God Speed the Plough

With Maggie Chaplin

“We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land

But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand”

These words were written in the 18th century and at that time the land would be prepared for planting, one furrow at a time, using a simple wooden plough with a metal ‘share’ that dug into the soil. It would be pulled by a team of horses or oxen and the farmer would walk behind the plough guiding it with a pair of long wooden handles. It was hard backbreaking work that would probably need to be repeated several times, possibly in different directions in order to get the soil into a suitable state for sowing seed. The job would take days of manual labour; there were neither tractors and nor agricultural machinery to minimize the effort involved.

When the ground had been prepared, the seed would be set, but not by mechanized precision drilling as happens today. It was all footwork. The farmer would go up and down the furrows with a bag or basket of seed and scatter it by hand as the hymn suggests. He would distribute the seeds as evenly as he could, but germination was inevitably patchy and the eventual crop unpredictable. The outcome was very much up to God and the elements.

In rural communities man lived close to the land and livelihoods depended on the success of the harvest, which could only be as good as the initial sowing. It was therefore natural to ask for God’s intercession to bless the efforts of the agricultural workers and their implements, in the hope of influencing the quality and quantity of the eventual harvest.

Between the 8th and the 18th century farming tools underwent little change. Distribution and management of the land might have altered over the years, but cultivation of the soil was by broadly similar methods and although metal might replace wood, plough design and construction varied little for centuries.

Few farm workers in small towns and villages could afford their own plough, in the same way today the majority of farmers don’t own combine harvesters or balers but hire them when needed. In medieval times most small communities would possess a plough that could be lent out to parishioners. It would often be kept in the church.

As soon as the Christmas season was over the farming year began again in earnest and it became traditional to designate the first Monday after Epiphany (12th night) as the first day back to agricultural work. To invoke God’s blessing for the forthcoming farming season, candles, called plough lights, were lit in the church near the plough and that Monday became known as Plough Monday. This practice became the basis of a religious festival that was practiced at least as far back as the fifteenth century.

Groups of farm workers called plough guilds were formed to maintain the plough lights, and because funds were needed to keep the candles burning, it became customary that instead of the farmers beginning work on that day, they took the plough around the village and knocked on doors to ask for money for the church to sustain the tradition.

The ritual of blessing the plough persisted until the Reformation in the 16th century when plough lights were banned as representing a superstitious practice. The plough guilds were abolished and strict fines were imposed for infringement of the law. Taking the plough round the parish also stopped and that was the end of the celebration of Plough Monday for a few hundred years.

Old traditions rarely completely die out, and in the late 18th century some of the original elements of Plough Monday were revived – primarily the parading of a plough round the parish and the asking for money. There was also often dancing and singing; sometimes special plays were performed, and Fools of various descriptions might put in an appearance. There was much merrymaking and consumption of alcohol and no evidence of any connection with the church. Funds raised appear to have been entirely for the benefit of the revellers rather than to support any appeal to the Almighty.

Imagine “Trick or Treat” with menace: up to twenty young men with blackened faces and strange clothes who were probably drunk, certainly rowdy, dragging a plough round the parish and demanding money. And if you didn’t fork out? There was a fair chance that the plough would be put to work on your front garden! This was Plough Monday 19th century style, which today would probably produce a flurry of antisocial behaviour orders.

Perhaps fortunately for most of the inhabitants of the Four Shires these Plough Monday antics were more common in the eastern counties, where farming was predominantly arable, than they were in central England.

What started off as a fun festival based on a religious tradition, gradually over the years degenerated into an excuse for unruly behaviour with an edge of threat and intimidation. In the face of increasing local opposition to the practice, and also perhaps due to a reduction in the size of the agricultural workforce as a result of farming mechanization, celebration of Plough Monday lost popularity and had virtually died out by the beginning of the 20th century.

Somewhere along the line, probably in the last hundred years or so, the day preceding Plough Monday was designated Plough Sunday. There is no evidence that prior to that there was any special plough blessing ceremony performed on that day, but given the original involvement of the church in the Plough Monday festival it is likely that during the service on the Sunday before, some reference to ploughing and sowing would be made, particularly in arable areas.

Soon after the Second World War there was a combined attempt by the Church of England and the Royal Agricultural Society to revive some of the old feast days, including Plough Sunday, and special hymns and orders of service were designated and Plough Sunday was fairly widely celebrated for a few years. The initial general interest subsided, and the idea failed to take widespread hold but still today, up and down the country, some churches conduct a Plough Sunday service to bless the efforts of farmers.

Is Plough Sunday still celebrated in the Four Shires? Some churches, for example St Michael and All Angels at Great Tew, although not holding a Plough Sunday service, place a plough and a milk churn in the church in January to symbolise the start of the farming year, whilst Moreton – in – Marsh and District Agricultural and Horse Show Society has for many years arranged an annual Plough Sunday service.

This involves blessing a plough, a milk churn and a co-operative sheep, to symbolize the different aspects of farming, and follows the form of service laid

down in Victorian times. Each year the celebration takes place in a different church in the area following lunch at a local hostelry, and farming families from around the Four Shires participate. St Mary’s church at Ilmington provided the venue this year, with, as on previous occasions, a sheep named Half Pint playing a starring role.

In 2012 the weather had a disastrous effect on all aspects of farming. The soggy if not submerged state of the land diminished the harvest, reduced the acreage available for livestock to graze and made widespread tracts of ground unworkable. Four Shires columnist George Fenemore in his farming report often mentions the ‘Clifton Sea’, and this year it was more extensive than ever, but he was not alone in finding much of his acreage underwater. Rainfall was exceptional, at its highest since the 1700s, and everywhere that one travelled throughout the Four Shires and beyond, one saw rivers that had overflowed their banks, and vast lakes that seemed to persist for weeks appeared where pasture land or crop fields had once been.

Although in some parts of the East of England, Plough Monday and some of its associated rituals are still celebrated, there’s probably little demand for its revival in the Four Shires. During this last year, though, many a farmer will have been offering up informal prayers and no doubt uttering a few involuntary curses, as he saw his livelihood threatened by factors beyond his control, so there could be a strong case for a more widespread reintroduction of Plough Sunday – if only to try and persuade God to carry on with the feeding of the land, but to please, please, ease up on the watering!