The Cutty Wren
The annual ceremony of the Cutty Wren was revived by Old Glory Molly Dancers and Musicians, together with folklorist Pete Jennings, on St. Stephen's day (26th December), 1994. The village of Middleton, in East Suffolk, is believed to be one of the last places in England where the ritual of the hunting of the Cutty Wren ("cutty" means small) could be seen at the beginning of the 20th century.
In Old Glory’s revival of the Cutty Wren tradition, a carved wooden wren, concealed inside a bush made of ivy and bedecked with ribbons, first appears in Middleton village hall on the evening of St. Stephen's day. Following the formal greeting of all those present, another ribbon is added to those already adorning the Wren-bush from previous years and, following the singing of traditional wren-hunting songs, the Wren is solemnly carried aloft from the village hall through the streets of Middleton by the light of lanterns and flaming torches, arriving at the Bell Inn at nine o'clock. Outside the Bell Inn, Old Glory perform dances in honour of the Wren. After the dance display, everybody present is invited to join in the grand circle dance around the Wren. Another traditional wren-hunting song is sung and the Wren-bearer goes inside the Bell to tell the story of how the wren became the king of the birds. Four dancers accompany the Wren-bearer and perform one more dance inside the Bell. After the ceremony Old Glory silently depart.
The wren-hunt ritual is extremely ancient, its origins having been tentatively traced back to Neolithic times. The Druids were believed to have prophesied the future from listening to the song of a captured wren. By many European peoples, the wren has been designated the king of birds, and has been considered extremely unlucky to kill. In Tudor times, those who wished to remain healthy were warned never to disturb a wren’s nest. The wren was thought to be greater even than the eagle because, according to legend, although the eagle could fly higher than all the other birds, a wren once perched on an eagle's head and thus flew even higher. Nevertheless, in many parts of England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales and France, it became the custom to hunt and, in many cases, kill the wren on St. Stephen's day. This may have had something to do with the Christmas spirit of topsy-turveydom - the reign of the Lord of Misrule of Elizabethan England, but the probability is that the wren became associated with ideas of the Underworld because of its habit of creeping into crevices of rocks and caves and perhaps of tombs constructed of great stones. As such it could be logically identified with the powers of darkness which, at the time of the winter solstice, appear to threaten all life. Hence the hunting of the wren is a parallel to the Mumming plays, in which the champion of darkness is slain and the world brought back to life.
Pete Jennings has now made his book “Old Glory and the Cutty Wren” available as a Kindle download.
Click below to see David Titlow’s superb 2007 Cutty Wren video
Allan Jobson, whose grandparents were the Barhams of Rackford Farm, Middleton, recounts in his book “An Hour-glass on the Run” published in 1959, that, when his grandfather was a boy in the mid-nineteenth century, he would go round Middleton with others on St. Stephen’s day. They would catch and kill a wren and fasten it in the midst of a mass of holly and ivy to the top of a broomstick. Going from house to house they sang “The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s day was caught in the furze; Although he is little, his family is great– I pray you good landlady, give us a treat!” In earlier times, the procession itself may have included fantastic characters such as hobby-horses, fiery dragons and rampant serpents whisking their tails about. The culmination of the procession was the ceremonial burial of the wren, accompanied by dancing.