Little green men are causing discord in the land. Nobody can seem to decide if they’re an ancient phenomenon, or were invented by over-enthusiastic eccentrics. No not extra-terrestrials (or the royal family, though wait around a bit, they come into it) — Green Men with a capital G — the sort that have vines shooting out of their mouths and leer at you from on top of pillars in mediaeval churches. These all-too-terrestrial figures found themselves getting an unexpected amount of press following their appearance on invitations to King Charles III’s coronation.
The Critic was, if you’ll excuse me a moment of editorial pride, very early to this party, presenting King Charles as a Green Man in our October cover. Did the magnificent verdant designs produced by the palace owe any inspiration to The Critic? We may never know, but at the very least we were inspired by the same sylvan muse.
Takes stormed in, with many accounts hysterically accusing the new monarch of paganism and nature-worship. Would white-robed priestesses slaughter cattle on the altar of Westminster Abbey? Would the King be crowned by a druid? Would he announce his new reign by putting on a pair of antlers, mounting a white horse and hunting republicans in the streets of London?
Hot on the heels of those declaring that the Coronation was about to turn into a scene from the Wicker Man, came our modern day priesthood: the debunkers and the fact checkers. The fine and erudite scholar Dr Francis Young was, however, perhaps a bit too zealous in his vocation when he declared the Green Man “a twentieth-century creation”. His further claim that its presence on the invitation is “inconsequential” and “the same sort of aesthetic choice that causes a gardener to put up a face in their back yard”, was also improbable, given the King’s penchant for mysticism, and his perennialist interest in the esoteric wisdom of world religions.
If the Green Man is a 20th century invention, just who are all those men with a mouth full of mulch gurning at me from mediaeval churches? Non binary persons of green colour (pronouns green/verdant)? Although Dr Young is quite right that attempts to identify the mysterious church carvings with Gawain and the Green Knight and Arthurian mythology may owe a lot to Edwardian romanticism, there’s at least a rhyming relationship with their imagery and the stuff of folklore, legend and chivalric romance.
Although there’s no evidence that Green Men are pagan, it does not follow that the foliate figures are simply the satirical product of bored stonemasons. Indeed Green Men are a consistent motif across centuries of gothic mediaeval architecture, and seem to go hand in hand with the use of forest imagery typical of the gothic style. In my own church growing up, Southwell Minster, there are some of the finest and most vivid examples of Green Men, especially in the Chapter House, which also features unusually naturalistic and beautiful carvings of leaves and vines (all of identifiable species).
Although the makers of these carvings have left us no written record, it is a modern error to think that images are simply mute and subjective. The first and last reference point of those who built churches was scripture, and the natural images reflect the mediaeval “two books” tradition which saw the world of plants and animals as a “book of nature” to be read alongside and interpreted through the Bible itself. The Chapter House was where the clergy met to make decisions, and hold ecclesiastical courts.
The obvious interpretation of the images of figures merged with trees can be found in Psalm 1:2-3 “But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” The connection between the clergy especially and trees is still more explicitly rendered in Isaiah 61:1-3, with its reference to anointing (used in the consecration of bishops, and of course monarchs too) “The Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek… To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified”.
The mention in the Psalm of “meditation” is likewise a reference to the religious life in general, which was seen in the Middle Ages as being defined by a dedication to the contemplative rather than active life. Green Men, then, were a reminder of the vocation of the clergy to live a religious rather than worldly life, and their duty to lead and teach. The emergence of vines from their mouths and the birds that are sometimes depicted as eating the fruit also echo the Bible – Jeremiah 17:8, “For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.” The birds meanwhile might represent the spiritual gifts of the sacraments and inspired wisdom that flow from the consecrated clergy: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
Reading pagan echoes in the sense of secret fertility gods is indeed a ridiculous framing of such allegorical figures, but the continuities of imagery and folklore between pagan and Christian worlds is real, and is not one of straightforward rupture and opposition. My own Southwell Minster was built, like so many ancient churches, on a Romano-British holy site; its baptistry was originally a Roman Nympheum. Likewise the continuity of forest imagery –– if you’ve ever seen a yew in a churchyard, you’re encountering a custom of integrating sacred trees (seen as a bridge to the afterlife) into sites of Christian worship and burial. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire now adorns a Christian church and cemetery, but it is quite literally older than the Christian religion. Locals knew of its antiquity, and the contemporaneity of the tree with Christ’s birth only enhanced its sacred aura, with locals passing down fantastical but compelling stories of Pontius Pilate playing in its shade as a child.
The habit of integrating sacred trees into Christian worship also extended to literature, with the Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood, dating to a time when (unlike with the Green Men) paganism was still a living faith. In the poem the “rood” narrates the story of Christ’s passion from its own perspective as the tree carved into Christ’s cross “Lo! The King of glory, guardian of heaven’s kingdom, honoured me over all the trees of the forest”.
The earliest evidence of the poem is a fragment carved on the 8th century Ruthwell Cross. Inspired by both Celtic and Saxon imagery, the cross also depicts Christ with his feet upon a dragon, and an inscription in latin reading “Jesus Christ: the judge of righteousness: the beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world.” This was imagery designed to persuade, appeal and connect to an audience still steeped in paganism (Northumbria converted to Christianity only a century before it was erected). All the logic of Green Men, of the natural world the pagans worshipped recognising Christ and modelling wisdom and piety to human beings, was present at the very moment of encounter between pagan and Christian worlds.
Green Men stir deep associations and connections with the British land, its people and its faith. In invoking this symbol King Charles is importing all of these associations. The scriptural reminders of his anointing, vocation and covenant with the people and land of Britain are put centre stage with his (crowned!) variation of the Green Man. The popular revival of the Green Man (which now adorns not only gardens and old churches, but pub signs, album covers and ales) is a genuine bit of modern folk culture, one equally tied to a certain English anarchism as it is monarchism. It perfectly suits the spirit of our new sovereign, and reflects the great opening lines of “Hearts of Oak”:
When Alfred, our King, drove the Dane from this land,
He planted an oak with his own royal hand;
And he pray’d for Heaven’s blessing to hallow the tree,
As a sceptre for England, the queen of the sea.
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