Christmas with the Plantagenets
Our vision of the Christmases of “Merrie Olde England” has been formed by Charles Dickens. In his classic A Christmas Carol, he described a gleeful “Christmas Past” filled with music and merriment.
“There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus [spiced, sugared and heated port wine], and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer…”
The celebration described by Dickens was so timeless that the Plantagenets themselves would have felt at home. And, if Dickens had been transported from Victorian England to their much earlier England, he would have immediately been at ease.
Just imagine one of those Plantagenet Christmases in all of its royal splendor! The medieval Christmas truly was a spectacle. Courtiers dressed in extravagant style, in expensive imported fabrics, furs and elaborate jewelry. They danced in halls hung with holly, ivy, laurel and rosemary. They watched Nativity plays, or listened to minstrels and poetical recitations.
John Stow, in his Survey of London, first published in 1598 and now available online through Project Gutenburg, described the “sports and pastimes” found in the London of earlier eras when,
“… in the feast of Christmas, there was in the king’s house, wheresoever he was lodged, a lord of misrule, or master of merry disports, and the like had ye in the house of every nobleman of honour or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal… In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisings, masks, and mummeries, with playing at cards for counters, nails, and points, in every house, more for pastime than for gain.”
And throughout the city, not just in the royal court,
“Against the feast of Christmas every man’s house, as also the parish churches, were decked with holm [an evergreen oak], ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green.”
The fabulous feasts, decorative greenery, caroling, courtly dances and minstrelry truly embody the timeless essence of the season.
First and foremost, however, Christmas was a religious holiday.
Christmas was one of the two crowning points of the liturgical year, Easter being the other. In churches and private chapels, where courtiers might attend mass while wearing their festive masks and costumes, they observed the pieties due the day. Christmas was the only time that three masses were celebrated on the same day. The first (the Angel’s Mass) was held at midnight, the second (the Shepherd’s Mass) at dawn, and the third (the Mass of the Divine Word) during the day.
The observance of Christmas was not limited to the 25th of December. A thread of merriment ran from All Saints Day (1 November) all the way through Candlemas (2 February). The major focus, however, was on the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” running from Christmas Eve to “Twelfth Night” (6 January).
The most impressive celebration occurred on Christmas day itself, with prayer, feasting and music. The giving of gifts, originally a New Year’s custom, was eventually rolled into Christmas day as well. Although religious devotion rightfully permeated the celebration of Christ’s birth, the great midday feast was what brought the most cheer to rich and poor alike.
While the court and nobility enjoyed extravagant Christmas bills of fare, commoners were not forgotten. The king obeyed his Christian duty of seasonable charity. He supplied meat and drink to hundreds of poor people who gathered for the chance to enjoy a brief respite from their grim existence in the winter season.
Secular Christmas customs included dancing, music, mumming and gambling. Both dice and playing cards were popular in the period. The future King Henry IV, while away on crusade in Prussia at Christmas time 1390, lost 34 shillings 4 pence at dice (Richard Kyngeston, in Expeditions Made to Prussia and the Holy Land). And religious holidays did not ensure upright behavior! There are even examples of prosecutions for cheating during the Christmas season.
Christmas and the Royal Court
Before we join the Ghost of Christmas Past (long past indeed!) in visiting the Plantagenet court, it may be useful to explain something of the function of that court.
The royal court was, effectively, the executive branch of the government. It was also the royal household. As such, it was divided into the familia regis of lesser servants and retainers (“below stairs”), and the king’s personal attendants and friends, who were considered the domus or ceremonial (“above stairs”) household. During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), the court included some 100 to 150 courtiers and retainers. Those numbers swelled to between 400 and 700 by the reign of Richard II (1377-1399).
Any household of that size would have been difficult to manage and provide for. The process was further complicated by the fact that the royal household was always on the move. The entire court shifted on a regular basis from one palace to another, sometimes to locations as distant as France or Ireland.
When it came to feeding this great retinue (as almost everyone not on wages was supplied with room, board and apparel), the job fell to a group of 30 to 50 “purveyors.” These agents were responsible for locating, purchasing and transporting the necessary supplies.
Even before the carts and trooping servants arrived to install the royal furnishings at a new location, some purveyors or precursors were busy buying huge masses of foodstuffs. Their area of operations was “the verge,” which extended twelve miles in all directions from the royal residence du jour.
By law, everyone within the verge had to release any goods requisitioned by the purveyors, whether it was a hardship for them or not. The purveyors almost never paid market rate; sometimes, they paid only half the value of the provisions. Sometimes the purveyors would pay in cash. Often, however, when the royal cash flow was tight, they paid on credit. Or not at all! Not surprisingly, purveyance was extremely unpopular in the countryside.
The providing of ordinary daily rations, or liveries (a term applied not just to clothing), for each of the household members, as determined by their status, was a challenge for the officials involved.
A feast raised the ante considerably. This becomes apparent when we look at the extensive lists of provisions required for feasts, on Christmas or on other occasions.
Food (and drink) was just one of the court’s expenditures. There were also processions and tournaments and court ceremonies, all of which involved displays of elaborate finery and “bling” for all the participating members. This did not always rest easy with the common folk who were footing the bill. Numerous protests, including the great Peasant Revolt of 1318, were made against the excessive taxation and rapacious purveyance resulting from the “extravagance” of the court.
This sort of profligacy, however, was not just for fun and games. It was a vital element in maintaining the power and legitimacy of the court. The monarch’s spectacular show of “conspicuous consumption” was an important means of establishing his strength and grandeur.
Maintaining the proper appearance of authority, and demonstrating the proper respect for the church through generous gifts to religious institutions, was a serious and costly part of the royal job description. The nobles followed suit, in a costly game of “Keeping Up With the King.” The effect trickled down through the layers of medieval society, as the lesser barons, the burgesses and the wealthier yeoman each in turn attempted to imitate their lord.
So now, let’s follow Ebenezer Scrooge’s example! Put your hand in ours, Dear Reader, and walk with us as we drop in for brief glimpses of Christmas with some of our more flamboyant Plantagenets.
Henry II’s Tumultuous Royal Christmases
The first Plantagenet, Henry II, was one of the least guarded and most tempestuous of the family. While, as expected, he observed each Christmas in proper style, it is no surprise to learn that not all of Henry’s Christmases were happy ones!
During a Christmas banquet at Bures, France, in 1170, Henry learned that his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was refusing to un-excommunicate some of Henry’s supporters. When the news was brought to Henry, the enraged monarch howled
“What idle and miserable men I have encouraged and promoted in my kingdom, faithless to their lord, who let me be mocked by a low-born clerk!” (as quoted in Richard Barber’s Henry Plantagenet, p. 144).
Not quite as pithy as “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” but the gist was certainly the same. Henry’s unguarded words led directly to the murder of Becket in the cathedral at Canterbury on 29 December 1170.
During his resulting papal excommunication, Henry thought it prudent to be away from London. He sailed to Ireland, to deal with some of his more troublesome vassals. Henry observed Christmas 1171 in Dublin. The Irish chieftains were shocked by the amount and quality of food consumed by Henry’s court. They were particularly surprised to see the English dining on cranes, swans, and peacocks. They personally considered crane’s flesh unfit for human consumption.
Some ten years later, Henry suffered another Christmas of discontent. He spent the holiday season of 1182 at Caen with his mutinous sons, Henry “the Young King,” Richard the Lionheart, and Geoffrey, count of Brittany. Over a thousand lords were present – but not Queen Eleanor. She had been locked up by Henry after she had encouraged and supported the “boys” in their earlier revolt against Henry, and locked up she remained.
The entire gathering was on edge. The first incident occurred when an old retainer, chamberlain William de Tancarville, saw someone else about to wash the king’s hands before dinner. That was the chamberlain’s duty of honor, and de Tancarville was not about to suffer the disrespect lightly. He grabbed the silver basin away from the surprised interloper and grimly proceeded to wash the king’s hands himself. Henry banished de Tancarville from court.
One of the Young King’s foremost knights, the principled and chivalrous William Marshal, left court of his own volition. Marshal had been futilely battling an insidious campaign of slanderous rumors that spread like wildfire – supposedly, the Young King’s champion was carrying on with the Young King’s wife! Marshal adamantly denied the rumors, incensed that his reputation was being impugned. He turned to Henry II for vindication, even offering to participate in a trial by battle. Henry, distracted and burdened by disagreements within his family, had no sympathy for Marshal’s concern for his honor. Marshal, grieved and offended, departed.
Henry’s family burdens were real, but largely self-imposed. Henry had a real talent for poking hornet’s nests!
The king had established a tenuous (and temporary) peace with his ambitious and restless sons. He had promised his oldest son, the Young King, that he would inherit England and Normandy. Second son Richard was to inherit his mother’s duchy of Aquitaine, for which he would pay fealty to the King of France. On this occasion, Henry demanded that Richard also pay homage for Aquitaine to his older brother, the Young King. Richard refused. He left the court in a rage, and began preparing for the inevitable battles to come.
All in all, it was not a merry Christmas.
John’s Sumptuous Royal Christmas
If Henry II’s youngest son, John, was at his father’s 1182 Christmas feast, his presence was not noted. John, however, had a notorious Christmas feast of his own at Westminster in 1213.
Although the chronicles relate that John had a simple Christmas during which he presented some cloaks to his retainers, Frederick Hackwood, in Good Cheer (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1911 p. 97) cites some accounts that point to an extensive celebration and feast. This Christmas is widely cited on the Internet as an excellent example of an appallingly indulgent Plantagenet festival. It was indeed extravagant, but far from extraordinary. The amounts cited fed not only the court, both upstairs and downstairs, but large quantities of food were handed out to others. The challenge to the purveyors is clear!
As Hackwood’s documentation shows, the purchases included cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger (spices we still associate with Christmas cooking), along with saffron, a considerable quantity of pepper, and “spiceries to make salsas” (salsas being sauces, probably not to be eaten with chips!). Required victuals included some 420 head of pork; 3,000 hens; as many pheasants and partridges as available; 15,000 herrings and other fish; 10,000 salt eels; and 100 pounds of almonds.
To wash it all down, were “twenty hogsheads [a large cask of variable size, holding between 60 and 90 gallons] of wine, costly, good, and new, both Gascony wines and French wine,” with an additional “four hogsheads of best wine for our own drinking, both two of white wine and two of red wine.” Also ordered were two dozen napkins and 100 ells of linen to make tablecloths and 50 ells of “delicate cloth,” with 500 pounds of wax, presumably for candles.
While this would be a tremendous amount of food for a single feast, it actually represents what would have been consumed by John’s large household over several days. The eels, as fish for a fast day such as Christmas Eve, may have been distributed to the poor, for whom eel was a traditional food.
Henry III’s Multi-Purpose Royal Christmas
The merriment of Christmas was, on occasion, combined with other royal purposes. In 1251, King John’s son Henry III spent Christmas at York. There he celebrated not only the holiday but also the wedding of his young daughter Margaret (age 11) to King Alexander III of Scotland (age 10).
Henry knighted Alexander and twenty others on Christmas day. The king gave each “choice robes,” and to his son-in-law his knightly sword, sword-belt and spurs. The marriage ceremony itself was held privately, early in the morning, in order to avoid a large and unruly crowd of onlookers pushing and shoving for a view of the royal wedding.
A list of provisions for the 1251 Christmas feast (as cited in Marion Campbell’s Alexander III King of Scots; House of Lochar, 1999, p. 37) included 70 brawns [bacon pigs], with their heads; 27 fallow bucks; 1,000 cod; 500 conger eels; 200 fallow does; freshwater fish from the York vivary, no quantity given [freshwater fish were usually reserved for the rich]; 10,000 haddock; 1,992 hens; 5 lasts [approximately 60,000] herring; 500 red hinds, with 50 cancelled because one forest “took none” (hunting didn’t always pan out!); some 1,600 partridges; 120 peacocks; 290 pheasants; 300 rabbits; 100 roe deer, with 50 cancelled; 280 salmon “calivered in pane” [dried and sealed in a baked crust]; 125 swans; 400 domestic swine; and 200 wild boars and sows.
Also purchased were 132 casks of wine from eleven different merchants, at an average price of £1 13 shillings 6 pence per cask.
Common saltwater fish were very seldom served at feasts. The large number of requisitioned fish (again, with provision for the poor in the form of salt herring) would seem to indicate that the ordered provisions were also for the Christmas Eve “fast.”
The chronicler Matthew Paris was present at the wedding, and found the luxury of it rather scandalous. He tut-tutted that
“… the worldly and wanton vanity of the scene, if it were to be described in full, would produce wonder and weariness in those who heard it” (Matthew Paris’s English History, from the Year 1235 to 1273; Rev. J. A. Giles, trans., London; Henry G. Bohn, 1853, II:469).
Richard II’s Hospitable Royal Christmases
Richard II is significant in the story of Plantagenet Christmases for several reasons. Richard’s Christmas of 1377, when he was only eleven years old, is well-documented and interesting for the wonderful listing of entertainments held. [Details on this Christmas can be found in e-Royalty’s article “The Plantagenet Christmas Gift-Giving Guide.”] This celebration is often, mistakenly, confused with that of 1398.
A description of the 1398 Christmas was written down some hundred and fifty years later by the chronicler John Stow. Stow noted that Westminster Hall had recently undergone a significant renovation, and the work was finished just in time for Christmas. Richard, therefore,
“…kept a most royal Christmas there, with daily joustings and runnings at tilt, whereunto resorted such a number of people, that there was every day spent twenty-eight, or twenty-six oxen, and three hundred sheep, besides fowl without number…” (all Stow quotes are taken from his Survey of London, C. L. Kingsford ed.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908. II:116).
Richard’s hospitality is highly significant because copies of his royal household’s cookbook survive. Entitled The Forme of Cury [shorthand for “Cookery”], and published circa 1390, it gives an insight into the culinary world of the later Plantagenets.
There is also a very informative provisions list and accompanying bill of fare for a feast hosted by Richard and his uncle, John of Gaunt, in 1387. Using these sources, we can speculate about what may have been served at Christmas, and how some of the dishes were prepared. The “taste palate” and presentation of the time was far more foreign than any of our so-called modern “ethnic” restaurants. Fig tart with eel chunks, anyone?
Richard was always fond of gorgeous clothing, and he always insisted on a full retinue. For the 1398 Christmas, Stow writes,
“… he caused a gown for himself to be made of gold, garnished with pearls and precious stones, to the value of 3000 Marks [with a mark generally valued at 160 pence, Richard’s jeweled gown was worth £2,000]. He was guarded by Cheshire men, and had about him commonly thirteen bishops, besides barons, knights, esquires, and other more than needed: insomuch, that to the household, came every day to meat 10,000 people, as appears by the Messes told out from the Kitchen to 300 servitors.”
Richard II’s first Christmas celebrated in the new Westminster Hall was his last. Seven months later, in August 1399, he was deposed. There were, however, many future great royal feasts held there. As Stow writes
“Thus was this great hall, for the honor of the Prince, oftentimes furnished with guests, not only in this king’s time (a prodigal Prince) but in the time of other also, both before and since, though not so usually noted. For when it is said, the king held his feast of Christmas, or such a feast at Westminster, it may well be supposed to be kept in this great hall, as most sufficient to such a purpose.”
Richard III’s Scandalous Royal Christmas
Our last taste of a Plantagenet Christmas is that of Richard III in 1484.
Not everyone approved of the lavish royal holiday celebrations that characterized the Christmases of “Merrie (Very) Olde England.” The anonymous monk who wrote the continuation of the Croyland Chronicle was shocked and dismayed by the antics of Richard III’s court.
He felt the celebrations were wasteful of tax money at a time when national defense should have been a priority. He was also offended by the vain and worldly disrespect of a day he thought should be kept pious and holy. In particular, he claimed that “… during this feast of the Nativity, far too much attention was given to dancing and gaiety.”
The chronicler begins with a theatrical lament,
“Oh God I why should we any longer dwell on this subject, multiplying our recital of things so distasteful, so numerous that they can hardly be reckoned, and so pernicious in their example, that we ought not so much as suggest them to the minds of the perfidious…,”
He then nevertheless proceeds to recite the “distasteful” details (purely in the interest of full disclosure, of course) of what he saw as the king’s callous behavior towards his ailing queen. He claimed that there were
“… vain changes of apparel presented to queen Anne and the lady Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of the late king [Edward IV; Elizabeth was Richard’s niece], being of similar colour and shape” (as quoted in Ingulph’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland, Henry T. Riley, ed. London: George Bell and Sons, 1908, pp. 498-499).
The rumor mills went into overtime – as soon as his queen was dead, Richard would replace her with his niece! Or maybe he planed to divorce the queen… Who knew that a Christmas dress could shake a kingdom?
Richard’s queen, Anne, died less than three months later, on 16 March 1485. Richard was killed at Bosworth Field by the forces of Henry Tudor on 22 August 1485. Elizabeth of York and Henry married five months later. Richard III’s scandalous holiday was the last Plantagenet Christmas.
The Plantagenet spirit did not, however, die with Richard III. Centuries later, the Victorians were inspired by their contemporary fascination with all things Gothic to revive lapsed holiday customs and to capture the festive magic of “Merrie Olde England.” A year before Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, dressed as Queen Philippa and King Edward III, had danced the night away at their own royal “Plantagenet costume ball.”
Cooking & Dining In Medieval England, by Peter Brears
Medieval Games: Sports and Recreations in Feudal Society, by John Marshall Carter
Observations on Popular Antiquities, by John Brand
The Great Household in Late Medieval England, by C.M. Woolgar
The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700, by Ronald Hutton