One of the curious things I discovered when I was researching the location for The Little Church by the Sea was a small collection of what are called “maidens’ garlands” which hang in the Old Church of St. Stephen at Fylingdales, near Robin Hoods Bay.
The maidens’ garlands in St. Stephen’s consist of a frame or hoop, covered with material and decorated with ribbons or strips of cloth and paper gloves. In other parts of the country they were more conventionally crown shaped and covered with rosettes. They would be carried with the coffin of an unmarried girl, and then hung in the chancel of the church as a memorial to the young woman.
The tradition of carrying a garland with the coffin of a young girl who dies unmarried was once widespread, but now only a few of them remain throughout the country. The garlands were also known as “crants”, coming from an Old Norse word for garland, and Shakespeare mentions them in Hamlet:
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home of bell and burial.
(I wish I had noticed that myself, but I have to credit that knowledge to Wikipedia!)
Given that my fictional village of Rawscar has a Viking heritage, once I found that out it seemed even more fitting to include the maiden’s garlands in the story, and so in my novel, just as in the church at Fylingdales, the garlands hang in a case at the back of the church, a melancholy reminder of the harsh lives and early deaths of many young women.
In The Little Church by the Sea, one of the garlands bears the name of Polly Allinson who died about 150 years before the story begins, and the tragedy of this young woman is interwoven with the stories of the modern inhabitants of Rawscar.
Old St. Stephen’s Church and its maidens’ garlands are in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.