The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Christmas Prince

Source: Brand's Popular Antiquities Of Great Britain

W. Carew Hazlitt, Faith and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated.

Forming A New Edition of "The Popular Antiquities of Great Britain" By Brand and Ellis, Largely Extended, Corrected, Brought Down To The Present Time, and Now First Alphabetically Arranged.

In Two Volumes

London: Reeves and Turner, 1905.

Vol. 1, pp. 122-25

In an audit book of Trinity College, Oxford, for 1559 Warton found a disbursement "Pro prandio Principis Natalicii." A Christmas Prince, or Lord Of Misrule, he adds, corresponding to the imperator at Cambridge, was a common temporary magistrate in the Colleges at Oxford. Wood, in his Athenæ, speaking of the "Christmas Prince of St. John’s College, whom the Juniors have annually for the most part elected from the first foundation of the College, says: "The custom was not only observed in that College, but in several other houses, particularly in Merton College, where, from the first foundation, the Fellows annually elected, about St. Edmund’s Day, in November, a Christmas Lord or Lord of Misrule, styled in the registers Rex Fabarum and Rex Regni Fabarum; which custom continued till the Reformation of Religion, and then, that producing Puritanism, and Puritanism Presbytery, the profession of it looked upon such laudable and ingenious customs as popish, diabolical and antichristian." It is to be collected from the pageant known as the Christmas Prince, that the students of St. John’s College, Oxford, met on All-Hallow Eve 1607, and a fire was lighted in the Hall, "accordinge to the custome and status of the same place, at wch time the whole companye, or most part of the students of the same house mette toogether to beginne their Christmas." On the next night, November 1, it seems, a second meeting was appointed, when it was proposed, for the preservation of order and peace, that a Christmas Lord or Prince of the Revels, should be chosen, We learn that no Christmas Lord had been created since 1577. In the present case, Thomas Tucker obtained a majority of suffrages, and being elected in his absence, was sought for carried in triumph about the hall, and afterwards allowed to return to his own quarters, "to thinke of their loues and good will, and to consider of his owne charge and place." Is it worth while to inquire, if Thomas Tucker, Esq., had any conection with little Tom Tucker of the nursery rhyme?

Of this splendid and gay pageant there is the following contemporary description — "On Christmas day in ye morning he (the Christmas lord or prince) was attended vnto prayers by ye whole company, of the Bacchelours, and some others of his gentlemen vshers, bare before him. At diner beinge sett downe in ye Hall at ye high table in ye Vice Priesidents place (for ye Præsident himself was then allso psent) hee was serued wth 20 dishes to a messe, all wch were brought in by gentlemen of ye howse attired in his guards coats, vshered in by ye L’5 Comptroller, and other officers of ye Hall. The first mess was a boar’s head, wch was carried by ye tallest and lustiest of all ye guard, before whom, (as attendants) wente first, one attired in a horsemans coate, wth a boars-speare in his hande, next to him an other huntsman in greene, wth a bloody falscion drawne; next to him 2 pages in tafatye sarcenet, each of yem wth a mess of mustard next to whome came hee yt carried ye boares-head, crost wth a greene silk scarfe, by wch hunge ye empty scabbard of ye faulchion,  wch was carried before him." As the boar’s head entered the hail, they sang a carol, and during the dinner the prince’s musicians played. They had been sent for from Reading, because the town-music, it appears, had given His Highness "the slip," as they always did when any one wanted them particularly."

After supper there was an interlude, "contaynynge the order of ye Saturnalls, and shewinge the first cause of Christmas-candles, and in the ende there was an application made to the Day and Natiuitie ot Christ." On the 26th, it had been intended to perform the tragical show of Philomela, but the carpenters were behindhand, and the show had to be postponed until the 29th. It seems that the person who represented Philomela on this occasion had so sweet a voice that the audience only regretted that it should be lost, and the coeval narrator quaintly says that they "could have found in their hartes that the story should have rather been falsified then so good a voyce lost." On New Year’s Day the Prince sent to the President of St. John’s, by the hands of Mr. Richard Swinnerton, one of the squires of his body, a pair of gloves, with these two verses

"The prince and his councell in signe of their loves,
Present you their President with these paire of gloves."

For further particulars of the quasi-dramatic exhibitions, and other merry-makings during the twelve days of Christmas, see the tract itself in Miscellanea Antiqua Anglicana, 1816.

Warton tells us that in an original draught of the statutes of Trinity College, Cambridge, founded in 1546, one of the Chapters is entitled, "De Præfecto Ludorum qui Imperator dicitur," under whose direction and authority Latin comedies and tragedies are to be exhibited in the Hall at Christmas; as also six spectacula, or as many dialogues. With regard to the peculiar business and office of Imperator, it is ordered, that one of the masters of arts shall be placed over the juniors every Christmas, for the regulation of their games and diversions at that season of festivity. His sovereignty is to last during the twelve days of Christmas: and he is to exercise the same power on Candlemas Day. His fee is forty shillings. Fuller, in his "Good Thoughts in Worse Times," 1647, p. 139, tells us: "Some sixty yeares since, in the University of Cambridge, it was solemnly debated betwixt the heads to debarre young schollers of that liberty allowed them in Christmas, as inconsistent with the discipline of students. But some grave governors mentioned the good use thereof, because thereby, in twelve days, they more discover the dispositions of scholars than in twelve moneths before." The Lords of Misrule in colleges were preached against at Cambridge by the Puritans in the reign of James the First, as inconsistent with a place of religious education and as a relict of the Pagan ritual.

An account of a splendid Christmas festival in the Inner Temple is given by Gerard Leigh in his Accidence of Armoury, 1562. The hero of the occasion was Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who assumed the designation of Palaphilos, Prince of Sophie. He was entertained by a chosen member of the Inn playing the part for the time of a sovereign prince, as at the Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn, and was attended by his Lord Chancellor, Privy Seal, Treasurer, Lord Chief Justice, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, besides many other dignitaries of the law and upward of four-score guars. Dugdale, speaking of the Fooleries of the Lord of Misrule there on St. Stephen’s Day [December 26], says: "Supper ended, the Constable-Marshall presented himself with drums afore him, mounted upon a scaffold born by four men, and goeth three times round about the harthe, crying out aloud, ‘A Lord, a Lord,’ &c. Then he descendeth, and goeth to dance, &c., and after he calleth his Court, every one by name, e.g. Sir Handle Rackabite, of Raskall-Hall, in the County of Rake-hell, &c. &c. This done, the Lord of Misrule addresseth himself to the banquet: which ended, with some minstralsye, mirth, and dancing, every man departeth to rest." A very magnificent pageant was exhibited at the Inner Temple in the Christmas which immediately succeeded the Restoration; Charles II. and many of the nobility were present in person.

When the Societies of the Law performed these show’s within their own respective refectories, at Christmas, or any other festival, a Christmas prince or revel-master was constantly appointed. At a Christmas celebrated in the Hall of the Middle Temple in the year 1635, the jurisdiction, privileges, and parade of this mock-monarch are thus circumstantially described. He was attended by his lord-keeper, lord treasurer, with eight white staves a captain of his band of pensioners, and of his guard; and with two chaplains, who were so seriously impressed with an idea of his regal dignity, that when they preached before him on the preceding Sunday in the Temple Church, on ascending the pulpit they saluted him with three low bows. He dined both in the hall and in his privy chamber under a cloth of estate. The pole-axes for his gentlemen pensioners were borrowed of Lord Salisbury. Lord Holland, his temporary Justice in Eyre, supplied him with venison on demand, and the lord mayor and sheriffs of London with wine. On twelfth-day, at going to church, he received many petitions, which he gave to his master of requests: and, like other kings, he had a favourite, whom with others, gentlemen of high quality, he knighted at returning from church. His expences, all from his own purse, amounted to two thousand pounds. After he was deposed, the King knighted him at Whitehall. In MS. Ashmole, 826, is a copy of the Writ of Privy Seal of the Christmas Prince of the Middle Temple, signed "Ri. Pr. de l’amour," directed ‘‘To our trusty and well-beloved servant, Mr. John Garrett," during his attendance at court, 26 Dec. 1635. Garrett was the person to whom Taylor the water-poet inscribed one of his facetious publications.

These events were not always restricted to Christmas itself, for a masque, composed at very short notice by Sir William Davenant, was exhibited in the Middle Temple Hail 24 February, 1635, in honour of the Elector Palatine under the title of The Triumphs of the Prince D’Amour, with music and symphonies by Henry and William Lawes. In 1660 appeared a volume of miscellaneous poems entitled Le Prince D’Amour and dedicated to the authorities of the Middle Temple. Dugdale, speaking of the Christmas festivities kept in Lincoln’s Inn, cites an order dated 9th Hen. VIII., "that the King of Cockneys, on Childermas Day [December 28], 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 wine, brawn, chely, or other vitals: as 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, ne none of his officers medyl neither in the buttery, nor in the stuard of Christmas his office, upon pain of 40s. for every such medling. 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 hapuing to offend against this rule." Orig. Juridiciales, 247. The King of Cockneys may be concluded to be the same character as Dugdale elsewhere describes, where he states that the Inn chose a king on Christmas Day.

At Gray’s Inn they had their Prince of Purpool or Portypool — the Manor in which the Inn lies — and in 1594 was performed here the Gray’s Inn Masque by Francis Davison, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth and her Court, It was ostensibly devised by his Highness’s command. This performance remained in MS. till 1688. See Hazlitt’s Manual of Old Plays, 1892, v. Gesta Grayorum. The Inn had distinguished itself so early as 1566 by presenting English dramatic versions of the Jocasta of Euripides (through an Italian version of Seneca's paraphrase), and the Suppositi of Ariosto. Dugdale, in his "Origines Juridiciales," p. 286 speaking of "Orders for Government — Gray’s Inne," cites an order of 4 Car. I. (Nov. 17) that "all playing at dice, cards, or otherwise, in the hall, buttry, or butler’s chamber should be thenceforth barred and forbidden at all times of the year, the twenty days in Christmas onely excepted." An entertaining account of this annual buffoonery at the Inns of Court is given in "Noctes Templarie," 1599. I must beg leave to refer the reader to this work, as the narrative is too long for transcription, and would scarcely bear curtailment. Manning’s Mem. of Sir B. Ruddyerd, 1841. A Christmas Prince or King, however, acquired as early as Henry the Eighth’s time a contemptuous signification, for in a letter of 1537 the Curate of St. Margaret’s, Lothbury, writing to a correspondent at Plymouth, says, that the people made no more of God than if he had been "a Christmas King." And indeed, at Lincoln’s Inn, according to what we have heard from Dugdale, he does not appear ever to have possessed so great a prestige or so exalted a jurisdiction as elsewhere. Churchyard, in the "Lamentacion of Freyndshypp," a ballad printed about 1565, says:

"Men are so used these dayes wyth wordes,
They take them but for jestes and boordes,
That Christmas Lordes were wonte to speke."

Guilpin, in his "Skialetheia," 1598, figures a man, who has been in the service of one of these characters, assuming on that account, lofty airs, and maintaining a disdainful silence —

"Thinks soorne to speake, especially now since
H’ hath beene a player to a Christmas Prince."

Langley’s Translation of Polydore Vergil, fol. 102 verso, mentions "The Christemass Lordes, that be commonly made at the nativitee of our Lorde, to whom all the householde and familie, with the Master himselfe, must be obedient, began of the equabilitie that the servauntes had with their masters in Saturnus Feastes that they were called Saturnalia: wherein the servauntes have like autoritie with their masters duryng the tyme of the sayd feastes."

Editor's Note: I regret that I am unable to provide a translation of any Latin or French passages.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

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