizing and binding or Hfting (by
women on Monday, by men on Tuesday) of persons of the
opposite sex, who were released upon making a small payment. f
Although as a festival it had been — in common with all merry-
makings — suppressed at the Refoimation, it survived as a mere
frolic, and recourse was had to the device of stretching ropes
across the roads to stop all passers-by, who were only permitted
to resume their way when they had paid a trifling tribute. The
money thus obtained was spent chiefly in drink, neither the
poor nor the Church obtaining any advantage therefrom. J
* In 1406, 1409, 1410, 1414, 1416, 1418 and 1419, Proclamations were
issued to the citizens of London forbidding the " Hokkyng on Hokke-
dayes "* imder penalty of fine and imprisonment. In Leland's " Col-
lectanea,'' 1770, p. 298, will be found an inhibition of John, Bishop of
"Worcester, against the abuses of the Hocdays, dated April 6th, 1450.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Hock-tide was recognised as a regular date
or period in legal instruments.
t " Rope Monday," the ^Monday following the second Sunday after
Easter, to which reference is made in the Maldon (Essex) Court Rolls for
1403, 1463, and 1468, evidently corresponded with Hock Monday.
I Mr. Glasscock, in his " Records of St. Michael's, Bishop's Stortford,"
gives under date 1484, " Paid for bakyng of the brtde at hokctyde. Yd. ;
paid for brewyng of the hokyng ale, XVId.'-
None of the writers upon the subject, such as Brand, HazHtt,
Walsh, or others make any original attempt to explain the
meaning of this forcible capture and ransom by persons of
opposite sexes, nor have I gone very deeply into the matter,
as at Hexton the practice does not appear to have prevailed.
The custom at this place seems to have been peculiar to it,
and is therefore of much greater interest from a folk-lorist's
point of view, although it presents equalh' great difficulties
when one attempts to trace its orgin and meaning. The pole
was clearly an emblem, but emblematical of what ? Scarcely
sovereignt3\ for if so why should the men resist the women's
efforts to depose it ? Have we not here some mystical survival
of pagan rites — probabl}^ of prehistoric origin ? Long before
Christianit}' took root in this country, the advent of Spring
was annually celebrated with festivals and rejoicings in honour
of Ostara, the Norse Goddess of Spring. With the adoption of
Christianity this festival, like many other pagan rites, instead
of being forcibly suppressed, which would have proved fatal
to the advance of the new religion, was wisely adapted b}^ the
Church and, still retaining the name of Easter, became the festival
of the Resurrection. It is reasonable to conclude that after the
rehgious festivities of Easter had been duly observed, the
ecclesiastical authorities annually permitted the country people
to celebrate the occasion in the manner to which they had been
accustomed for untold generations. This secular demonstration
became known as Hock-tide ; and its cry of Hock ! Hock !
[Hoch is the German equivalent for Hail) was the vocal expression
of the joy felt for Nature's awakening, the coming of the Spring.*
It may also be possible to discover parallel instances of similar
customs surviving at the present time among savage races.
The conclusion of the struggle is, of course, a not unusual one :
The shout of them that triumph
The song of them that feast
echoes all through the ages, even as it does to-day.
The game of base which was afterwards played by the good
folk of Hexton is of almost equally high antiquity. It survives
in the " Prisoners' Base " of our schooldays. Here we have
the beginnings of the village commune and the ownership of
land. A family or tribe trespasses upon a tract admitted or
supposed to belong to a neighbouring family or tribe, and the
result is a fight and the capture by the stronger party of certain
* It is possible that the pole represents the wooden effigy of the goddess,
overthrown by the women-converts to Christianity (the gentler sex being
the first to be affected by emotional appeals), notwithstanding the opposi-
tion of the men. The feast, too, might represent the reconciliation of
Christians and Pagans.
individuals who would be either reserved for slaves or for torture
and execution. Stories of such successes or disasters would be
kept alive by re-acting the incidents in the form of annual sports.
It was usual to hold such fairly early in the spring, before the
weather became too warm for athletic games. In the Christian
era, the boisterous pastimes coming so soon after the austerities
of the Lenten season, represent to some extent the natural flow
of suppressed animal spirits which the approach of spring serves
but to accentuate.
One might venture to remark that it seems a pity that all
these ancient sports have practically fallen out of use, leaving
naught but cricket and football in their place. Surely it should
be possible to revive many of them,t of course, where needful,
substituting milder forms and gentler actions for our forefathers'
admittedly boisterous frolics.
W. B. Gerish.
f How numerous these were, Strutt's " Sports and Pastimes of the
English People " yields abundant evidence.
Since the above notes were written I have re-considered the
suggestions there put forth respecting the origin of the festival,
and I have formed the opinion that the Hock-tide epoch of
jubilation and games may be but the expression of the joy
that thrilled all England at the final overthrow and slaughter
of the Danes at Edington in S78.* The time of the year in which
this took place, a short time after Easter, coincides with the date
of the observance, whereas, as I stated, the massacre of the
unsuspecting Danes by ^Ethelred and the death of Hardicanute
occurred upon widely' differing dates. If this assumption is
correct, it gives the key to the symboUsm of the observance.
The mock-battle, or trial of strength, represents the two armies,
British and Danish, the former being the weaker force, less
trained and worse armed — 3^et by courage and strategy' able to
capture the lofty standard with its raven banner typified by
the pole at Hexton. The rough treatment of the men is
emblematical of the rout and slaughter of the Danes, and the
subsequent feast, the symbol of the Treaty of Wedmore which
secured a lasting peace, f
Ravensburgh was probably the most important Danish
station in Hertfordshire, and it is reasonable to suppose sent a
considerable contingent to the army which met with so signal
a defeat at Edington. The evacuation of the Camp and dis-
appearance of the oppressors, one may suppose, would continue
long in the remembrance of the inhabitants, and, if the Puritan
regime had not cut short all such rejoicings, it is possible that
sounds of revelry would still be heard in this remote village on
the fifteenth day after Easter Sunday.
* Blount in his edition of " Cowell's Glossary," says that Hoc Tuesday
money was a duty given to the landlord, that his tenants and bondsmen
might solemnise that day on which the English mastered the Danes,
being the second Tuesday after Easter week.
t It may be urged against this that the Danish dominion lasted until
a much later period, but it is feasible that the celebration of the final
deliverance from the Danish yoke, by the death of Hardicanute, was, as a
matter of ecclesiastical and agricultural convenience, timed to coincide
with the earlier celebration of rthe Edington victor^'. For the peculiar
form the commemoration took at Hexton, the proximity of Ravensburgh
may be responsible, typifying the storming of that place by the English
and the seizing of the Danish standard.
Printed by M'Corquodale & Co. Ltd., London.