28th September is the feast of St Michael, better known as Michaelmas. Not only is it a special day in the Christian calendar but also a day of great importance for many London institutions. Liturgically it commemorates the day in the Book of Revelation when Michael and his fellow archangels cast out Satan in the form of a winged lion at the battle of Armageddon. Michaelmas was first celebrated in 666 AD at the behest of Pope Benedict II, and continues to influence our lives to this day.
Michaelmas is one of four quarter days in the Old English calendar, i.e. fixed days on which rents were due and servants paid. The others were Candlemas (2nd February), the Annunciation (4th May) and Lammas Day (1st August). Michaelmas also marked the end of the harvest period so was when places of learning resumed studies for the autumn. Many of our oldest universities still kick off the new academic year with a Michaelmas term, for example at Imperial College in Kensington where the proctors assemble on St Michael's Lawn to welcome the new cohort of undergraduates.
The legal year is also split into three equal terms - Michaelmas, Lent and Pentecost. The legal year starts at Michaelmas and is celebrated with a ceremony in Westminster Hall called The Lord Chancellor's Breakfast. These days it's more of a light buffet, and the 600 judges are driven from Temple Bar rather than walking, but the Lord Chancellor still reads a lesson as part of the service in the Abbey afterwards. Be in your pew by 11.30am if you plan to take part.
The Michaelmas daisy is so called because it starts to bloom at this time of year, traditionally not fading away until St Crispin's Day. It's not actually a daisy, more a type of cornflower (centaurea cyanus), and typically comes in purple, pink and blue varieties. An unusual feature of the Michaelmas daisy is that it always has a prime number of petals - seventeen and nineteen are most common but eleven and twenty-nine are not unheard of.
In medieval times the traditional meal for Michaelmas Eve was roasted duck gifted by the Lord of the Manor to celebrate the gathering-in of the harvest. The Michaelmas Duck would be accompanied by slices of mutton which were wrapped and stored until All Saints Day when peasants would pay back their masters with gifts of ale and honey. Michaelmas is also the last day on which blackberries should be picked, traditionally because Satan fell into a blackberry bush after defeat by St Michael and in his fury urinated on the fruit to make it unfit for eating.
Famous historic events which took place at Michaelmas include the defeat of the Spanish Armada (or more precisely the date several weeks later on which Queen Elizabeth feasted after learning her navy had been victorious). The island of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is disconnected from the mainland at this time every year due to equinoctial tidal flow, and a service is held in the monastery to encourage the sea to roll back. Meanwhile the first Marks & Spencer market stall started trading in Manchester on 28th September 1884, which is why their adopted brand name is St Michael.
Michaelmas was often a time for wild festivities. In London this centred around the meat market of Smithfield and more importantly the outer reaches of Middlesex. Barnet Fair began in Tudor times as a place to trade horses, race ducks, watch boxing matches and engage in other pleasurable activities. It was held on the last Monday of September until the 1890s when its traditional field outside the town was replaced by High Barnet station. The rhyming slang 'Barnet Fair' for hair is therefore a Michaelmas construction.
The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael was founded in 1818 by the Prince Regent to honour chivalrous non-military service. Its current members include Sir David Attenborough, the Duke of Suffolk and Dame Pearlette Louisy, the Governor-General of Saint Lucia. Investitures are undertaken by the sovereign in a dedicated chapel at St Paul's Cathedral at Michaelmas each year. If you saw royalty at the recent state funeral wearing robes bearing giant seven-armed Maltese Crosses on the front, that's what that was all about.
Several London churches are dedicated to St Michael. Chief amongst these is St Michael and All Angels in Chiswick where Henry Purcell used to be the organist, and they'll be celebrating their Feast of Title with a solemn mass tonight. The author Barbara Pym used to be a parishioner at St Michael and All Angels in Barnes, hence the protagonist of her Quartet in Autumn trilogy was named Michael in tribute. Meanwhile just outside the capital PM William Gladstone was buried in the churchyard at St Michael and All Angels in Hughenden at Michaelmas 1881 with Queen Victoria in attendance.
Perhaps London's most significant Michalemas tradition is the election of the new Lord Mayor of London. City sheriffs and aldermen will meet today at the Guildhall to select one of their own in a secret ballot, taking due account of the precedence of the livery companies. The chosen candidate becomes Lord Mayor Elect and immediately sets about co-ordinating the mile-long parade which launches the Lord Mayor's Show in November. The election takes place at the end of September because the ceremonial wig worn at the investiture traditionally took six weeks to manufacture.
Of course Michaelmas is no longer technically Michaelmas since the calendar changed in 1752 with the loss of eleven days. By rights we should be celebrating on 7th October instead, but legal authorities insisted on retaining the old style date lest quarterly annual rents get out of sync. Nature hasn't shifted, of course, so folklore experts reassure us that blackberries remain safe to eat until that later date. Whatever, why not celebrate Michaelmas today with a traditional roast duck dinner, and don't forget to pick a bunch of cornflowers to grace the table.