Francis Young

Dr Francis Young is an historian and folklorist specialising in the history of religion and belief.

England’s forgotten Easter traditions

If you get up early enough on Easter morning, according to old English folklore, you might be lucky enough to see the sun dancing in the sky as it rises, rejoicing at the resurrection of Christ – although tradition also records that the devil usually manages to put a hill in front of the dancing

Christmas traditions and the lost practice of ‘mumming’

Christmas, we are often told, is rich in traditions invented by the Victorians (or even later), and it was a rather austere affair before Charles Dickens. But while it is true that the Victorians gave us many of our Christmas traditions in their current form, English Christmas traditions before the Victorian era were simply different,

The ancient roots of Christmas ghost stories

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is either, depending on your perspective, the ultimate Christmas ghost story or a complete subversion of the genre – since the tale is clearly not about the ghosts, who serve as mere ciphers in a morality tale.  Yet in spite of the popularity of the book and its multiple TV and film adaptations,

The Ministry of Justice is engaged in historical vandalism

This week, the Ministry of Justice launched a consultation on its plan to digitise its vast archive of wills. The only problem is that it also wants to destroy its original paper copies – which date from 1858.  This destruction is supposed to save the taxpayer £4.5 million per year, although wills that ‘belong to notable

The anarchy of bonfire night

Bonfire night festivities in Britain today are increasingly highly choreographed events: council-sponsored firework displays mounted by professional companies, sponsored by local businesses and charities and monitored by health and safety professionals – all very worthy and respectable. It is difficult to believe that, just a few decades ago, bonfire night was a night of anarchy.

The message in the King’s new coins

Last week, the Royal Mint unveiled a new set of designs for British coins. They depart dramatically from tradition by featuring themes from nature rather than heraldic, royal, or national emblems. The last set of definitives, designed by Matthew Dent and released in 2008, featured enlarged details of the royal arms, and previous designs have

We need an English folk revival

The cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason recently expressed a preference for ‘folk tunes’ at the Last Night of the Proms over the singing of Rule Britannia! – and, whatever one may think of jettisoning Thomas Arne’s celebrated anthem of British liberty, Kanneh-Mason’s suggestion raises the question of what exactly English folk music is. England is not the

The mystery of the Baltic god in Kent

One of the stranger events of the summer of 2023 is the sudden and unexplained appearance, one night in early August, of an eight-foot tall carved wooden pole on a coastal path in Kent depicting the Baltic thunder god Perkūnas. The impressive sculpture is carved from a single piece of wood crowned by four stylised

How the ancient rites of the coronation survived

It is a cliché to say that Britain’s customs were invented by the Victorians. In the case of the coronation, it is also not true: the 1838 coronation of Queen Victoria was possibly the most underwhelming in British history, even if it did give us the Imperial State Crown and Coronation Ring. It is true

Does King Charles’ Green Man make him a pagan?

On 4 April the Royal Household revealed the design for invitations to the Coronation, the work of heraldic artist Andrew Jamieson. While the design is a riot of flora and garden fauna, heraldic and otherwise, one feature of the invitation has above all invited comment – the presence of an anthropomorphic green ‘foliate head’, wearing

Is Christmas really a pagan festival?

It’s as much a part of the season now as baubles, tinsel and the Christmas Number One: those articles, blogs and memes that pop up during the festive season claiming that Christmas, in spite of the name, is actually a pagan festival. Certainly, the visitor to contemporary Britain would be forgiven for thinking that Christmas