The simnel cake was traditionally associated with Mothering Sunday.
photograph: Farm & Country (London) – March 1964
The middle or fourth Sunday in Lent, mid-Lent Sunday, is also called Mothering Sunday. A Law Dictionary: or, the interpreter of Words and Terms, Used either in the Common Statute Laws Of that Part Of Great Britain, call’d England; and In Tenures and Jocular Customs (London, 1708) thus explained the use of the term mothering (quadragesimalia refers to Quadragesima, denoting a forty-day fast, Lent):
Quadragesimalia, Denarii quadragesimales. In the former days of Superstition [= Catholic practices], it was the Custom for People to visit their Mother [= Cathedral] Church on Midlent Sunday, and to make their Offerings at the high Altar; as the like Devotion was again observed in Whitson-Week. But as the Processions and Oblations at Whitsontideᵃ were sometimes commuted into a Rated payment of Pentecostals, or Whitson-farthings, so likewise the Lent Devotion was chang’d into a customary Rate call’d Quadragesimalia, and Denarii Quadragesimales, and sometimes Lætare Jerusalem, because that Hymn was Sung on Midlent Sunday. It is farther observable, That the now remaining Practice of Mothering, or going to visit Parents upon Midlent Sunday, is really owing to that good old Custom. Nay it seems to be call’d Mothering from the respect so paid to the Mother Church, when the Epistle for the Day was with some allusion, Galat. 4. 21. Jerusalem Mater omniumᵇ; which Epistle for Midlent Sunday we still retain, tho’ we have forgot the occasion of it.
ᵃ Whitsuntide: the church season of Pentecost, a festival observed on the seventh Sunday after Easter
ᵇ Jerusalem Mater omnium: Jerusalem, Mother of all
However, in The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), Ronald Hutton writes:
A long-established argument, that the custom [of visiting one’s parents, one’s mother] derived from a medieval rite whereby parish congregations processed to their ‘mother church’ (the cathedral of their diocese) upon this day, remains unproven. The records of Lichfield apparently show such processions until the Reformation, when they were reduced to visits by clergy from collegiate and deanery churches. Elsewhere the situation is less clear.
The earliest certain reference to the custom of visiting one’s parents on the fourth Sunday in Lent is in Diary of the marches of the Royal Army during the great Civil War, by the royalist soldier and antiquary Richard Symonds (died 1660), for the year 1644:
Every Midlent Sunday is a great day at Worcester, when all the children and godchildren meet at the head and cheife of the family and have a feast. They call it the Mothering-day.
The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) used to go a mothering in the following from Hesperides, published in 1648 but written at any time in the previous twenty years:
To Dianeme. A Ceremonie in Glocester.
I’le to thee a Simnellᶜ bring,
’Gainst thou go’st a mothering;
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.
ᶜ a simnel: a cake made from fine flour
Herrick and Symonds seem to draw the picture of a custom peculiar to the lower Severn valley (Worcester and Gloucester) and flourishing there in the early 17th century. In the above-mentioned book, Ronald Hutton remarks:
Mid-Lent would have been an excellent time for families to re-meet and inform themselves upon each other’s needs, when the conditions for travel were improving after winter and want would be greatest. Widowed mothers would have been especially vulnerable.
The following, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine: and Historical Chronicle of May 1784, shows that the custom was not widespread in the late 18th century:
I happened to reside last year near Chepstow in Monmouthshire [in Wales]; and there for the first time heard of Mothering Sunday. My enquiries into the origin and meaning of it were fruitless; but the practice thereabouts was, for all servants and apprentices, on Midlent Sunday, to visit their parents, and make them a present of money, a trinket, or some nice eatable; and they are all anxious not to fail in this custom.
In The Every-Day Book; or, the Guide to the Year (London, 1825), the English author, satirist and bookseller William Hone (1780-1842) also used to go a mothering:
It is still a custom on Mid-Lent Sunday in many parts of England, for servants and apprentices to carry cakes or some nice eatables or trinkets, as presents to their parents; and in other parts, to visit their mother for a meal of furmityᵈ, or to receive cakes from her with her blessing. This is called going a mothering.
ᵈ furmity: frumenty, a dish consisting of hulled wheat boiled in milk and seasoned with cinnamon and sugar
According to the English cleric and lexicographer Adam Littleton (1627-94) in Linguæ Latinæ Liber Dictionariu Quadripartitus (4th edition – London, 1715), Mothering Sunday had another function:
Charistia, orum. A solemn Feast or Banquet, in former times, where none but Kinsfolks met, that if there had been any quarrel or falling out amongst any of them, there they might be reconciled and made friends again: our Mid-lent called Mothering Sunday is somewhat like it.