The little church of the tiny Shropshire village of Astley Abbotts, just outside Bridgnorth, has two most notable features. One is its dedication to Saint Callixtus, martyred around AD 222, who gave his name to the catacombs on the Appian Way. The other is the maiden’s garland (1) to Hannah Philips, who tragically drowned on May 10th 1707, the eve of her wedding.
Maidens’ garlands were made for people who had led celibate lives, often (but not always) young women. They were carried in the funeral procession, then displayed in the parish church afterwards.
The custom is referred to at Ophelia’s burial in Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 1, when the officiating priest says: – ‘Yet here she is allow’d her Virgin crants, Her maiden strewments and the bringing home Of bell and buriel.’ Crants is derived from the German word Kranz, which means a wreath, garland or chaplet. This custom seems to have been widespread into the 18th century, but died out soon afterwards, and many have been lost through decay and also because of church restoration.
At Minsterley in Shropshire, six maidens’ garlands hang over the west gallery (a seventh is displayed in a case). These garlands are bell-shaped, wooden-framed and covered in paper rosettes sewn into place. Sometimes a pair of white gloves is added. All are believed to date from the 18th century; they bear inscriptions, including ‘E. W. 1736’ (2), ‘M. J. 1757’ (3), ‘M. M. 1736’ (4) and ‘F. J. 1764’. E. W. refers to Elizabeth Woodhouse (1715-1736) and M. M. for Mary Mathews.
For more information: – Rosie Morris, ‘The “Innocent and Touching Custom” of Maidens’ Garlands: A Field Report’, Folklore, 2003, 114, pp. 355-387; H. Syer-Cuming, ‘On Funereal Garlands’, J. Brit. Archaeol. Assoc., 1875, 31, pp 190-195.