The English wake during the Regency had nothing to do with the ceremony which many people in westernized nations today observe in honor and memory of someone recently departed. In fact, wakes in England by the early nineteenth century were considered by many such profane and unruly events that there were many efforts being made to suppress them completely. By the time the former Prince Regent, George IV, died in 1830, at least a third of the wakes in England had been abolished or severely curtailed. Few survived past the end of the reign of his niece, Queen Victoria.
The origins and history of the English wake …
The roots of the English wake date back to the early years of the Christian church in Britain. They began as a celebration in each parish at the time of the anniversary of the consecration of the church, typically on the saint’s day to whom the church was dedicated. These parish festivals usually began on a Sunday, with a prayer vigil the night before the feast-day, attended by most of the parishioners. Many of them lasted for a few days to as much as a week. Initially, only the evening prayer vigil was referred to as the "wake," but later the term was used to refer to the entire celebration.
By the early eighteenth century, wakes had become almost completely secularized. They still lasted for up to a week, and were one of the main celebrations of each village year. However, any residual religious rites were limited to a special church service on the Sunday which fell within the run of the wake. Beyond that, they were occasions for ample eating and copious drinking, music, dancing, sports and other very worldly entertainments. Some of the activities most common at wakes were boxing, wheelbarrow races while blindfolded for men, smock races for women, hot hasty-pudding eating contests, pigeon-flying, chasing a greased pig or a large roll of cheese, sack races, or grinning through a horse collar (the grinner considered the funniest won). There might also be games associated with the local turf maze, if the town or village had one in the vicinity. Some wakes also featured blood sports such as cock-fighting, bull, bear or badger-baiting. Morris-dancers were common entertainers at wakes, and travelling musicians attended, playing for the dances held during the festivities to earn a few coins. Many young people took advantage of the relative freedom they were allowed during the wake for a bit of sexual adventuring.
In a fair-like atmosphere, stalls were set up in an open area, sometimes on the village green and sometimes in the open field of a local landowner. Treats such as pies, plum-cakes, gingerbread, fresh fruits and nuts were sold at the various stalls. Many chapmen or itinerant pedlars made it a point to attend many of these wakes as part of their rounds, so they could set up their own stalls to sell their wares to the merry-making inhabitants. The local publicans laid in great quantities of alcoholic beverages and typically offered prizes for those athletes who excelled in the rustic sports played during the wake. Livestock sales might also take place during the wake in some locales.
Another aspect of most parish wakes was the tradition of extraordinary hospitality expected from all of the residents. Many families invited friends and relations from outside of their parish to join them for the celebrations. These gatherings reaffirmed and strengthened important social ties. But they also nearly beggared many families, who would expend large amounts on food and drink for their guests and clothing for themselves. Even the poorest families would save all year only to spend every farthing or more of their meagre savings on what they considered the necessary elements of the wake, as a point of pride.
Wakes were essentially the recreational festivities of the lower classes. The local gentry might attend some of the less rowdy events, but they tended not to participate in the more boisterous or disorderly activities. However, gentlemen might attend such events as a boxing match or a cock-fight, though their ladies did not. It was the fundamentally plebian nature of the wakes which eventually contributed to their elimination. By the second half of the eighteenth century there were periodic efforts to suppress the celebration of the wake in various villages across England. These efforts were made most commonly by churchmen who disapproved of the pleasure-seeking aspects of the wake. They considered them a threat to public order and morality.
These early intermittent attempts to suppress wakes were usually unsuccessful, primarily due to the close-knit nature of each village community. Wakes had been celebrated for as long as anyone could remember and the tradition was firmly entrenched. Even the local squires and magistrates were in support of these recreations, since they saw them as a way to keep the populace amused and disinterested in political activities which might threaten the landowners’ control. Wakes also served as a reward to the laboring classes for their long hours of hard agricultural work during the course of the year. Should that reward be withheld, violent protests were very possible.
By the early nineteenth century the movement to suppress wakes throughout England was expanding. The clergy were joined by the local landowners, who no longer wished to allow the use of their fields in this age of enclosure, and the more prosperous farmers who did not care to have their farm laborers drinking and carousing for several days when they needed them working the land. There were others who took the attitude that they were protecting the lower classes, who spent so much of their savings on the hospitality they provided during their community’s wake. Another group which was working to stop wakes was The Society for the Suppression of Vice. Founded in 1802, this society was actually more focused on the prevention of cruelty to animals in the form of cock-fighting and bull and bear-baiting than they were on the widespread drunkenness and sexual license which was common during wakes.
In the decade of the Regency, the agrarian life of the English village was beginning to break down. The Industrial Revolution was drawing the young people away and the practice of enclosure was diminishing the available land, particularly the common land where many wakes had taken place. Thus, the close-knit village communities were less able to withstand the pressures to abolish the practice of wakes. A few wakes were completely eliminated during the years of the Regency. Many more were curbed so that the wake lasted a shorter period of time and the more disorderly activities, particularly blood sports, were curtailed. But even this did not satisfy the more determined moral reformers who continued to press for the complete elimination of all wakes. By the time that the Prince Regent became king, it is estimated that nearly a third of the villages throughout England had completely abandoned their wakes. By 1850, there were only a handful of villages who still celebrated a wake in any form, and these had all disappeared by the end of the century.
The English wake was a time of celebration, often coarse and vulgar, but it was a popular and traditional event which had been held for centuries in many rural villages. Though the wake had been quashed in some villages and curtailed in others, it was still a common enough event across the English countryside. It was during the Regency that the last of the old-fashioned, boisterous, unfettered wakes in the tradition of the previous century were held. The last hurrah of an old English custom.
For more information about English wakes:
Brand, John and Ellis, Henry, Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1856.
Ditchfield, Peter Hampson, Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time. London: George Redway, 1896.
Malcolmson, Robert W., Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Timbs, John, Nooks and Corners of English Life, Past and Present. London: Griffin and Farran, 1868.