The Tudor Society

11 June – St Barnabas Day and garlands

Happy St Barnabas Day!

Yes, 11th June is the Feast of St Barnabas, a feast day that was celebrated by the Tudors by decorating churches with garlands of flowers.

Find out more about St Barnabas and how he was commemorated in medieval and Tudor times in today's talk.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon chose St Barnabas Day for their wedding day in 1509 and you can find out more about their wedding in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:


11th June is the feast day of St Barnabas, an early Christian who was born Joseph in Cyprus. He was renamed Barnabas when he joined the Apostles in Jerusalem. He carried out several missionary journeys with Paul the Apostle and is mentioned in the Book of Acts. According to Christian tradition, Barnabas was martyred in Cyprus in 61 AD, being stoned to death. He is seen as the founder of the Cypriot Orthodox Church.

Interestingly, as well as being the patron saint of Cyprus and Antioch, St Barnabas is also the patron saint of peacemakers and can be invoked against hailstorms.

According to Steve Roud, in The English Year, St Barnabas Day was celebrated in the 15th and 16th centuries by decorating churches with garlands of flowers such as roses, woodruff and lavender. He also writes of how “maidens went 'gathering' for church funds, and money was paid out for 'bread, wine and ale for the singers of the King's Chapel and for the clerks of the town'.”

Teresa McLean, in “Medieval English Gardens” writes of how sweet woodruff, which was at its best by 11th June, was “garlanded with roses to make red and white wreaths of fragrance for the statues and candles that filled medieval churches”. She gives the example of St Barnabas Day 1479, in the reign of King Henry VII, when St Mary-at-Hill Church, on Tower Hill, paid 4s 7d “for flags, garlands and torches for Corpus Christi. St Barnabas and other days” and then in 1487 the same church bought two and a half dozen rose garlands at a cost of 8 and a half pence for St Barnabas Day. McLean explains that the garlands were “hung on processional crosses, and worn by the clergy as crowns, and then hung on the rood screen and the choir after the procession.”
Roses have a lovely fragrance and woodruff was used as a strewing herb on floors, so it must have a wonderful scent too. The churches must have smelt so sweet.

In the 16th century, poet Edmund Spenser wrote of St Barnabas Day in his Epithalamion and ode to his bride, Elizabeth, on their wedding day in 1594. Here’s an extract:

“Ring ye the bels, ye young men of the town,
And leave your wonted labours for this day,
This day is holy; doe ye write it downe,
That ye for ever it remember may,
This day the sunne is in his chiefest hight,
With Barnaby the bright,
From whence declining daily by degrees,
He somewhat loseth of his heat and light,
When once the Crab behind his back he sees.”

The crab of course referring to Cancer, which was left behind at the sun progressed to Leo.
You might wonder why Spenser write of sun being at its highest on St Barnabas Day, 11th June, well, this is because of old and new style dating. The Tudors used the Julian Calendar but we used the Gregorian Calendar, so their 11th June is our 21st June, the summer solstice.

Exit mobile version