Monthly Archives: December 2015

A festive walk

edward-smIn 1551 the Holy Days and Fasting Act was passed – sadly it was repealed in 1969 – I think if I’ve read correctly- or else if you were thinking of attending church on Christmas Day you would have been required to walk there whatever rank in society you might hold.  And, if the law hadn’t been repealed there would have been no question of not going to church in any event. It was a legal requirement to attend a church service on Christmas Day – a protestant one (this was the reign of Edward VI) unless you were cooking the dinner in which case you weren’t obliged to go.

And whilst you are sampling the festive delights of a glass of sherry as you prepare the trifle you might like to consider the difficulties of whether or not a law remains repealed if the law that repealed a particular act is itself repealed. This is the case with the 1969 act that repealed the 1551 act…producing the kind of argument that can probably be likened to a dog chasing its own tail.

 

On the plus side (or not -as the case may be, depending on how you feel about it), so far as I’m aware, there are currently no Tudor laws which prohibit the wearing of festive sweaters, hats, earrings or other accoutrements.

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Unlawful Games at Christmas…

henryholbeinIn 1541, during the reign of Henry VIII, parliament passed the Unlawful Games Act). This law banned all dangerous sports on Christmas Day with the exception of archery. Males aged seven to sixty were required to practice their weaponry skills. Games of skills such as tennis, which Henry VIII excelled at during his youth, were prohibited as were the ever present menace of cards and dice. Presumably the modern equivalent would be trivial pursuit, scrabble and monopoly. Sadly anyone thinking of avoiding any of the above or even a turn at charades on Christmas Day can think again as the law was effectively repealed in 1948.

 

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Too much singing and dancing

Richard_III_of_EnglandChristmas parties have a bit of a reputation in the land of sitcom and stand-up for unfortunate goings on. Nothing, it turns out, is new.

In 1484 the Croyland Chronicler, a monk – so perhaps not the best judge of party excess, announced that he couldn’t possibly describe the goings-on at Richard III’s Christmas court because they were just too shocking for words. Of course, he then went on to mention the dancing, the singing and the frocks (belonging to Queen Anne and Elizabeth of York and which they apparently swapped for a giggle.)

Essentially the key points are that firstly the merriment caused much head shaking (and presumably head holding the next morning) and that secondly the swapping of the dresses was partially responsible for the idea that Richard III had an inappropriate interest in his young niece.

 

It is to be wondered how genuine Richard and Anne’s merriment really was in 1484 as their only child Prince Edward (Edward of Middleham) had died in April that year.

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Christmas Day awakening

images-9Apologies for the gap in the posts – a slight connectivity issue that I thought I’d addressed by scheduling my posts; so two posts today to keep on track.

This particular Christmas scene has a long first act. In August 1453 Henry VI, known for his piety, exhibited signs of mental illness. The power struggle that followed between Margaret of Anjou and the Duke of Somerset in one corner and the Duke of York in the other was unsightly – not that it much mattered to Henry. He was capable of eating, drinking and sleeping but he appeared insensible to world around him. Chroniclers recorded men such as the Duke of Buckingham asking for a blessing and the king apparently ignoring them.

 

Even worse, Margaret of Anjou gave birth to her son Edward during this time. Medieval kings were required to acknowledge and bless their off-spring to demonstrate that they were in fact their off spring. Margaret duly presented the infant prince only to be stonewalled by her incapacitated spouse.

 

But then there was a change in the king’s health, news of which sped around the country, “Blessed be to God, the King is well and has been since Christmas day” (The Paston Letters). So, Christmas 1454, if you were Margaret was a time of celebration – less so if you were Richard, Duke of York.

 

300_2511351The causes of Henry’s incapacity are much debated. It is possible that it was a hereditary condition. His grandfather, Charles VI of France (father of Katherine of Valois) believed that he was made of glass and would shatter if anyone touched him. A state of mind which did little for the stability of France and which was partially responsible for allowing King Henry V to  become a hero to his people by soundly trouncing their cross-Channel neighbours.

The fact that Henry V gained an empire which his son managed to lose didn’t go down particularly well with the natives and added to the general feeling of dissatisfaction with Henry VI and his queen.  Margaret of Anjou being from Anjou – i.e. french- didn’t help matters very much either.

Alternatively it has been suggested that the stresses of the loss of Normandy and then Gascony may have contributed to Henry’s breakdown as might Margaret of Anjou’s pregnancy.

 

Whatever the cause, Henry never fully recovered from his vacant period and his lack of control didn’t help the escalating tensions between the different factions at court nor the spiralling violence between the assorted nobility – the Nevilles and the Percys being the most obvious example of blood feuding at its worst. Open warfare was only a matter of time but then hindsight is a wonderful thing.

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Cards at Christmas

 

elizabeth of yorkIn 1461 Edward IV’s parliament  passed a law that permitted the playing of card and dice games at Christmas…they were banned the rest of the time.  It was an old problem.  One of Edward II’s parliaments banned dice games because they interfered with archery practise.

Henry VII passed a similar law but his law banned servants from playing cards and dice throughout the year except for the twelve days of Christmas.  Henry’s accounts reflect the fact that he liked the odd flutter at a game of cards and that he lost more often than he won.  Henry’s spouse, Elizabeth of York is the model for the queen on English cards.

 

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Christmas comes but once a year…

 

 abergavennyChristmas 1175, Abergavenny Castle. The Anglo-Norman in charge, one William de Braose (there were many of them all very inventively called William), invited Seisyllt ap Dyfnwall from nearby Castell Arnallt around for a Christmas meal. Seisyllt, his son Geoffrey and the chieftains of Powys accepted the invitation. The intention, so William said in his politely worded invite, was to spend Christmas in each other’s company- to bury the hatchet. They would feast and celebrate and make a lasting reconciliation following the death of Henry Fitzmiles- an event incidentally that had ensured vast tracts of lands were now in de Braose’s ownership.

 

And what could be nicer at Christmas than peace and reconciliation? The Welsh left their weapons at the door and settled down for an evening of serious eating and drinking.

 

They didn’t notice when someone quietly shut and barred the entrance to the great hall. De Braose’s men were intent on burying the hatchet…firmly in the backs of their Welsh guests. They finished the evening by cutting down all the Welsh in the hall. De Braose even murdered Seisyllt’s seven-year-old son.

 

The fact is that Henry Fitzmiles was William’s uncle. His death at the hands of the Welsh triggered the massacre, another round in an on-going blood feud. What made the massacre at Abbergavenny different was that de Braose broke the unwritten laws of hospitality. Camden, writing in the sixteenth century described the act as one of “infamy and treachery.”

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Becket, ex-communication and Christmas-tide murder

DSC_0491Christmas Day 1170 – the Archbishop of Canterbury preached his sermon. It was a bit different to the ones that get televised these days. For a start the archbishop excommunicated a number of his bishops – he hoped they’d be damned.   He went on, it would appear, to prophesy his own murder:

 

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time.

 

Just four days later on the 29th of December 1170, four knights arrived from Bures in Normandy where Henry II  was celebrating Christmas. The Archbishop of York, as well as the Bishops of London and Salisbury had travelled there to complain about being excommunicated for having crowned Henry’s son Henry who was referred to afterwards as the ‘Young King’. Becket had returned from his six-year exile that year and re-crowned the Young King but it clearly rankled that the bishops had already done the job. Henry II is purported to have had a bit of a temper tantrum culminating with the fatal words “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest.”

 

 

Four knights saw an opportunity for fortune and glory so caught the first ship for England- Walter Fitz Urse, Walter de Tracey, Richard le Breton and Hugh de Moreville- wanted Becket to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Thomas, who had been offered an opportunity to flee as the knights burst in, refused. The archbishop was brutally murdered and the four knights discovered that Henry II hadn’t actually meant for anyone to go thundering off to kill the troublesome archbishop.

 

 

 

 

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Banning Christmas

puritans-690x360It was inevitable that the Puritans would come up somewhere in my festive posts. Unfortunately for the Christmas loving inhabitants of Parliamentarian England the holy day was deemed to smack of popery. Admittedly there was rather a lot of drinking, dancing and general merriment and that wasn’t a good thing on account of the fact that it encouraged folk towards sinfulness.  Puritans felt that really and truly that rather than games, morris dancing, Yule logs and eating too much that the population should aim for a more mediative approach to the day involving fasting and prayer or just going about their business as usual. In January 1645 the Directory of Public Worship stated that ‘Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued’.

 

In June 1647, following Parliamentary victories, an ordinance banned Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.  The same ruling decreed that the second Tuesday of every month should be declared a holiday for students, servants and apprentices.  Unfortunately not everyone, particularly the students and apprentices,  were terribly keen on the idea.  Parliament was then required to spend rather a lot of time working out how to prevent Londoners from celebrating Christmas. It ordered that shops should remain open as usual, church services were observed – priests offering up a Christmas Sermon found themselves at the end of an unfestive arrest warrant.

In Ely a puritan minister tried to keep a low profile but his traditionally-minded parishioners informed him that if he didn’t preach a sermon they’d get someone else to do the job so the priest agreed for the sake of peace and quiet.

 

The people of Canterbury found themselves at loggerheads with the authorities that year as well. Eating mince pies was declared to be illegal and shops were to be kept open.  The mayor took it upon himself to enforce the rules that shops should open as usual.  Dissatisfaction was expressed through the so-called Plum Pudding Riots which began with a shopkeeper being put in the stocks for refusing to open his shop. A game of football ensued through the streets of Canterbury that saw several puritan windows broken and the mayor was forced into hiding whilst his home was looted…nothing like a spot of goodwill in December. It was only when a band of Parliamentarian soldiers were dispatched to Canterbury in January 1648 that order was restored but by that time the people of Kent were up in arms against Parliament.

 

The unrest wasn’t just confined to Kent the good burghers of Norwich and Ipswich weren’t particularly happy about the disappearance of Christmas either, although in Ipswich the ringleaders of the unrest didn’t make it much beyond Boxing Day before they were rounded up.  In London apprentices took up flower arranging – holly and ivy stuck on the water conduits at Cornhill – which didn’t go down very well with the authorities.

Needless to say that in addition to Christmas services and mince pies, carol singing had been also been banned by that point (just as well there weren’t shops playing carols from October onwards in the seventeenth century or the ban might have proved rather more popular.)

It was only with Cromwell’s death and the restoration of Charles II that Christmas was allowed back into the calendar.

 

http://www.historytoday.com/chris-durston/puritan-war-christmas

http://idler.co.uk/article/the-christmas-riots/

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Henry Tudor…takes a festive oath

 

elizabeth of yorkA Christmas romance – how lovely…

 

Edward IV died unexpectedly in April 1483. For Elizabeth Woodville this was a disaster, especially when her brother-in-law Richard became the Protector. Now is not the time or the place to look more closely at the possible permutations of what happened to young Edward V and his brother Richard in the Tower or what Richard’s plans and rationale were for claiming the crown himself; suffice it to say rather a lot of mud was slung at the time and has continued to be thrown since.

 

Elizabeth Woodville took herself, along with her remaining children, into sanctuary at Westminster. Whilst she was there she and Margaret Beaufort – presumably working on the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend in Elizabeth’s case- came up with a plan to marry their children. Henry Tudor, Margaret’s Lancastrian son and dubious claimant to the throne would marry Elizabeth of York the eldest daughter of Edward IV. There was the small issue of Edward’s possible pre-contract in marriage rendering the princess an arrival on the wrong side of the blanket but by this stage in proceedings there were no other Lancastrian claimants and it was Richard who was suggesting the legitimacy of his nieces and nephews was open to question in order to claim the throne for himself.

 

henryviiIt was against this backdrop – Jane Austen never came up with a romance like this one- that on Christmas Day, 1483, at Rennes Cathedral in Brittany, where he was in exile but writing and receiving lots of letters that Henry Tudor took an oath that he would marry Elizabeth just as soon as he got his mitts on the crown. The rest as they say is, er, history.

 

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King John’s Christmas gift…

King_John_from_De_Rege_JohannePrince John, youngest son of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine was born on or around Christmas Eve 1166 or 1167. The fact that the date of his birth is so poorly recorded reflects how unimportant he was in the great scheme of things at that time. Henry II had three other sons who had survived the perils of childhood – Young Henry, Geoffrey and Richard- John nicknamed ‘Lackland’ by his father could have little expected that he would one day become king.

 

What follows is not, by any stretch of the imagination, history. It’s a poem by A.A. Milne. However, what it does do is demonstrate the fact that popular culture is incredibly important when it comes to our perception of key historical figures.  The Victorians were not keen on John and it’s a viewpoint that has endured.  John has certainly had some bad press over the centuries. I’ve posted several accounts linked to King John and with the best will in the world he certainly did have ‘his little ways’ – with nephews, white satin, jewels, women and barons.  The fact remains though, given the behaviour of other medieval kings, that the old A level question is valid – was John a bad king or an unlucky one?

 

King John’s Christmas

King John was not a good man —

He had his little ways.

And sometimes no one spoke to him

For days and days and days.

And men who came across him,

When walking in the town,

Gave him a supercilious stare,

Or passed with noses in the air —

And bad King John stood dumbly there,

Blushing beneath his crown.

 

King John was not a good man,

And no good friends had he.

He stayed in every afternoon…

But no one came to tea.

And, round about December,

The cards upon his shelf

Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,

And fortune in the coming year,

Were never from his near and dear,

But only from himself.

 

King John was not a good man,

Yet had his hopes and fears.

They’d given him no present now

For years and years and years.

But every year at Christmas,

While minstrels stood about,

Collecting tribute from the young

For all the songs they might have sung,

He stole away upstairs and hung

A hopeful stocking out.

 

King John was not a good man,

He lived his life aloof;

Alone he thought a message out

While climbing up the roof.

He wrote it down and propped it

Against the chimney stack:

“TO ALL AND SUNDRY – NEAR AND FAR

Christmas in particular.”

And signed it not “Johannes R.”

But very humbly, “Jack.”

“I want some crackers,

And I want some candy;

I think a box of chocolates

Would come in handy;

I don’t mind oranges,

I do like nuts!

And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife

That really cuts.

And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,

Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

 

King John was not a good man —

He wrote this message out,

And gat him to this room again,

Descending by the spout.

And all that night he lay there,

A prey to hopes and fears.

“I think that’s him a-coming now!”

(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)

“He’ll bring one present, anyhow —

The first I had for years.”

“Forget about the crackers,

And forget the candy;

I’m sure a box of chocolates

Would never come in handy;

I don’t like oranges,

I don’t want nuts,

And I HAVE got a pocket-knife

That almost cuts.

But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,

Bring me a big, red, india-rubber ball!”

 

King John was not a good man,

Next morning when the sun

Rose up to tell a waiting world

That Christmas had begun,

And people seized their stockings,

And opened them with glee,

And crackers, toys and games appeared,

And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,

King John said grimly: “As I feared,

Nothing again for me!”

“I did want crackers,

And I did want candy;

I know a box of chocolates

Would come in handy;

I do love oranges,

I did want nuts!

And, oh! if Father Christmas, had loved me at all,

He would have brought a big, red,

india-rubber ball!”

 

King John stood by the window,

And frowned to see below

The happy bands of boys and girls

All playing in the snow.

A while he stood there watching,

And envying them all …

When through the window big and red

There hurtled by his royal head,

And bounced and fell upon the bed,

An india-rubber ball!

AND, OH, FATHER CHRISTMAS,

MY BLESSINGS ON YOU FALL

FOR BRINGING HIM

A BIG, RED,

INDIA-RUBBER

BALL

A. A. Milne

 

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