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Maidens' Garlands or Crantses in the Peak.

The Peak District has always had a remarkable ability to preserve customs that have long died out in other parts of the country; traditional Christmas carols, well dressings, mummers plays are a few examples of living tradition still going strong.  Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, another poignant custom that held on here, was that of making a special garland for the funeral of a young, unmarried girl; i.e. for one who had died chaste.  These “maidens’ garlands”, also known as crantses, from a Dutch word meaning a crown or chaplet, were originally a simple circle of flowers placed on the head of a deceased maid to symbolise her purity.  They were perhaps an echo of the bridal crowns which are still to this day held symbolically over the heads of a couple during the wedding service in the Eastern Orthodox church.

We know that a maiden’s garland must have been a familiar part of a funeral ceremony for a young girl from its appearance in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.  Ophelia, the object of Hamlet’s earlier affection, has died from drowning; the coroner’s verdict was suicide, which in the middle ages would normally mean burial in unconsecrated ground without any pomp, ceremony or decoration, but, on the king’s command, the rules are bent more than a little and, as the priest says:

She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants*,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

(*Crants is, confusingly, the singular form; crantses being the plural.)

Even from the very few examples that still survive, it is clear that these garlands evolved different forms and variations.  The simple circlet became a crown or bell-shaped structure of wicker, decorated with flowers and rosettes made of white paper, often painted with red.  A verse might be inscribed on a white collar or handkerchief and sometimes a pair of white kid gloves would be hung alongside.  By tradition, the crants was carried before the coffin in the funeral procession, by a girl of about the same age as that of the deceased and afterwards hung from the beams over the nave of the church.

Which is where, at the parish church of Ashford-in-the-Water, four very faded examples remain to this day.  The oldest dates from 1747 and belonged to Ann Howard, while another is said by tradition to have been that of a young girl called Blackwell who drowned in a whirlpool in the river Wye, close-by, (a chilling parallel with the death of Ophelia in “Hamlet”).

The Ashford garlands are unique in being the only examples still in their original memorial hanging places.  There is a record, in the parish register of Hope from 1749, of the church wardens being paid to clear away all the garlands from the beams of the church, to allow in more daylight; so clearly there must have been a great many there at one time.  There are further historical records of them in churches at Tideswell, Hathersage and Darley throughout the following century, when the custom was slowly disappearing from the Peak. 

At the church of St Giles in Matlock two crantses are today displayed in a glass case, in the choir vestry;  it is said that there were once “well over thirty” hanging from the roof.  Single examples also survive at Trusley and Ilam churches.

Crantses are a delicate record of an age when death in childhood was an ever present reality.
Considering their fragility, it is a wonder that any have survived at all and problems with storage and restoration mean that they may not survive on view for very much longer; so seek them out while you still can.

Simon Corble