Friday, January 2, 2015

Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas in Early Tudor England

by Lauren Johnson

Christmas might seem a distant memory for us now, swaddled in a mental blanket of too many mince pies and flutes of fizzy wine. But five centuries ago Christmas would still be going strong on 1 January. During the Twelve Days of Christmas celebrated by the early Tudors, New Year marked a halfway point: the major feast of Christmas day was over, the minor celebrations of Holy Innocents and various saints’ days had passed, but there was still the major festivity of New Year’s Day to enjoy, not to mention the biggest party of all: Twelfth Night.

Christmas – New Year – Twelfth Night. These were the holy trinity of celebration and for many people they involved the greatest festivities of the entire year.

Wressle Castle, Yorkshire - Dupont Circle, Wikimedia

In the household of Henry Percy, Fifth Earl of Northumberland, New Year’s Day dawned with a cacophony of trumpet blasts. First they belched out their tunes outside the Earl and Countess’s door, and then their children’s. Unpleasant as this sounds to us perhaps it wasn’t so bad for Harry Percy – he didn’t celebrate the turning year (and work on his ‘morning after’ headache) until that night, when he sat in state in his great hall at Wressle Castle and had largesse proclaimed by his heralds. The Earl celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas in style: his half-dozen musicians played, there were dances, pageants, disguisings, plays, wassailing, carol-singing and gambling. He even had his own bearward to bring "his lordship’s beasts for making of his lordship’s pastime".

A similar barrage of entertainment took place in the royal court – Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth of York rewarded her musicians for their Christmas entertainments, possibly including a New Year awakening like that enjoyed by Northumberland. Henry himself sponsored ‘players’ of plays and also regularly rewarded his Chapel Royal for their involvement in courtly performances. The gentlemen and children of the Chapel mounted a performance, which on Twelfth Night 1495 saw the future master of the Chapel, William Cornish, dressed as St George charging at a dragon. Around this fantastical pageant were staged a play and a courtly disguising. Henry and Elizabeth’s son Henry VIII took a much more active role in court celebrations, inserting himself into the pageantry of disguising and masquing.
Elizabeth of York: Wikimedia Commons

Both Henry VII and Henry VIII also partook of the more transgressive elements of the Twelve Days, permitting a Lord or Abbot of Misrule to control courtly entertainment. This inversion performance, in which a low status figure was elevated to a role of authority for anything from a day to several months, appears all over the country during Christmas. Merton College, Oxford, elected a King of the Bean (Rex Fabarum) who ruled from St Edmund’s eve in November until Candlemas (2 February). He sat in state in the college hall and dispensed ‘justice’ throughout his reign, beating those whose service displeased him. St Thomas’s Day (29 December) saw ‘Yule and his wife’ riding through York in a ‘barbarous’ manner, while in Norwich the ‘King of Christmas’ paraded in tinsel with other disguised figures in the fifteenth century. In Coventry in 1518-9 the vintner Henry Rogers kept open house during Christmas and made one of his sergeants Lord of Misrule.

The London Inns of Court – those seats of legal education – saw some of the most raucous Christmas celebrations take place. Lincoln’s Inn had its own Master of Revels and staff as well as nominating a King for Christmas who was to sit on Christmas day. He was displaced by the King of the Cockneys on Holy Innocents and a marshal who was king on New Year’s Day. With all these kings knocking around perhaps it is unsurprising there was an anti-king called Jack Straw who caused damage to the Inns at Christmas 1517, broke down doors and was banished. The Inner Temple gave its Lord of Misrule a fantastic court on St Stephen’s Day (26 December), when animals were hunted around the hall. Probably not part of this hunt but intriguing nonetheless, there are references to Christmas keepers of a marmoset, baboon and lion at Furnival’s Inn in the fifteenth century. 

Lincolns Inn Fifteenth Century undercroft.
Wikimedia Commons: Stephencdickson

Boy Bishops paraded and preached across the country, either on St Nicholas’s Day (6 December) or the Feast of Holy Innocents (28 December). Both dates were associated with children in a typically morbid medieval fashion: St Nick had saved young women from a life of prostitution by giving them dowries and raised a bunch of beheaded boys from the dead; Holy Innocents was the anniversary of Herod’s massacre of children under the age of two. Boy Bishops appear everywhere from Exeter to York and Norwich to Gloucester. In Oxford four colleges sponsored a Boy Bishop in the fifteenth century and in 1508-9 Lincoln College paid six pence to ‘St Nicholas clerk’. In Louth, Lincolnshire, the Boy Bishop received six pence for his service on Holly Innocents. For visiting the Earl of Northumberland’s home and delivering a sermon the ‘Barne Bishop’ of either Beverley or York (bairn being northern dialect for child) received a whopping 20 shillings. At St Paul’s Cathedral, London, the boy bishop got supper on the eve of Holy Innocents, and was loaned a horse, entertained on Innocents’ day, then permitted to stay up late. He was dressed in clothes befitting the high status of a real bishop, with mitre, crozier and bejeweled robes, in which he delivered a sermon on the feast day of Holy Innocents.

Beyond lords of misrule and boy bishops (or girl abbesses) the Christmas season saw music and plays erupting throughout the country. A number of towns maintained musicians or ‘waits’ to perform during such periods. Newcastle-upon-Tyne paid locally sponsored ‘waits’ (musicians) and two minstrels. Lincoln had waits from the 1420s as well as enjoying a play of the Nativity on Christmas morning by the mid-fifteenth century. The Howard earls of Surrey and dukes of Norfolk had maintained players since the Yorkist regime and were still putting on pageants and disguisings under Henry VII. Henry borrowed players from the households of others: the Earls of Oxford, Northumberland and Wiltshire, the Duke of Buckingham; players from Essex, Wimbourne Minster, France. He was also the first King of England to maintain his own players – and he set up troupes for his wife and sons. Plays were performed in Oxford colleges too: Thomas More wrote one performed at Magdalen College c.1495.

Throughout England revelry took place during the Twelve Days of Christmas – it was a welcome excuse to forget the miserable winter darkness and cold, to gather around fires and communally in halls, eating and drinking without restriction, and being entertained by pleasures as simple as parading children in costumes or as lavish as court pageants. Most highly prized were good company, plenty of food and drink, and some entertainment. In many ways, the early Tudor Christmas was not so dissimilar to our own.

To read more about the food eaten at Christmas in the early Tudor period, check out my blogpost on the topic here.

Brief Bibliography
J.J. Anderson, Records of Early English Drama: Newcastle Upon Tyne (Manchester University Press, 1982)
E.K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage: Two Volumes Bound as One (Dover Publications Inc, 1996)
John Elliott Jr, Alan H. Helson, Alexandra F. Johnston, Diana Wyatt (eds.), REED: Oxford (British Library & Toronto University Press, 2004), 2 volumes
Ian Lancashire, ‘Orders for Twelfth Day and Night c.1515 in the Second Northumberland House Book’, English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 10 (1980)
Alan H. Nelson & John R. Elliott Jr (eds.), Records of Early English Drama: Inns of Court (D.S. Brewer, 2010)
W. R. Streitberger, Court Revels, 1485-1559 (University of Toronto Press, 1994)
Meg Twycross (ed.), Festive Drama: Papers from the Sixth Triennial Colloquium of the International Society for the Study of Medieval Theatre, Lancaster, 13-19 July 1989 (D. S. Brewer, 1996)


Lauren is the author of The Arrow of Sherwood (Pen & Sword Fiction, 2013) and currently working on a history of the year 1509 for Head of Zeus (2016).
She blogs at laurenjohnson1, tweets @History_lauren and facebooks at Lauren Johnson: Author & Historian. Her website is

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