I recently took a trip to Abbots Ann, a village just south of Andover, and therefore not very far away from where I live, to see the rather unusual ‘virgins’ crown’s in the church. These crowns are hung around the top of the walls in the nave. There are 49 of them in all and they include both men and women. They are quite difficult to photograph, being so high up, but I include one picture of them below.
You can see from the picture that they are a sort of crown, in a beehive shape, that are decorated with paper flowers and some of them have paper gloves hanging down from the centre. The name and age the person is attached to the wall. They are made at the death of a person who has been single during their life and are communicant member of the church. They are carried in procession at the funeral, and then in this church they are temporarily hung up, so that people may object to them if necessary, and finally they are permanently hung from the walls of the church.
Now I'm not a great fan of mouldering old things hanging up in church be they flags, or tapestries, or in this case crowns. They do however have an intriguing symbolic significance. The oldest dates from 1740 and the most recent one was hung in 1973; the church makes plain in its guide that this is not a dead custom. While the guidebook suggests that the custom is medieval, most of the examples surviving today come from the 18th and 19th century. This is perhaps surprising in a period when the Church of England was decidedly Protestant.
In contrast to most church life which celebrates marriage, here we have a celebration of virginity.
Indeed, hanging them close to the ceiling geographically puts them up closer to heaven. Part of the background theory to this is the old idea that celibacy is a type of martyrdom and thus gains a crown in heaven. They have fought the good fight and receive their crown. But the custom may also be related to the crowning of the Virgin Mary, which in some places is literally putting a garland crown on the head of her statue; there may also be some relationship to customs like the May Queen.14
To my mind this custom, which occurs in other parts of England and Wales, reverses our normal way of thinking in church and in society. Suddenly celibacy is celebrated and memorialised as a good thing, something worthy of remembrance. Perhaps that's why I find them so intriguing. It's great to have examples where celibacy is not seen as something weird.
The funeral procession is also an example of a reversal of the norm. In the case of a young woman dying the coffin was carried by young women dressed in white, and the virgins crown was either put on the coffin, or carried by a young girl, also in white, before the coffin. What is usually a rather male event, pallbearers usually being men dressed in black, becomes a women's event, all dressed in white. In some cases the crowns were buried with the coffin.
I also like the ones in Abbots Ann as they are inclusive of both men and women. The vast majority of people who were crowned were in their teens and 20s, i.e. the period after their confirmation but before they might have been expected to have got married. The last person to be crowned was in 1973 and was aged 73, so it is possible to be included as an older person. In other places the crowns seem to be reserved to women, and in some places widows may have been included.
There are other crowns around the country, including Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Shropshire, and Wales. If you look on Google for ‘virgins’ crowns’, ‘maidens’ garlands’, or ‘crants’, then you may be able to find some near you. The term crants is found in Shakespeare; in Hamlet Ophelia is allowed crants at her funeral. The last person to have a crown hung was Joy Price, who died aged 72, in 1995, at Ashford on the Water, in Derbyshire; she had been the Sunday school teacher in the village. The crown was made by the vicar and decorated by his wife. Joy Price was a Franciscan Tertiary.