The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

The Boars Head Feast

William Sandys

Christmas-tide: Its History, Festivities and Carols, With Their Music
The Christmas-tide

London: John Russell Smith, 1852

Excerpt from Chapter 02, Froissart's Christmas Log

Context: Henry the Third, in his twenty-sixth year, directed the sheriff of Gloucester, to cause twenty salmons to be bought for the king, and put into pies against Christmas; and the sheriff of Sussex to buy ten brawns with the heads, ten peacocks, and other provisions for the same feast. [emphasis added]


Caption: Ushering In The Boar's Head

The boar’s head just referred to was the most distinguished of the Christmas dishes, and there are several old carols remaining in honour of it,

"At the begynnyng of the mete,
Of a borys hed ye schal hete,
And in the mustard ye shal wete;
               And ye shal syngyn or ye gon.”

The dish itself, though the “chief service in this land,” and of very ancient dignity — probably as old as the Saxons, — was not confined to Christmas; for, in [June 14] 1170, when King Henry the Second had his son Henry crowned in his own lifetime, he himself, to do him honour, brought up the boar’s head with trumpets before it, “according to the manner.” It continued the principal entry at all grand feasts, and was frequently ornamented. At the coronation feast of Henry the Sixth there were boars’ heads in “castellys of golde and enamell.”

By Henry the Eighth’s time it had become an established Christmas dish, and we find it ushered in at this season to his daughter the Princess Mary, with all the usual ceremonies, and no doubt to the table of the monarch himself, who was not likely to dispense with so royal a dish; and so to the time of Queen Elizabeth, and the revels in the Inns of Court in her time, when at the Inner Temple a fair and large boar’s head was served on a silver platter, with mistrelsy.

At the time of the celebrated Christmas dinner, at Oxford, in 1607, the first mess was a boar’s head, carried by the tallest of the guard, having a green scarf and an empty scabbard, preceded by two huntsmen, one carrying a boar spear and the other a drawn faucion, and two pages carrying mustard, which seems to have been as indispensable as the head itself. A carol was sung on the occasion, in the burden of which all joined.

Queen’s College, Oxford, was also celebrated for its custom of bringing in the boar’s head with its old carol. Even in the present day, though brawn, in most cases, is considered as a sort of substitute, the boar’s head with lemon in his mouth may be seen, though rarely, and when met with, may be safely recommended as a dainty; but some of the soi-disant boars’ heads seen at Christmas in a pompous state of whiskerless obesity, may without disparagement, take Lady Constance’s words literally and “hang a calf skin on their recreant limbs.”

Brawn is probably as old as boar’s head; but the inventor of such an arrangement of hogsflesh must have been a genius, and would have been a patentee in our days, and probably have formed a joint-stock brawn association. We have just observed it in the time of Henry the Third, and the ‘begging frere,’ in ‘Chaucer’s Sompnoure’s Tales,’ says, “geve us of your braun, if ye have any,” and it may be found in most of the coronation and grand feasts; even in the coronation feast of Katharine, queen to Henry the Fifth, in 1421, brawn and mustard appear, though the feast was intended to be strictly a fish dinner, and with this exception and a little confectionary, really was so, comprising, with other marine delicacies, “fresh sturgion with welks,” and “porperous rosted,” the whole bill of fare, however, would match even the ministerial whitebait dinner.

This is not the only instance where brawn was ranked with fish; for when Calais was taken, there was a large quantity there; so the French, guessing it to be some dainty, tried every means of cooking it; they roasted it, boiled it, baked it, but all in vain, till some imaginative mind suggested a trial au naturel, when its merits were discovered. But now came the question, in what class of the animal creation should it be placed? The monks tasted and admired: “Ha! ha!” said they, "capital fish!" and immediately placed it on their list of fast-day provisions. The Jews were somewhat puzzled, but a committee of taste, of the most experienced elders, decided that it certainly was not any preparation from impure swine, and included it in their list of clean animals.

At the coronation of Henry the Seventh, a distinction was made between “brawne royall,” and “ brawne,” the former probably being confined to the king’s table. Brawn and mustard appear to be as inseparable as the boar’s head and mustard, and many directions respecting them may be found at early feasts. In the middle of the sixteenth century brawn is called a great piece of service, chiefly in Christmas time, but as it is somewhat hard of digestion, a draught of malvesie, bastard, or muscadell is usually drunk after it, where either of them is conveniently to be had.

Even the two rundlets,
The two that was our hope, of muscadel,
(Better ue’er tongue tript over,) these two cannons,
To batter brawn withal, at Christmas, sir, —
Even these two lovely twins, the enemy
Had almost cut off clean.”

At the palace, and at the revels of the Inns of Court, it seems to have been a constant dish at a Christmas breakfast. Tusser prescribes it amongst his good things for Christmas, and it has so remained to the present time.


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