Feast of Fools: The unruly Christmas party of the Tudor period

Posted by ap507 at Dec 20, 2016 10:32 AM |
University of Leicester explores the topsy-turvy world of the Tudor Christmas and the Lord of Misrule

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 20 December 2016

Images of boisterous historical Christmases and the Lord of Misrule are available here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/jxaofhhcq7uvuec/AABqDT0ZPtXfqiDWYkILKA9Ia?dl=0

Christmas can be a time for drunken parties, rowdy festive shenanigans and embarrassing behaviour, but getting intoxicated at Christmas and causing mischief is not an exclusively modern phenomenon, according to researchers from the University of Leicester.

The Special Collections archive based at the University of Leicester has unearthed a number of historical sources relating to Christmas during the 16th and 17th centuries, highlighting a variety of games that were played during the holiday season which had been banned at other times of the year and were associated with unruly behaviour – including shuffleboard, shove-halfpenny, skittles and bowls.   

Presiding over these rowdy celebrations of Christmas-tide, held over the twelve days from 24 December to 5 January, was the Lord of Misrule. 

Under his command, the normal order of things was turned on its head, so that fools could become kings and vice versa.

During the short reign of Edward VI, over Christmas 1551, the revels of the Lord of Misrule were especially magnificent. The courtier George Ferrers of Lincoln’s Inn, appointed to the role of ‘lord of merry disports’, took ‘great delight in his pastimes’, and the costumes made for him were rich and lavish in the extreme. 

In an atmosphere where the normal rules of society were suspended, the Lord of Misrule could command anyone to do anything and drunkenness and wild behaviour were almost encouraged and inevitably things sometimes got out-of-hand. 

John Strype described the ‘Riots and great Disturbances in Finsbury’ carried out by ‘a Number of loose young Men of the Inns of Chancery’ on 2 January 1582. 

The Puritans deeply objected to the concept of ‘misrule’, which they blamed for drunkenness, promiscuity and excess.

During the 1640s, the Puritans worked to outlaw the customs associated with Christmas. 

In 1644, the Directory of Public Worship (a manual of instructions for the conduct of ministers) declared that:

‘Festival dayes, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued’.

The attempted suppression of Christmas festivities led to the writing of The Complaint of Christmas, by the satirical Royalist poet, John Taylor, a Thames waterman, known as ‘the water poet’:

‘All the liberty and harmless sports, with the merry gambols, dances and friscals [by] which the toiling plowswain and labourer were wont to be recreated and their spirits and hopes revived for a whole twelve month are now extinct and put out of use in such a fashion as if they never had been.  Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster’.

The concept of the Lord of Misrule is an ancient one, which can be linked back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the medieval Feast of Fools.

The Puritan ban was unsuccessful in stamping out this time-honoured custom completely and it was still observed in Victorian times - at the Christmas revels at the Crystal Palace in 1859, an engraving from the Illustrated London News read:

‘Old King Christmas was seated on his throne of evergreen, while the Lord of Misrule directed the sports’.

So perhaps some solace can be taken the next time a colleague or relative gets drunk at the Christmas party and does something embarrassing – the Tudors would have had it no other way.

A feature ‘The Lord of Misrule and his band of ‘lusty guts’’ is available to read here: http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/specialcollections/2016/12/20/the-lord-of-misrule-and-his-band-of-lusty-guts/


Notes to editors:

For more information contact the University of Leicester Special Collections on 0116 252 2056 or email specialcollections@le.ac.uk

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