RUSHES STREWN ON the floors of royal palaces and parish churches, manor houses, and modest homes were one of the amenities of life in early modern England. They made floors of stone or earth a little warmer, drier, and softer underfoot. The smell of fresh green rushes freshened the air when the rushes were first distributed and afterwards, because bruising the plants by walking on them released their pleasant aroma. In London in the early fifteenth century, the business of gathering, transporting, buying, and selling rushes was so great that the Common Council ordered those who brought them on skiffs to bundle them on board, not on the wharves, because once unloaded, the piles of rushes impeded other commercial activity and left a mess for other people to deal with. For special occasions in the city, the streets of a procession route might be thoroughly cleaned, hung with arras, and strewn with rushes. In the final scene of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2 for instance, a Groom calls for “More rushes, more rushes” to prepare for the passage of the new king, Henry V, through the streets of London. For special guests, providing fresh rushes was de rigueur as a sign of respect and hospitality—hence, in The Taming of the Shrew, Grumio reviews the preparations for the arrival of Petruchio and his bride: “Is supper ready,” he asks, “the house trimmed, rushes strewed, cobwebs swept, the servingmen in their new fustian, the white stockings, and every officer his wedding garment on?” Far be it from Petruchio's household to treat Katherine as if she were, as the saying goes, “not worth a rush.”
In certain northwestern counties of England—Lancashire, Cheshire, Westmorland, and Yorkshire—the practice of covering the floors of churches with fresh rushes developed into an annual parish festivity that aimed to celebrate and strengthen personal and communal bonds within families and households, within parishes, and between neighbouring ones. Rush-bearings were not limited to “the western extremes of Yorkshire,” but occurred at least as far east as Brandsby, in the North Riding, about fifteen miles north of the city of York. We do not know why this custom flourished in the northern counties, nor when it began to take shape.