The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Lord Of Misrule

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. 2, pp. 368-70

Lord of Misrule. “In the feast of Christmas,” says Stow in his “Survey,” “there was in the King's House, wheresoever he 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. The May or London and either of the sheriffs had their several lords of misrule, ever contending, without quarrel or offence, who should take the rarest pastime to delight the beholders these lords, beginning their rule at Allhallond Eve [October 31], continued the same till the morrow after the feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas Day [February 2]: in which space there were fine and subtle disguisings, masts, and mummeries, with playing at cards, for counters, nayels, and points at every house, more for pastimes than for gaine.”

Ellis prints a letter from the Council of the Princess Mary's household to Cardinal Wolsey, supposed to have been written in 1525, several years before the date of the “Privy Purse Expenses” published by Madden; in this document we get a glimpse of unusually splendid and costly preparations for the then approaching Christmas holidays. The letter is dated Tewkesbury, November 27, without any note of the year. The following passage may be worth extracting: “We humbly beseche the same (your grace) to let us knowe youre gracious pleasure concernyng aswell a ship of silver for the almes dishe requysite for her high estate, and spice plats, as also for trumpetts and a rebek to be sent, and whyther we shall appoynte any Lord of Mysrule for the said honorable householde, or provide for enterluds, disgysyngs, or pleys in the said fest, or for banket or twelf nyght.”

Among the Losely Papers, printed by Kempe in 1836, are several relating to George Ferres, of St. Albans, Herts, who was Lord of Misrule to Edward VI. Ferrers, in this official capacity, composed a variety of masques and interludes, which are no longer known to exist, and he is also the author of one or two of the legends in the “Mirror for Magistrates,” of which Mr. Kempte, by an oversight, describes him as the principal writer. Ferrers received his appointment at Christmas, 1551, and although his literary performances as lord of misrule seem to have perished, a good deal of valuable correspondence illustrative of his functions and proceedings is inserted in Mr. Kempe's volume from the originals at Loseley.

There is one singularly interesting letter in this series, in which Ferres narrates the manner of his entry into London in 1551, and the proposed devices for the same ceremony in the following year. “As towching my Introduction,” he writes to Sir Thomas Cawarden, “whereas the last yeare my devise was to cum of oute of the mone, this yeare I imagine to cume oute of a place called vastum bacuum, the great waste, as moche to saie as a place voide or emptie wthout the worlde, where is neither fier, ayre, nor earth; and that I have bene remayning there sins the last yeare.”

He desired to be attired in blue velvet, and he wished, if possible, to be with the King on St. Stephen's Day before dinner. He had provided a man to play on a kettle-drum, with his boy, and another drummer with a fife, who were to be dressed like Turks: and so forth. Comp. My Prefaces, Dedications, and Epistles, 1874, p. 69. There cannot, perhaps, be a more remarkable proof of the importance which was attached to these mummeries at Christmas than the form, in which the warrants were drawn up for any arrangements connected with them; even the order for a fool's coat is signed by six of the Privy Council. Henry Percy, fifth Earl of Northumberland, it seems from his Household-book for 1512, was accustomed, when he was at home at Christmas, to engage a lord of misrule, who had 30s. in reward.

Henry Machyn notes in his “Diary” under January 4, 1551-2: “The iiij. day of Januarii was mad wa grett skaffold in chepe hard by the crosse, agaynst the kynges lord of myssrule cummyng from Grenwyche; and he landed at Towre warff, and with hym yonge knyghts and gentyllmen a gret nombur on hoss bake sum in gownes and cotes and chaynes abowt their nekes, and on the Towre hyll ther they went in order, furst a standard of yelow and grene sylke with Saint George, and then gonnes and skuybes (squibs) and trompets and bagpipes, and drousselars and flutes, and then a gret compeny all in yelow and gren, and docturs declaryng my lord grett, and then the mores danse dansyng with a tabret,” etc.

In the Christmas of 1553, it is recorded that Sheriff Maynard “had a lord of misrule, and the mores dansse, with a good compeny.” This lord, we learn from Stow's Chronicle, 1631, p. 608, was Serjeant Vawce or Vaux. The pastime seems to have engaged the attention of the Diarist, for he inserts several entries under the same head in several years. The Sheriff's lord met the King's lord on the present occasion, and on others, and the two joined in procession through a portion of the City, till the King's lord took leave of his brother-mome at Tower wharf by Sheriff Maynard's procession with his torch-light. Machyn's description of lord of misrule, in 1553, is too curious and picturesque to be omitted. “The xvij day of March came thrug London, from Algatt, Master Maynard, the sheryff of London, wyth a standard and dromes, and after gyants boyth greate and smalle, and theur hobe-horsses, and after them the g . . ., and affter grett horsses and men in cotes of velvet, with chains of gold a-bowt ther nekes, and men in harness; and then the mores dansse, and then mony mynsterells; and after came the sergantes and yomen on horsse-bake with rebynns of green and whyte abowtt ther nekes, and then la . . . . . . late beyng lord of myssrulle, rod gorgyusly in cloth of gold, and with cheynes of gold abowt hys neke, with hand fulle of rynges of gret waluw, the which serjants rod in cotes of velvet with cheynes of gold; and then com the fullo, and a sawden, and then a priest shreyffyng Jack-of-lent on horss-bake, and a doctor ys fezyssyoun, and then Jack-of-lents wyff browght him ye fessyssyouns and bad save ys lyff, and he shuld give him a thousand li. for ys labur; and then cam the carte with the wyrth hangyd with cloth of gold, and fulle of banners and mynsterels plahyng and syngyng.” Sheriff Maynard, Machyn elsewhere tells us, kept a large establishment. He was buried on the 12th November, 1557.

These costly proceedings appear to have been disapproved by the citizens; for by an Act of Common Council, 1 and 2 Phil. and Mary, for retrenching expenses among other things, it was ordered, “that from henceforth there shall be no wyth fetcht home at the Maiors or Sheriffs Houses. Neither shall they keep any lord of misrule in any of their houses.” Strype’s Stow, Book i. p. 246. Machyn describes a gorgeous lord of misrule who rode through London in 1561, followed by an hundred gentlemen on horseback, with gold chains; and Machyn says that my lord himself was “in clene complett harnes, gylt.”

Stubhes affords the following account of the Lord of Misrule: “Firste, all the wilde heads of the Parishe, conuentyng together, chuse them a graund Capitaine (of mischeef) whom they innoble with the title of my Lorde of Misserule, and hym they crown with great solemnitie, and adopt for their kyng. This kyng anoynted, chuseth for the twentie, fortie, three-score, or a hundred lustie guttes like to hymselfe, to waite vppon his Lordely maiestie, and to guarde his noble persone. Then euery one of these his menne he inuesteth with his liueries, of greene, yelowe, or some other light wanton colour. And as though that were not (baudie) gaudy enough I should saie, they bedecke themselues with scarffes, ribons, and laces, hanged all ouer with golde rynges, precious stones, and other jewelles: this doesn, they tye about either legge twentie or fourtie belles with rich hande-kercheefes in their handes, and somtymes laied a crosse ouer their shoulders and neckes, borrowed for the moste parte of their pretie Mopsie and loouyng Bessies for bussyng them in the darcke. Thus all thines sette in order, haue they their hobbie horses, dragoes, and other antiques, together with their baudie pipers, and thunderyng drommers, to strike vp the Deuilles Daunce withall, then marche these heathen companie towardes the churche and churche-yarde, their pipers pipyng, their drommers thonderyng, their stumppes dauncying, their belles iynglyng, their handkerchefes swyhngyng about their heades like madmen, their hobbie horses, and other monsters skirmishyng amongest the throng: and in this sorte they goe to the churche, (though the minister bee at praier or preachyng) dauncyng and swingyng their handkercheefes ouer their heades, in the church, like Deuilles incarnate, with suche a confused noise, that no man can heare his owne voice. Then the foolishe people, they look, they stare, they laughe, they fleere, and mount upon formes and pewes, to see these goodly pageauntes, solemnized in this sort. Then after this, about the churche they goe againe and againe, and so forte into the churche yarde, where they have commonly their Sommer haules, their bowers, arbours, and banquettyng houses set vp, wherein they feaste, banquet, and daunce all that daie, and (peraduenture) all that night too. And thus these terrestial furies spend their Sabbaoth daie. Then for the further innoblyng of this honorable Lurdane (Lorde I shoulds aye) they have also certaine papers, wherein is paynted some babblerie or other, of imagerie worke, and these they call my Lorde of Misrule badges. These thei geue to euery one, that will geue money for the to maintaine them in this their heathenrie, diuelrie, whoredome, dronkennesse, pride, and what note. And who will now shewe himselfe buxome to them, and geue the money for these the deuille cognizaunces, they shall be mocked, and shouted at shamefully. And so assotted are some that they not onely giue them money, to maintheir abhomination withall, but also weare their badges and cognizances in their hattes, or cappes openly. An othere sorte of fantasticall fooles, bring to these helhoundes (the lorde of Misrule and his complices) some bread: some good ale, some newe chese, some olde cheese, some custardes, some cakes, some flaunes, some tartes, some creame, some meate, some one thing, some an other: but if they knewe that as often as they bring any to the maintenance of these execrable pastymes, they offer sacrifice to the Deuill and Sathanas, they would repent, and withdrawe their hands, whiche God graunt they maie.”

In the “Lincoln Articles,” 1585, one is: -- “Whether your Minister or Churchwardens have suffered any lord of Misrule, or Sommer lords, or ladies or any disguised person in Christmas, or at Maigames, or morris dancers or at any other time, to come unreverently into the churchyard, and there to daunce or play any unsemely part with scoffs, iestes, wanton gestures or ribald talk, namesly in the time of common praier?” I find the following in the York Articles (in any year till 1640): -- “Whether hath your church or church-yard beene abused and prophaned by any fighting, chiding, brawling, or quarreling, and playes, Lords of Misrule, summer lords, morris-dancers, pedlers, bowlers, bearewards, butchers, feastes, schooles, temporal courts, or leets, lay-juries, musters, or other prophane usage in your church or church-yard.”

Lodge, in his “Wits Miserie,” 1596, p. 84, speaking of a jester, says: “This fellow in person is comely, in apparel courtly, but in behaviour a very ape, and no man; his studye is to coine bitter jeastes, or to show antique motions, or to sing baudie sonnets and ballads: give him a little wine in his head, he is continually flearing and making of mouths; he laughs intemperately at every little occasion, and dances about the houses, leaps over tables, outskips men's heads, trips up his companions' heeles, burns sacke with a candle, and hath all the feates of a Lord of Missrule in the countrie. It is a special marke of him at table, he sits and makes faces.”

Hinde, in his “Life of Bruen,” p. 86, censures those gentlemen “who had much rather spend much of their estate in maintaining idle and basepersons to serve their owne lustes and satisfie the humour of a rude and profane people as many do their hors-riders, faulkeners, huntsmen, lords of misrule, pipers, and minstrels, rather to lead them and their follwers (both in their publick assemblies and private families) a dance about the calve, than such a dance as David danced before the Arke, with spiritual rejoicing in God's mercies,' &c.”

Urquhart, in “The Discovery of a most exquisite Jewel, &c.” 1651, p. 238, says “They may be said to use their King as about Christmas we used to do the King of Misrule, whom we invest with that title to no other end, but to countenance the Bacchanalian riots and preposterous disorders of the family where he is installed.”

Christmas, says Selden, in his “Table Talk,” succeeds the Saturnalia, the same time, the same number of holy days: then the master waited upon the servant like the lord of misrule. The name only of the Lord of Misrule is now remembered. In Scotland he was known as the Abbott of Misrule, or of Bon Accord. [See below]

In a similar way, Peter the Great of Russia had his prince-pope, who was head of a College of Fools. One of Peter's las acts was to hold an election to supply the place of Buturlin; and an account of the ceremony has been given in a Trans-atlantic magazine, Scribner's Monthly, xxii., 886. This Abbot of Misrule, or Unreason, appears to have borne much resemblance to the Abbas Stultorum, who presided over the Feast of Fools in France. At Rodez, the capital of the Province of Rovergue in France, they had an Abbé de la Malgoverné, who corresponds exactly with our Abbot of Misrule.

See Warton's "Obs on the F. Q." vol. ii, p. 211. See also Fuller's "Church History," 1655. "Hist. of Cambridge," p. 159. Life of Dr. Dee in Joan. Glastoniensis Chronica, ed. 1726, append. p. 502, Dugd. "Orig. Jurid." ed. 1671, pp. 154, 156, 247, 285. In a Calendar Historical, printed at Geneva, 1569, the only holy-day marked is February 18: "The holie-day of foles and misrules was kept at Rome." This entry seems to refer to the ecclesiastical Feast of Fools, a survival in an altered form of the Roman Saturnalia. Wright's Archaeological Album, 1845, pp. 161-4, where a very interesting account may be found of this continental and Catholic festival and orgy.

Abbot of Bon Accord. The Aberdeen name for the Lord of Misrule. [Vol. 1, p. 1]

Abbot of Unreason. The Scottish name for the Lord of Misrule, q.v. in Scotland, where the Reformation took a more severe and gloomy turn than in England, the Abbot of Unreason, as he was called with other festive characters, was thought worthy to be suppressed by the Legislature as early as 1555. Jamieson seems to have thought, however, that the abolition of these sports was due rather to the excesses perpetrated in connection with them than to the Reformation. Perhaps this may be considered almost as a distinction without a difference. [Vol. 1, p. 1]

Editor's Note: See, also Christmas Prince.

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