A Christmas in Tudor England was very different to the festive season of today. We have our Christmas trees, Father Christmas in his red costume, Christmas crackers and not forgetting Christmas trees with their sparkling lights.
I thought you may be interested to read about the festivities enjoyed by the Tudors in the 16th Century. These will have been enjoyed by such famous historical figures as King Henry VIII, Queen Anne Boleyn and their daughter Queen Elizabeth I.
I publish this article every year at the festive season for anyone who missed it!
Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 – Henry VIII was one of the first people to eat it as part of his Christmas meal. Goose was also consumed – in 1588 Elizabeth I invited everyone to eat it for their Christmas dinner. It was the first meal consumed after the Spanish Armada and Elizabeth believed that it would be a good tribute to the Sailors. Peacocks were also on the menu for the rich. Tradition was to skin the bird first, it was cooked and the meat was placed back into the skin to create a decoration for the table. A wild boar was cooked on Christmas Day in the homes of the wealthy and its head was also used as a table decoration. The cooking make the meat pale so the head was decorated with pigs grease and soot so it would more lifelike! A popular vegetable for the Christmas menu were Brussel sprouts, they were first mentioned in recipes around 1587.
‘Souse’ pickled pig’s feet and ears were a popular Christmas dish – although I admit I don’t think I would fancy it!
Meat, oatmeal and spices were the main ingredients for their Christmas Puddings. The Tudors also ate mince pies that were shaped like a cribs (this practice was outlawed when Oliver Cromwell came to power as it was deemed blasphemous)!
A Tudor Christmas Pie consisted of a Turkey stuffed with a goose – then stuffed with a chicken – then stuffed with a partridge and finally stuffed with a pigeon – all of this was put in a pastry case, called a cheerfully – a coffin!
A favourite drink at Christmas during this period was punch – this was made in a large wooden bowl called a Wassail bowl – the drink was made of sugar, hot ale and spices. At the bottom of the Wassail bowl was a crust of bread, the drink was offered to the most important person in the room and then passed around. This was the origin of a ‘toast’ today which part of our drinking ritual.
Lambswool was a drink made from roasted apples, beer, nutmeg, ginger and sugar – the froth on the top of the drink gave this beverage its name.
The Tudors also had their Family Coat of Arms made from salads which accompanied the meal.
Twelfth cake was a fruitcake eaten on twelfth night. It had a dried bean or coin hidden inside – you became the ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ for the evening and host/hostess for the nights entertainments if you were fortunate enough to find this object.
The Tudor banquets were very lavish affairs – as many as 24 courses were included.
CHRISTMAS TREE AND DECORATIONS
The origin of our Christmas tree may have come from Martin Luther. On a journey home he was struck by the beauty of the stars shining through the fir tree – so Luther cut off the top of one of the smaller trees and took it home – he placed small candles on the ends of the branches to resemble stars.
The Tudors however did not adopt this custom – instead they decorated their homes on Christmas Eve with holly, ivy, mistletoe, box, laurel and yew.
One of the most enduring customs in England was called the KISSING BOUGH – a hoop, or sphere was woven from willow, ash or hazel wood. A small figure of the Holy Family or a figure of the Christ child was placed in the middle. As mistletoe is an evergreen and was regularly used to make the Bough – this evolved into the popular tradition ‘Kissing under the Mistletoe’.
IN 1521 the earliest recorded published collection of Carols was recorded – they include the famous ‘Boars Head Carol’. Throughout Tudor times Carols were sung to celebrate Christmas and to spread the story of the Jesus’s birth. In the seventeenth century they sadly came to an end when the Puritans banned all festivities which included Christmas.
The Victorians reinstated the concept of an ‘Olde English Christmas’ during the 19th century and only then did Carols return.
The following Christmas carols would have been sung by the Tudors- We Wish You a Merry Christmas, The First Nowell, The Coventry Carol, , Ding Dong Merrily on High and In Dulci Jubilo.
In 1541 Henry VIII, had a law introduced which banned all sports on Christmas Day except archery. In 1551 another law was passed – this time by his son King Edward VI to say that everybody had to walk to church on Christmas Day when they attended a church service – this apparently is still the law today.
A law was also passed in 1550 by the church to say that Jesus was so pure that he did not need a bath so banned all pictures of baby Jesus having a bath. Therefore it was deemed illegal to paint a picture of Jesus being bathed by his parents.
On Christmas Day the monarch took part in the traditional “laying on of hands” – this ritual transferred the King’s “healing” power to those afflicted with skin ailments or illness.
The Tudor Festival spanned twelve days from December 25th to January 6th culminating in Christmas. The most important days were Saints Days – which were Dec. 25th, Jan. 1st, and Jan 6th.
Things were turned inside out and upside down, allowing some sections of society unusual freedoms.
All work was halted except for the care of animals throughout this period. Spinning which was the major occupation of women was stopped and their spinning wheels were surrounded by flowers. On Plough Monday, the first Monday following the twelfth night all work would start again.
A Lord of Misrule ‘The King of Christmas’, was appointed during the festive season. He was like a mock King – he would oversee unruly events and all types of entertainment. These included revelry, drinking, general chaos and role reversal. On the Twelfth Night his ‘rule’ ended.
One of the games the Tudors would have been familiar with was Blind Man’s Bluff! The ‘Lord of Misrule’ may have been the inspiration for this game however the fear of public disorder and mayhem that accompanied the events led to the institution being discouraged during the latter part of the 16th Century.
One tradition was the practice of electing a choir boy or alter boy as “boy bishop”. This was to show the boy the honour and dignity of Holy Orders. He would assume all the duties except taking Mass but he would preach a sermon and go on parishioner visits. King Henry VIII banned this practice in 1541 because it was mocking church authorities and the head of the church who was Henry.
All courtiers were required to attend the festivities at Court. The only acceptable excuses for a not appearing during this period were severe illness, war, crusades and childbirth. At the court of Elizabeth I all the male nobles had to stay at her court for the whole 12 days of Christmas. Many a noblewoman was left alone during this period if they chose not to attend.
Another Christmas tradition was ‘Mumming’ the performance of plays. Both Oxford and Cambridge colleges employed travelling players in their productions during the 16th Century. The story of Christ was told in mystery plays – these are still performed in York to this day. During the Tudor reign the plays also started to include various games as well as song and dance.
THE YULE LOG
The burning of the Yule Log at this period is thought to originate from the early Viking invaders midwinter ritual. They built large bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. An alternative term for Christmas is the word ‘Yule’ it has existed for centuries.
The Tudors exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day unlike our modern tradition of giving on Christmas Day. The King expected and was given a gift from everyone of any importance and a gift would be given in return. During this period rejection or acceptance of a gift was extremely important at the Tudor court.
Perhaps the best example of this occurred in 1532 when Henry VIII accepted an exotic set of richly decorated Pyrenean boar spears as a New Year’s present from Anne Boleyn but rejected Katherine of Aragon’s gold cup.
In 1534 Anne Boleyn presented Henry with a table fountain made of silver gilt. It contained rosewater pumped into a basin so that diners could rinse their hands. She also had a Basle Cup made by Hans Holbein – it was fashioned with satyrs and a crown cover. It included Anne’s device – a white falcon standing on roses.
The custom of exchanging gifts at court served a political purpose. The nobles used it to show off their wealth, gain favour with the King and assert their status. King Henry VIII showed his pleasure or displeasure by rejecting or accepting gifts. Courtiers jostled for position to see who had given or received the most important presents.
During the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas the nobles and rich courtiers were lavishly costumed to play their part in the court drama. It provided them with an opportunity to wear their most fabulous and finest costumes. The poorer courtiers had to try their best to maintain a glamorous image – obviously no-one dare outshine the King or Queen.
At Christmas the monarch would don the official Crown of State, a massive gold headpiece and wear ermine – that most regal of furs. Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I consistently rose to the fashion-occasion as well. They used costume to emphasize both their power, wealth and status.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was a very successful gift giver – he gave Elizabeth I many presents. On the first Christmas of her reign Elizabeth I was presented with elegant silk stockings – she loved them so much she never wore woollen stockings again. He also presented Elizabeth with what is believed to be the world’s first wristwatch . . . appropriately bedecked in sparkling jewels. She also received New Year gifts of gold, silver and rock crystal handled forks.
INTERESTING FESTIVE FACTS
Katherine of Aragon gave birth to a son on New Year’s Day in 1511. The baby was named after King Henry VIII – he was so happy he extended the Christmas court to include a grand tournament and pageant at Westminster. I sometimes wonder how different history may have been if this prince has lived longer than a few weeks!
In the 1520’s Henry VIII had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn and she became his official mistress. She was a very important guest at a number of Henry VIII’s Christmas Courts however she was conspicuously absent from the formal celebrations. Although Anne joined him for holidays at Greenwich for a period of three years she played a ‘behind the doors’ role for three consecutive years. Queen Katherine of Aragon for the sake of appearances appeared beside Henry at the Christmas celebrations through 1530.
In 1531 although she was not yet Queen of England Anne Boleyn she was housed in Greenwich in the Queens lodgings however she still avoided the formal Christmas celebrations at Court. By 1532 everything had changed – she was Queen in everything but name. The celebrations in 1532 were so lavish that temporary kitchens were erected in the palace grounds. It was possible that their daughter Queen Elizabeth I was conceived during merry making that particular Christmas.
The purpose of the Tudor Christmas was that “Christmas acted as a kind of pressure-release valve in the very strict Tudor society. It was a time when everything changed – things were turned ‘on their head’ – a lot of the traditions involved a kind of role reversal. People who were normally tightly controlled were given an amount of freedom.
The Christmas festivities of today seem to be becoming more and more commercial. I wonder were the days of Tudor Christmases past, with their royal excesses and intrigues really any better. Maybe not – however I can’t help thinking that, in their own different way they may have been a lot more fun than today. It would be really interesting to attend just one of them!
If you have enjoyed reading this article please send me a comment – it has taken me quite a while to write and it would be lovely to know that you enjoyed reading it – thank you!