the various meanings of ‘green man’





In Tudor and Stuart pageants, the term green man denoted a man dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods.

A specific term, variously spelt woodhouse, woodwose, woodward, etc., meant wild man of the woods (it will appear below as wodyn in the quotation from Henry Machyn’s diary, and as wadwardes in the books of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers). The following image and note are from Some Account of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers (London, 1866), compiled by John Nicholl:

woodwards - engravings from the monument of Robert Wodehowse - Some Account of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers (1866) - John Nicholl

From the monument of Robert Wodehowse,
Rector of Holwell, Bedfordshire, 1515.

The engravings introduced above […] are copied from the monument of the Rev. Robert Wodehouse, Rector of Holwell in Bedfordshire, A° 1515, and represent ivy-men or wood-wards, characters introduced in the pageants and public entertainments of that period. They were sometimes called woodhouses, and are mentioned by Strutt in his Sports and Pastimes by that name.

In A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford University Press – 2000), Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud explain:

Wild Man, Woman. Medieval art included Wild Men (and occasionally Women) among its grotesques. They were a race of primitive sub-humans covered in shaggy hair, immensely strong, and living in forests; the males were usually shown wielding a branch, or even a whole tree, as a club, and sometimes crowned and belted with leaves. Their reality was confirmed by respected classical writers and by references to “hairy creatures in desert places” in the Latin versions of Isaiah 13: 21 and 34: 14; they were often identified with satyrs and fauns.
In literature, Wild Men could symbolize savagery, lust, and uncontrolled passions, or, alternatively, a natural innocence which could easily be brought to virtue […].
Wild Men are found among the costumed performers at courtly masques. […] They also appeared in civic pageants, clearing the way for the main procession, where they were referred to as Savages or Green Men.

One of the earliest mentions of wild men is found in the diary of Henry Machyn, citizen and merchant-tailor of London, who described the pageant that took place on Lord Mayor’s Day, 29th October 1553:

     (1848 edition)
Then cam ij grett wodyn with ij grett clubes all in grene, and with skwybes bornyng . . . with gret berds and syd here, and ij targets a-pon their bake.
     in contemporary English:
Then came two woodhouses (armed) with two great clubs all in green, and with squibs burning . . . with great beards and side [= long] hair, and two targets [= round shields] upon their backs.

The books of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers of 1566 present an account of the preparations which were made in London for the mayoralty of Sir Christopher Draper, who was a member of this Company. This account contains the following:

Agreed wᵗ Hugh Watts and Xp̃ofer Beck that they shall fynde us two woodmen, wᵗ clubbes, squibbes, and powder, and all other necessaryes, and that to be done in all respectes as hath byn accustomed, and to be paid for the same xxxiijˢ iiijᵈ.

These books also recorded a payment made “to Hewe Watts and Xp̃ofer Beckes, Wadwardes, or Ivemen, in rewarde of their paynes . . . xxxiijˢ”.

As already mentioned, one of the green men’s duties was to clear the way for processions; the English playwright George Whetstone (circa 1544-1587) mentioned this at the beginning of scene 6, Act I, of The seconde part of the Famous Historie of Promos and Cassandra (London, 1578):

Two men, apparrelled, lyke greene men at the Mayors feast, with clubbes of fyre worke.
– Phallax: This geare fadgeth [= fits] now, that these fellowes peare [= appear],
Friendes where waight you?
– First man: In Iesus streete to keepe a passadge cleare, 
                   That the King and his trayne, may passe with ease.

The following images and notes are from The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, by Joseph Strutt (edited by William Hone – London, 1838):

A Green Man - The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1838)

A Green Man.

This engraving, representing the character equipped in his proper habit, and flourishing his firework, is from a book of fireworks written by John Bate, and published in 1635.

A Wodehouse - The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1838)

A Wodehouse.

This character, which is that of a wild or savage man, was very common in the pageants of former times, and seems to have been very popular.

A manuscript titled The maner of the showe, that is, if God spare life and health, shall be seen by all the behoulders upon St Georges Day next, being the 23 of Aprill, 1610 detailed the preparations for the pageant that took place in Chester on St. George’s Day of 1610; one of the requirements was, as quoted by John Camden Hotten and Jacob Larwood in The History of Signboards, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London, 1867):

ij men in greene leaves set with work upon their other habet [= garments] with black heare [= hair] & black beards very owgly to behould [= ugly to behold], and garlands upon their heads with great clubs in their hands with fireworks to scatter abroad to maintaine way for the rest of the show.

After this pageant, a certain Richard Davies wrote A briefe Relation of the most delightfull, pleasant and rare Shewes, the which haue beene Enacted, set forth, and performed, within the most Auncient renowned Citie Caer-leon, now named Chester, vpon the Festiuall of our most worthy approued English Champian S. George his Day, being the 23. of Aprill 1610; this relation shows that besides wielding sticks with crackers in order to clear the way for the procession, the green men could play an active role in it:

Two disguised, called Greene-men, their habit Embroydred and Stitch’d on with Iuie-leaues with blacke-side, hauing hanging to their shoulders, a huge blacke shaggie Hayre, Sauage-like, with Iuie Garlands vpon their heads, bearing Herculian Clubbes in their hands, an artificiall Dragon, very liuely to behold, pursuing the Sauages entring their Denne, casting Fire from his mouth, which afterwards was slaine, to the great pleasure of the spectators, bleeding, fainting, and staggering, as though hee endured a feeling paine, euen at the last gaspe, and farewell.

Princely and royal entertainments could also include the presence of wild men; The Princelye Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth: That is to saye, The Copies of all such Verses, Proses, or Poeticall Inuentions, and other Deuices of Pleasure, as were there deuised, and presented, by sundry Gentlemen, before the Quene’s Maiestie, in the yeare 1575 (London, 1576), by the English poet George Gascoigne (circa 1535-1577), contains the following:

     (1821 edition)
To make some playner declaration and rehersall of all these things before her Majestie. On the x of Julie, there met her in the forest, as she came from hunting, one clad like a savage man, all in ivie, who, seeming to woonder at such a presence, fell to quarrelling with Jupiter, as followeth:—
     “O thund’ring Jupiter, which swayest the heavenly sword” [follows a long poem in the form of a dialogue with Echo.]
     These verses were devised, penned, and pronounced, by Master Gascoyne.




In The History of Signboards, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London, 1867), John Camden Hotten and Jacob Larwood quoted the following undated text attributed to the English antiquarian John Bagford (1650-1716):

They are called woudmen, or wildmen, thou’ at thes day we in yᵉ signe call them Green Men, couered with grene boues: and are used for singes by stillers of strong watters and if I mistake not are yᵉ sopourters of yᵉ king of Deanmarks armes at thes day; and I am abpt to beleve that yᵉ Daynes learned us hear in England the use of those tosticatein lickers as well as yᵉ breweing of Aele and a fit emblem for those that use that intosticating licker which berefts them of their sennes.
     in contemporary English:
They are called woodmen, or wild men, though at this day we in the trade call them green men, covered with green branches; and (they) are used for signs by distillers of strong waters and if I mistake not are the supporters of the king of Denmark’s arms at this day. And I am apt to believe that the Danes taught us here in England the use of those intoxicating liquors as well as the brewing of ale and (the green man is) a fit emblem for those that use that intoxicating liquor which bereaves them of their senses.

In Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme (1686-87), the antiquary John Aubrey (1626-97) also mentioned the Scandinavian origin; he used wild man and green man interchangeably as names for inns:

     (1881 edition)
The signe of the Wild Man.
This Signe is not uncommon in and about London. I confess I wonderd heretofore how such an odd signe should happen to be so in vogue, but […] I find it to be derived from the Suedes, as they (in all probability) from the Greekes. […]
One of the Supporters of George, Prince of Denmarke […] is a kind of Hercules with a green club and green leaves about his pudenda and head, as we use to paint the signe of the greene man.

However, in the above-mentioned history of signboards, John Camden Hotten and Jacob Larwood wrote:

The Green Man and Still is a common sign. There is one in White Cross Street, representing a forester drinking what is there called “drops of life” out of a glass barrel. This is a liberty taken with the Distillers’ arms, which are a fess wavy in chief, the sun in splendour, in base a still; supporters two Indians, with bows and arrows. These Indians were transformed by the painters into wild men or green men, and the green men into foresters; and then it was said that the sign originated from the partiality of foresters for the produce of the still. The “drops of life,” of course, are a translation of aqua vitæ.

In the same book, these authors also explained:

For the sign of the Green Man there is a twofold explanation. 1:—That it represents the green, wild, or wood men of the shows and pageants […]. 2:—The second version of this sign is, that it is intended for a forester, and in that garb the Green Man is now invariably represented; even as far back as the seventeenth century, it is evident from the trades tokens that the Green Man was generally a forester, and, in many cases, Robin Hood himself, which may be inferred from the small figure frequently introduced beside him, and meant for Little John. The ballads always described Robin and his merry men as dressed in green, “Lincoln green.”




One of the senses of green man is a representation of a man’s face composed of, surrounded by, or sprouting foliage or branches, especially used as an architectural ornament. Such a representation is also called foliate head. In the above-mentioned dictionary of English folklore, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud explain that in 1939, in an article in Folk-Lore,

Lady Raglan invented a new use for the phrase, applying it to the type of ornamental church carving previously always called a foliate head—a face with leaves growing from it, or leafy twigs emerging from its mouth. She explained how a vicar had shown her one and had suggested that: “it was intended to symbolise the spirit of inspiration, but it seemed to me certain that it was a man and not a spirit, and moreover that it was a ‘Green Man’. So I named it, and the evidence that I have collected to support this title is the reason for this paper.”
This was pure speculation, unbacked by evidence, and it is by no means clear what she meant by the term, or why she put it in quotation marks and gave it capitals (she was unaware of the Tudor and Stuart references to leaf-clad masqueraders in pageants). She further asserts this to be identical with “… Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May, and the [Castleton] Garland … the central figure in the May-Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe”. In accordance with Frazerian theory, she goes on to speculate that because the Castleton Garland is drawn up the church tower on a rope, the man wearing it (and consequently all ‘Green Men’) would have once been hanged as a spring sacrifice. Thus items with widely different functions and histories were conflated on the basis of a single visual trait, leafiness.
Despite the fragility of Lady Raglan’s argument, her term was adopted for foliate heads in several books on church art by M. D. Anderson in the 1940s and 1950s, in the authoritative series of Buildings of England guides by Nikolaus Pevsner, and finally as the title for a scholarly and influential study of foliate by Kathleen Basford (1978), which in turn served as a starting-point for many subsequent writers and an inspiration to artists. Brandon Centerwall * has recently argued that the term is correct after all, and that the leafy whifflers of pageantry were meant to represent the foliate heads in churches. The aura of mystery in the name and its harmony with current ecological concerns have endeared it to many, and ‘the Green Man’ will probably prove to be an unshakable element in the popular concept of ‘folklore’.
— * Brandon S. Centerwall, Folklore 108 (1997)

In Thoughts on the Green Man 2: What Was the Green Man?, the American folklorist, writer and folksinger Stephen D. Winick raises several objections to these arguments.

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