The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmastide
its History, Festivities and Carols

William Sandys, F. S. A.
London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Chapter 4 - Archie returning his Christmas Gift

When Henry the Eighth came to the throne the festivities at Christmas, as well as those at other seasons, were kept with great splendour. He was then young, of manly address, and tall handsome person, skilled in martial exercises, of great bodily strength and activity, and accomplished; fond of exhibiting his prowess; and, though naturally overbearing, possessed some chivalrous qualities in the early part of his reign, until freed from the advice of Wolsey, and spoiled by flattery and adulation, and the unrestrained indulgence of his passions; for, as the cardinal said of him in his dying state, “he is a prince of most royal courage; rather than miss any part of his will, he will endanger one half of his kingdom.” Had he not been so unfortunate as to rule in what was then a despotic monarchy, he might have passed through life as an impetuous, convivial, somewhat overbearing person, rather keeping his family in fear, but not much worse than characters we all now and then meet with in society, who bully their wives, children, servants, and clerks, bluster at committee meetings, and are somewhat troublesome members of clubs, As the ease was, however, he presents a memorable example of the effects of uncontrolled selfishness, pride, and passion.

Plays, masques, pageants, and similar diversions were frequent and splendid during this reign, or rather during the first half of it; for after Henry became interested in the reformed religion, and encumbered with the succession of his wives, and also grew unwieldy in shape, and unfitted for personally partaking in their amusements, they gradually fell off, both in magnificence and in frequency, till they nearly ceased altogether. In his younger days he was generally a performer, and a skilful one, in those pastimes; and numerous entries may be found of payments of every description connected with Christmas — such as for disguisings, lord of Misrule, New Year’s gifts, Christmas-boxes, &c. In his first year he kept it at Richmond with great royalty, and although there had not been time to arrange such a pageant or masque as we shall find in after-times, yet the lord of Misrule, whose payment, in the time of Henry the Seventh, never exceeded £6 13s. 4d., was paid £8 6s. 8d., which was afterwards increased to £15 6s. 8d. The lord of Misrule, in the first and several of the following years, was William Wynnesberry, who also appears in his father’s reign: other persons named in this office are, Richard Pole, Edmund Travore, and William Tolly.

Sir Walter Scott gives a humorous account (except to the sufferer) of the ill usage of an apparitor, or macer, of the see of St. Andrew, in 1547. He was sent with letters of excommunication against Lord Borthwick, and, unluckily for him, chose the time when the inmates of his castle were engaged in the revels of the Abbot of Unreason, as this festive ruler was called in Scotland. The unfortunate apparitor was of course looked on as an alien enemy, or an outlaw, or any other terrible thing, and was immediately seized and well ducked; after which he was compelled to eat the parchment letters of excommunication, which had been previously steeped in a bowl of wine, and then to drink off the wine. In the play of Sir John Oldcastle, a similar incident is introduced, but the sumner of the Bishop of Rochester, who is the sufferer there, and has to eat the waxen seal also, is told that “tough wax is the purest of the honey.”

In 1545, Sir Thomas Cawarden, who died 1560, was appointed master of the revels. In the same year payments were made to Robert Amadas, for plate of gold stuff for the disguising, of £451 12s. 2d.; and to William Buttry, for silk for the same purpose, of £133 7s. 5d.; so that, taking the difference of value of money into account, Henry began his reign with a determination to spare no expense in his entertainments, and subsequently the charges were much increased. In his second year the Christmas was kept at Richmond, and on the Twelfth Day we have a specimen of the pageants afterwards so much in fashion, though rather wild perhaps for our present tastes. This was devised like a mountain, glittering, as if with gold, and set with stones, on the top of which was a tree of gold, spreading out on every side with roses and pomegranates; it was brought towards the king, when out came a lady, dressed in cloth of gold, and the henchmen, or children of honour, who were dressed in some disguise, and they danced a morris before the king; after which they re-entered the mountain, which was drawn back, and then the wassail or banquet was brought in, and so ended the Christmas.1 These pageants must have been managed something like the pantomime or melo-dramatic devices we see on our own stage, and produced perhaps as much effect, taking into account the increase of modern fancy and expectation in this respect.

Pageant Before Henry The Eighth

In his third year, at Greenwich, there was a magnificent Christmas, with such abundance of viands for all corners of any honest behaviour, as had been seldom seen; and the invention of the devisers of pageants was taxed to the utmost, and dancing-masters were doubtless in request for the rehearsals; the clever Mr. Flexmore would have been invaluable. On New Year’s Night, there was erected in the hail, a castle, with gates, towers, and, dungeon, garnished with artillery, and other warlike weapons of the most approved form; and in the front of it was written its name, “Le Fortresse dangerus,” that is evidently, dangerous from the ladies’ eyes, and not from the warlike preparations. For in this castle were six fair ladies, no doubt selected for their grace and beauty, all clothed in russet satin, laid over with leaves of gold, and each hood knit with laces of blue silk and gold; and coife and caps of gold on their beads. From the abundance of gold on these occasions, we could almost imagine that some “diggins” must have been known then. ‘Well, after this castle, with the golden damsels in it, had been drawn about the hail, and the queen had seen it, (for Henry really was attached to her for the first few years of his reign,) in came the king with five select companions, dressed in coats, of which half was of velvet satin, with spangles of gold, the other half of rich cloth of gold, having on their heads caps of russet satin, embroidered with fine gold bullion. These gallant knights vigorously assaulted the castle, and the ladies seeing them so courageous, capitulated with them, and yielded it up, after which they came down and danced together for some time, when the ladies in their turn became the conquerors, and took the knights into the castle, which suddenly vanished out of sight; by which we must assume, not that they all vanished into the air, but that they were drawn out of the hail as fast as the living, and probably concealed machinery used for the purpose, could make away with them. The sports of this Christmas, however, were not yet at an end; for on the night of the Epiphany, the king and eleven chosen companions were disguised after the manner of Italy, called a mask, a thing not before seen in England; they were dressed in long and broad garments, wrought with gold, and had visors and caps of gold; and after the banquet they came in with six gentlemen, disguised in silk, bearing staff torches, and desired the ladies to dance. Some of them were content to do so, but others that knew the fashion of it refused, because it was a thing not commonly seen, something like the hesitation shown when the waltz, the polka, and other strange matters, were first introduced here, the passion for which, after a little time, made up for the shyness with which they were at first admitted into good society.

These pageants must have been gorgeous affairs, as far as dress and decorations, but would hardly suit the present taste; the descriptions here given will enable any one inclined (if any) to imitate them.

In the following year the Christmas was again kept at Greenwich, and on Twelfth Day a mount was introduced, ornamented with flowers of silk, and full of slips of broom, signifying Plantagenet; the branches being made of green satin, and the flowers of flat gold of Damascus. On the top was a goodly beacon giving light, round which sat the king and five others, dressed in coats and caps of crimson velvet, spangled and embroidered with gold. Four wodehouses (or wild men) drew the mount towards the queen, and then the king and his companions descended and danced; the mount then suddenly opened, and out came six ladies, dressed. in crimson satin, embroidered with gold and pearls, and with French hoods on their heads, and they danced by themselves for a time; after which the lords and ladies danced together; the ladies then re-entered the mount, which was conveyed out of the hail, and then there was a very sumptuous banquet.

These French hoods were probably a new fashion, and as fashions travelled into the country but slow in those times, when there were neither electric telegraphs, railroads, stagecoaches, newspapers, magazines, nor penny, nor, indeed, any other postage, they do not seem to have got into Cornwall much before the year 1550; for the wife of one of the prisoners condemned to suffer for the riot at that time, intending to go to beg his life, took so long to adjust her new French hood to her taste, that her husband was hung before she arrived. It is to be hoped that she was not taking this course of revenging Henry’s injuries to the sex.

In the fifth year of this reign, Sir Harry Guildford, master of the revels, immortalised his name by inventing an interlude, in which was a moresco dance of six persons and two ladies.

In the sixth year, there was another grand Christmas; and on Twelfth Night the pageant may be considered as a ballet of action, differing from some of modern times, simply in this: that in ours professing to mean something, the meaning cannot be discovered, while in these there was no meaning at all. On New Year’s Night the king and the Duke of Suffolk, his chivalrous brother-in-law, with two others, dressed in mantles, hose, doublets, and coats of cloth of silver, lined with blue velvet, the silver being pounsed, so that the velvet might be seen through, led in four ladies in gowns, after the fashion of Savoy, of blue velvet, lined with cloth of gold; and mantles like tippets, knit together of silver; with bonnets of burnished gold. They were accompanied by four torch-bearers, in white and blue satin. The fanciful attire of the party pleased much, especially the queen, into whose chamber they went and danced, after which they put off their visors, and made themselves known, when the queen heartily thanked the king for her goodly pastime, and kissed him; finding it necessary, in these early times, probably to flatter his vanity, and keep him in good humour.

On Twelfth Night we have the ballet, though what we should call now of limited interest. The king and the queen came into the hall at Greenwich, where’ this Christmas was kept, when suddenly a tent of cloth of gold entered; before it stood four men-at-arms, armed at all points, with swords in their hands, then, at the sound of trumpets, four more came in, and a fierce, but bloodless, combat ensued, of four to four; but before the victory could be awarded to either party, suddenly (again) there came out of a place like a wood, eight wild men, with ugly weapons and terrible visages, dressed in green moss made of silk, green moss being the assumed substance of which wild men make their apparel. These attacked the knights, but after a terrific combat of eight to eight, were driven out of the hall by the knights, who followed them. After these warlike representations the tent opened, and six ladies and six lords, richly apparelled, came out and danced; after which they again entered the tent, which was conveyed out of the hail; and then the king and queen were served with a right sumptuous banquet, which, indeed, formed an essential part of every entertainment.

There were payments made this Christmas to Leonard Friscobald of £247 12s. 7d., for velvets and silks for the disguising; and to Richard Gybson, for certain apparel for the same, of £137 14s. 0½d.; and, in after years, we find other similar payments to this Gybson; so that trade benefited by these amusements, which is a natural consequence.

In his seventh year Henry kept his Christmas at Eltham; and in the fine old hall there, on Twelfth Night, a castle was introduced, having in it ladies and knights dressed in braids of gold, with moving spangles, silver and gilt, set in crimson satin, and not fastened; the ladies’ heads and bodies being after the fashion of Amsterdam. This castle was attacked by certain vagrant knights, who were, however, repulsed after a severe struggle. Dancing then of course took place; and afterwards a banquet of 200 dishes, with great plenty to everybody.

In his eighth year, there was a grand Christmas at Greenwich and on Twelfth Night, the Queen of Scots also being a visitor an artificial garden was set up, called the Garden of Espérance. This had towers at each corner, and was surmounted with gilt rails, and the banks were all set with artificial flowers of silk and gold, the leaves being of green satin, “so that they seemed very flowers.” In the middle was a pillar of antique work, all gold, and set with pearls and stones, and on the top an arch crowned with gold, within which stood a bush of red and white roses of silk and gold, and a bush of pomegranates of like materials. Of course there were knights and ladies, richly apparelled, walking in this garden; there were indeed six of each, who came down and danced, and were afterwards conveyed out of the hail in the garden, and the entertainments concluded as usual with a great banquet. Our friend Richard Gybson had £130 19s. 0½d. for divers things bought by him for this disguising. In the following year, in consequence of the prevalence of the sweating sickness from July to December, there was no solemn Christmas kept at Court; but in several following years it was kept much as before, and it will be needless to multiply examples, especially as the pageants were in general of, a less marked description.

As, in nearly every year, there were payments made to sets of players, the highest being in general £4 to the king’s old players, who are distinguished from the king’s players, whose fee was usually but £3 6s. 5d., it seems that during the Christmas, on what may be called the off-nights, there were some performances by them. The children also of the king’s chapel gave their assistance, but their services were estimated higher, as there are several payments of £6 13s. 4d to Mr. Cornish, for playing before the king with them.

In his tenth year, also, the gentlemen of the king’s chapel had £13 6s. 8d. for their good attendance in Christmas, and there are similar charges in subsequent years.

In the eleventh year there was another mask, and Richard Gybson received £207 5s. 1½d. for the revels called “a maskelyn at New Flail, or Beaulieu, in Essex.

In the fourteenth year the Christmas was kept at Eltham, where the Cardinal made many reformations in the royal household, and all that had no masters were sent away; in modern phrase, no followers were allowed.

In the sixteenth year there were grand feats of arms, and an assault made on a strong artificial fort at Greenwich, where the king and the Duke of Suffolk distinguished themselves; the whole concluding with masks and dancing.

In his seventeenth year—in consequence of the prevalence of the plague according to historians, and partly perhaps because he was now maturing his plans for the possession of Ann Boleyn (who would not yield to him, as her sister Mary had done), and for the divorce of Queen Catherine, though not effected until long afterwards—the king kept his Christmas quietly at Eltham, whence it was called the still Christmas. Wolsey, however, would not follow his master’s example, and kept a royal Christmas at Richmond, with plays and disguisings, which gave much offence to see him keep an open court, and the king a secret one.

In the following year, however, the king made up for this intermission of revels, by keeping a solemn Christmas at Greenwich, with revels, masks, disguisings, and banquets; and there were justs kept on the 30th of December, and also on the 3d of January, where 300 spears were broken. Afterwards the king and fifteen others, in masking apparel, took barge, and went to the Cardinal’s place, where was a great company of lords and ladies at supper, —

"..........having heard by fame
Of this so noble and so fair assembly,
This night to meet here, they could do no less,
Out of the great respect they bear to beauty."2

The maskers danced, after which the ladies plucked away their visors, so that they were all known; and the sports were concluded with a great banquet. Previous to this time the Christmas festivities at the Inns of Court had become celebrated, and as we shall find, in subsequent reigns, surpassed those of the court in. fancy, and wit, and real splendour; nor is this a matter of surprise when we consider the concentration of talent that must always exist in these communities, some fresh from the universities, embued with classic lore, though in the age of which we are now writing perhaps somewhat pedantic; others, fraught with the accumulated knowledge of years, sharpened by the continual collision with intellects as keen as their own; and few perhaps are better able to appreciate true wit and humour than those who seek it as a relief from deep and wearing mental labour, not that all hard and plodding students can appreciate them, many are but what we used to call at school, muzzes, et prĉterea nihil.

That the entertainments were somewhat stiff or pedantic was of the spirit of the times, and yet there was a freedom in dancing “round about the coal fire,” which would scarcely suit the present day, though it would attract a considerable number of spectators to see the barristers, dressed in their best, singing and dancing, before the chancellor, judges, and benchers, and that on penalty of being disbarred; a threat absolutely held out, in the time of James the First, at Lincoln’s Inn, because they did not dance on Candlemas Day, according to the ancient order of the Society, and some were indeed put out of commons by decimation. Imagine an unfortunate suitor inquiring about a favourite counsel, who had his case at his fingers’ ends, and being told he was disbarred, because he had refused to dance the night before with his opponent’s counsel; the benchers not having taken into consideration the difficulty of a little man, as he was, polk-ing with a fat barrister, gown, and wig, and all. Dugdale gives the following programme of the performances at a date somewhat later than that of which we are now speaking. “First, the solemn revells (after dinner and the play ended,) are begun by the whole house, judges, sergeants-at-law, benchers; the utter and inner barr; and they led by the master of the revels; and one of the gentlemen of the utter barr are chosen to sing a song to the judges, sergeants, or masters of the bench; which is usually performed; and in default thereof there may be an amerciament. Then the judges and benchers take their places, and sit down at the upper end of the hall. Which done, the utter barristers and inner barristers perform a second solemn revel before them. Which ended, the utter barristers take their places and sit down. Some of the gentlemen of the inner barr do present the house with dancing, which is called the post revels, and continue their dances till the judges or bench think meet to rise and depart.” So that a barrister might be punished for not singing, as well as not dancing. Whether he was obliged to sing carols, or might choose his own song, such as, “Oh! brief is my joy,” “Ye shall walk in silk attire, and siller ha’ to spend,” “Bid me discourse,” &c., does not appear on record. Lincoln’s Inn celebrated Christmas as early as the time of Henry the Sixth, but the Temple and Gray’s Inn afterwards disputed the palm with it, and indeed the latter on some occasions seems to have surpassed the other Inns of Court.

The first particular account of any regulations for conducting one of these grand Christmasses, is in the ninth of Henry the Eighth, when, besides the King for Christmas Day, the marshal, and master of the revels, it is ordered that the King of the Cockneys on Christmas Day should sit and have due service, and that he and all his officers should use honest manner and good order, without any waste or destruction making in wines, brawn, chely, or other vitails; and also that he and his marshal, butler, and constable-marshal should have their lawful and honest commandments by delivery of the officers of Christmas; and that the said King of Cockneys nor none of his officers meddle neither in the buttery nor in the steward of Christmas his office, upon pain of forty shillings for every such meddling; and, lastly, “that Jack Straw and all his adherents should be thenceforth utterly banisht and no more to be used in this house, upon pain to forfeit, for every time, five pounds, to be levied on every fellow hapning to offend against this rule.”

Who this Jack Straw was, and what his offences were, does not appear, unless a kind of Wat Tyler against the peace and dignity of the King of Cockneys. One of the leaders of Wat Tyler’s insurrection, indeed, according to some accounts, the next in command, assumed the name of Jack Straw, others being called Wyl Wawe, Jack Shepherd, Tom Miller, and Hob Carter; besides the celebrated priest, John Ball, who began one of his sermons on Blackheath with

“When Adam dolue and Evah span,
Who was then a gentle—man?”

But there was also a Jack Straw hung and quartered in the eighth of Henry the Sixth.

In the eighteenth year of Henry, the Society of Gray’s Inn got into a worse difficulty than paying allegiance to Jack Straw, and that, too, in perfect innocence on their part; but they had a play or disguising, which had been in great part devised by Serjeant John Roe twenty years before. The plot was, that Lord Governance was ruled by Dissipation and Negligence, by whose misgovernance and evil order, Lady Public-weal was put from Governance, which caused Rumor populi, Inward grudge, and Disdain of wanton sovreignetie to rise with a great multitude to expel Negligence and Dissipation, and restore Public-weal again to her estate It was set forth with rich and costly apparel, with masks and morescoes, and was highly praised. But the proud Wolsey, who was then busying himself about the intended divorce, fancied it reflected on him, and sent in a great fury for the unlucky serjeant, took his coif from him, and sent him to the Fleet prison, together with one of the actors, Thomas Moyle of Kent, who probably gained this unenviable distinction by having excelled in the performance of the character intrusted to him all the actors were highly rebuked and threatened. Alter a time the matter was satisfactorily explained, and the captive revellers were liberated.3

It was found prudent from time to time to make regulations in respect to these revels, in order to limit the expenses, and, if possible, to check the rivalry between the different societies, and they were not therefore performed every year.

During the Christmas of 1529, Cardinal Wolsey, who had been disgraced a short time before, was dangerously ill, which produced a short return of favour with the selfish monarch, who became much worried with his state, and also the unsettled position of his own domestic arrangements for although it was supposed that Ann Boleyn was in fact living with him as his queen, yet no divorce had taken place from Catherine, who had still a strong party in her favour, and excited much sympathy. However, for the king’s recreation, a solemn Christmas was kept at Greenwich, with justs, banquets, masks and disguisings, attended by the two legates and many of the nobility; but the queen gave them no manner of countenance, her mind being so troubled, in the two following years she kept the Christmas with him, and there were masks and interludes; but in his twenty-third year, at a solemn Christmas at Greenwich, there was no mirth, the queen and her ladies being absent — like Queen Vashti she refused to come, and no wonder, for in a very few days after her royal estate was given unto another, and Henry publicly married Anne Boleyn. After this time he does not appear himself to have mixed in the Christmas festivities; though yearly entries may be found of payments to players, for playing before him, and sometimes to the gentlemen of the chapel, and the children as before, with occasional notices of solemn Christmasses; but his temper grew worse, and his zest for these amusements gradually less, as his age and person increased.

In the Christmas of his twenty-ninth year, after the death of Queen Jane in the previous October, he appeared in mourning apparel, which was somewhat unnecessary, as he had made an offer, although an unsuccessful one, to the Duchess Dowager of Longueville, within a month after the death of his wife. His Twelfth Day, 1540, was rather unlucky for him although great rejoicings were going forward, as he then married Anne of Cleves, from whom, as it is known, he was soon after divorced.

Card playing and other games were still continued, and different payments were made on this account; the king, one Christmas, having as much as £212 10s. for this purpose. Payments were made also to Princess Mary to disport her with at Christmas, generally £20, and in her own private accounts are payments at Christmas, varying from £1 to £4, to have in her purse and to play at cards. The Lady Anne Boleyn received as much as £100 at a time, towards her New Year’s Gift. The Princess Mary, from her childhood, had an establishment of her own, and was accustomed to these festivities before she had completed her sixth year, having a lord of Misrule, John Thurgoode, one of the valets of her household about this time; but the sanction of the great cardinal was necessary even for her; and in 1525 there is an application by the Council of her household to him, to know whether they may appoint a lord of Misrule, and provide for interludes, disguisings, or plays, and a banquet; and whether the princess was to send New Year’s Gifts to the king and queen, and the French queen, and of what value.4 The princess herself had received New Year’s Gifts as early as her third year, when the cardinal gave her a cup of gold; the French queen, a pomander; Lady Mountjoy, two smocks; a favourite gift by the bye, as we shall hereafter see that Queen Elizabeth had many of these, handsomely decorated, given to her. In after years we find at different times gifts of the following nature given to the Princess Mary. Lady Dorset and others gave her wrought smocks and handkerchiefs; her brother the prince, a little tablet of gold; the Princess Elizabeth, a little chain, and a pair of hose, wrought in gold and silk; the Lady Margaret, a gown of carnation satin of the Venice fashion; Lady Butler, a pepperbox, silver-gilt; the Earl of Hertford, a diamond ring; three Venetians, a fair steel glass; Mr. Thomas Hobbs, yeoman of the robes, a pair of silver snuffers; Mrs. Whelar, a pen and inkhorn, silver-gilt; the Italian dancer, a partlet of gold, wrought; Lady Brown, a fuming-box of silver; and the king’s master-cook, a marchpane; which was the usual present of this functionary. All the servants who brought these gifts had handsome presents in money in return, the king’s messenger having as much as forty shillings given him. Besides money gifts to her own household, and to the king’s minstrels and musicians, among whom the harper had 5s., she gave others of value in various Christmasses to distinguished persons; as, in 1543, a chair to the king, of which the covering and embroidery cost £21 6s. 8d.; also, to the lord admiral, a brooch of gold, of the history of Moses striking water out of the rock, and a balas set in the same; she herself having a brooch of the history of Noah’s flood, set with little diamonds and rubies; the king, and the queen for the time being, and the Prince Edward, as we may imagine, also received gifts from his sisters; and on one occasion the Lady Elizabeth gave him a cambric shirt of her own working.5 In the present day it would probably have been a couvrette, or an embroidered smoking cap, though he was rather young for that, His times were innocent of this strange fashion, though they had quite sufficient eccentricities of their own to answer for. It is a pity that the recent act, compelling chimneys to consume their own smoke, does not extend to smokers; it is almost worth while mooting the point, whether it does or not.

The nobility kept the feast in manner similar to the court, making allowance for difference of station. They had their lord of Misrule, or master of the revels, and their minstrels, their players, with their interludes and disguisings; the chaplain being frequently the maker of the interludes; and most minute rules were laid down to regulate the different payments and gifts. The Earl of Northumberland, whose household book has been so often quoted in illustration of the manners and customs of this age, used to give, when he was at home, to those of his chapel, if they played the play of the Nativity on Christmas Day, 20s.; and to his master of the revels, 20s.; to the king’s servant, bringing a New Year’s gift, he gave £5, or if a special friend of his own, £6 13s. 4d.; to the queen’s servant, £3 6s. 8d.; but to the servant (probably a domestic), bringing one from Lord Percy only 12d.; to his three minstrels, on New Year’s Day, for playing at the chamber doors of the different members of the family £1 3s. 4d.; to his six trumpets, 20s.; to his officer of arms, for crying largess, 20s.; to the grooms of his chamber, to put in their box, 20s,; to the abbot of Misrule, 20s.; to his chaplain for making an interlude, the price seems to be 13s. 4d., rather moderate when compared with the other gifts. Different presents also to various sets of players; also 20s each to the barne-bishops (boy-bishops) of Beverley and York, showing that the custom still existed.

Traces of the boy-bishop may be found as far back as the Constantinopolitan synod in 867, and as early as Edward the First’s reign, one of them was permitted to sing vespers before him at Heton, near Newcastle, in 1299, when on his way to Scotland, and received forty shillings for himself and the boys who sang with him. In the time of Edward the Second payments were made to this personage; and Dean Cold, in his regulations for St. Paul’s School, 1512, directs the scholar to go every Childermas Day to St. Paul’s to hear the child-bishop’s sermon, and each to offer him a penny. Henry the Eighth, however, put down the custom, which was revived by Queen Mary, but finally abolished by Elizabeth.6

The Earl of Northumberland’s three henchmen presented him with gloves, and received 6s. 8d. in return; and his footmen also gave him gloves, and received 3s. 4d. in reward. My lord and lady were accustomed to make offerings at high mass on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Twelfth Day; but of rather small amount, his lordship’s being 12d. and her ladyship’s 8d. In lesser establishments there was, of course, less state and smaller payments; and in the household accounts of the Lestranges of Hunstanton, in the eleventh of Henry, is a payment of 4d, to the Lord of Christmas, at Kyngstede.7 Different sums also are charged for New Year’s gifts.

The lower classes still continued the customs of their forefathers, but occasionally required sonic cheek, to prevent their revelries becoming of too gross a description, and to amend abuses, In the third of Henry the Eighth, people were forbidden to appear abroad like mummers, their faces covered with vizors, and in disguised apparel. But it was by no means the intention to debar them from proper recreations during this season; many indulgences being afforded them, and their landlords and masters assisted them with the means of enjoying their customary festivities, listening to their legendary tales round the Yule-log, and occasionally joining in their sports; a practice scarcely yet obsolete in sonic parts of the country, and pity it should become so.

“A Christmas gambol oft’ would cheer
The poor man’s heart through half the year.”

In the thirty-third of Henry, when certain games were forbidden to artificers, husbandmen, apprentices, servants, and others of that class, they were still allowed to play at tables, tennis, dice, cards, bowls, clash, coyting, and logating, at Christmas; though there is a proclamation by the Sheriff of York, where the privilege is extended beyond our ideas of liberality, as all manner of whores and thieves, dice-players, cavilers, and all other unthrifty folk, were to be welcome in the town, whether they came late or early, at the reverence of the high feast of Yule, till the twelve days were passed.8 One fancies a spice of irony in this invitation. Heywood, the epigrammatist, at a little later date, used to say, that he did not like to play at king and queen, but at Christmas, according to the old order of England; and that few men played at cards, but at Christmas; and then almost all, men and boys. Heywood evidently had not been initiated into any of our whist clubs, or he would have found not a few who play at other times than Christmas. And as to that time, there are still many houses where cards are regularly produced on Christmas Day, a practice which, certainly, to those unaccustomed to it, even the old order of England will not qualify.

There is a story told of an ambitious shoemaker, whose Christmas coat was spoiled, in the reign of Henry, by his seeking to imitate his superiors; and this at a time when the distinction of apparel was marked, and not as at present, when simplicity of dress is frequently the best mark of a gentleman. Sir Philip Calthrop, having bought as much fine French tawney cloth as would make him a gown, gave it to a tailor, at Norwich, to make up, when John Drake, a shoemaker, passing by, and admiring it, ordered one of the same materials and fashion. Sir Philip, calling in on a subsequent day, and seeing a similar gown-piece asked for whom it was made, when he was told it was for a shoemaker, and to be of the same fashion as his own upon which, his pride being touched, he ordered the tailor to make his gown as full of cuts as his shears would make it. The tailor fulfilled his directions, and performed the same operation for the gown of the unfortunate shoemaker, who, by some accident, could not go to fetch it away until Christmas morning, intending, no doubt, to astonish his wife and dazzle his companions with his splendour. On seeing the havoc made in his intended state dress, he began to cry out vehemently, but was told it was made exactly like the knight’s; upon which he exclaimed, “By my latchet, I will never wear gentleman’s fashion again.”9

Payments were made by Henry the Eighth to waits, at Canterbury, as they were by Henry the Seventh, as well as at other places. These, however, were not at Christmas time, nor were they peculiar to. Christmas but formed part of the musical establishments of the court and the nobility. Originally, indeed, they do not seem of necessity to have been of a musical class; or, at any rate, there were some who were not so; as, in the time of Henry the Third, Simon le Wayte held a virgate of land at Rockingham, in Northamptonshire, on the tenure of being castle-wayte, or watch, and the same custom was observed in other places.10 This Simon le Wayte fled for theft, and was not the only suspected person of his craft: for, at the time the treasury exchequer was broken open and robbed, in the time of Edward the First, Gilbertus le Wayte, who was keeper of the watch, was very naturally taken up on suspicion, but it does not appear what was done with him.11 After this the wait seems to have been a musician, usually playing the pipe or hautboy, who kept watch at night, and made bon guet at the different chamber doors, particularly at Christmas time; and Edward the Fourth had one attached to his establishment for this purpose. In the old lay of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, there is notice of —

“A wayte ther corn in a kernel (battlement),
And a pypyd a moot in a flagel” (flageolet).

Among the minstrels in the household of Edward the Third, there were three waits, who had 12d. a day in time of war, and only 20s. a year in time of peace. Henry the Sixth also had one in his household, and frequent mention is made of them from his time to the end of Henry the Eighth, and in subsequent reigns. In Charles the First’s band, of fifty-eight, there were twenty-five for the waits and, as is well known, they exist to the present time; the regular wait even exhibiting his regular appointment and badge, with the portcullis, although waking people at most irregular hours, and with most irregular tunes. The City of London had its waits, who attended the Lord Mayor on public occasions, such as Lord Mayor’s day, and on public feasts, and great dinners. They are described as having blue gowns, red sleeves and caps, every one having his silver collar about his neck. Several other towns also had their own establishments of waits, and there are many entries of payments made to them by our kings, and other great personages; as, to the waits of Canterbury, before mentioned, those of Colchester — as far back as Edward the Fourth — Dover, Coventry, Northampton, Newcastle, &c,; and as they appear to have been on the watch to catch any great person that came in their way, they would seem to have handed down this part of their trade to the bell-ringers of the present age, part of whose occupation appears to be to get paid for not ringing. One of the old towers in Newcastle was formerly called the wait’s tower, and was the place of their meeting. There is a tradition of their having played to Oliver Cromwell, on his route to or from Scotland.

Notes from Sandys:

1. Hall's, Holinshed's, and Baker's Chronicles may be consulted for this and most of the Christmas revels in the time of Henry VIII; also Collier's Annals of the Stage, for many particulars of payments and gifts. Return

2. Henry VIII, i. 4. Return

3. Hall's Chronicle. Return

4. Ellis's Original Letters, i, 271. (Cotton MS. Vespasian, F. xiii.). Return

5. Cotton MS. Appendix, xxviii. Return

6. Strutt's Sports, &c. 305. Return

7. Archĉologia, xxv, 422. Return

8. Leland's Itinerary, iv. 182. Return

9. Camden's Remains, 262. Return

10. Archĉological Journal, No. 4, 367. Return

11. Kalendars of the Exchequer, i, 269. Return

Go To Previous PageGo to Top of PageGo to Home PageGo To Next Page

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.


Related Hymns and Carols