Medieval & Tudor Christmas Courts
by 'The Amateur Historians'
Sarah Valente Kettler & Carole Trimble
A.A. Milne's popular children's poem, "King John", portrays the friendless king on the eve of a lonely Christmas, reduced to displaying tattered greeting cards from seasons past and wondering if, alas, he might count on receiving even one measly present this year. A fitting way for one of history's most villainous monarchs to spend the holidays ... but historically, highly inaccurate. If there was one time of year that an English sovereign could count on being surrounded with all the trimmings and trappings of "fondness" and "friendship" - however forced they might be - it was during the Twelve Days of Christmas, which stretched from December 25 through Epiphany (or Twelfth Night) on January 6.
One of the hallmarks of the medieval era was the emergence of the court as the hub of political clout and social influence. As the nobility became more cultured and worldly, their posturing for power became more sophisticated. Great store was set on display, pageantry, courtly manners and formal behavior. The role of the courtier evolved from that of the king's brutish henchman, to that of the suave manipulator, as gifted in the subtleties of ceremony and protocol as in the hard, cold strategies of empire-building.
One At the centre of this intricate web was the monarch, the bright sun around which all else rotated ... and seldom was this sun's splendour, its ability to nurture or to scorch, as apparent as it was during the Christmas courts of the medieval and Tudor eras. Here, under the guise of devotion, celebration and festivity, the monarch and those closest to throne engaged in nearly two weeks of concerted power politics: networking, lobbying, favour-asking - and favour granting. It is appropriate that one of the favourite forms of Christmas entertainment was the masquerade . . . at Christmas court, the manoeuvring was often disguised, the intrigue sub rosa.
One Let Earth Receive Her King ...
With religion playing such a vital role in the lives of most people, ancient rulers could do worse than to capitalize on the symbolic connections between the "king of the realm" and the King of Heaven. Like the mighty Charlemagne before him, William the Conqueror chose Christmas Day for his 1066 coronation as king of England (do we detect a not-so-subtle "The Savior Commeth" theme?).
Most medieval monarchs chose Christmas Day for the traditional "laying on of hands", a ritual meant to transfer the king's "healing" power to those afflicted with certain skin ailments. The ceremonial wearing of the official halo-bright Crown of State, further underscored the sense that the monarch was omnipotent, above and beyond all other mortals.
On New Year's Day, 1511, Katherine of Aragon gave birth to a son. An ecstatic King Henry VIII named the baby after himself, and extended the Christmas court at Westminster in order to celebrate the birth with a grand tournament and pageant. How different history might have been if the long-awaited prince had lived past seven weeks!
Come, They Told Me . . .
Naturally, such a glorious display would be for naught without an appreciative audience. Medieval and Tudor monarchs made certain the house was packed, summoning not only peers who would provide peerless company, but including anyone with whom the king or queen might want to have a "little word". An invitation to the sovereign's Christmas court was a command performance, one that the nobility and lower-status court hangers-on could not well refuse.
Most would not have considered declining - not only would the royal family be royally offended, but the opportunity to be part of the posturing, networking, conniving and gossip was too delicious to miss! Still, the only acceptable excuses for a Christmas "no show" were war, Crusades, grave illness and childbirth. Woe to those who stretched the truth a little when offering their regrets. Queen Elizabeth was particularly adamant that her male courtiers remain at court for the 12 days of festivities. Many a noblewoman must have spent Christmas warmed only by her own wrath at being abandoned in favour of the queen.
Diplomacy did not take a backseat during the holiday season. English monarchs frequently used their Christmas courts as vehicles for establishing goodwill with worthies from other nations. Henry IV staged an elaborate joust on the tourney grounds at Eltham Palace for Emperor Manuel II of Constantinople in 1400. His grandfather, Edward III, had feted two past enemies - King David of Scotland and King John of France - in grand-style for Christmas 1358. (The fact that the foreign kings were prisoners-cum-guests-of-honour apparently did little to dampen their merriment!)
One important guest at several of Henry VIII's Christmas courts was conspicuously absent from the formal celebrations - Anne Boleyn. Although the king commanded mistress Anne's presence for the holidays at Greenwich, for three consecutive years she was relegated to a circumscribed, behind-closed-doors role. For the sake of appearances, Katherine of Aragon continued to preside over Henry's feasts and fetes through the 1530 holidays.
By 1531, the tide had turned in Anne's favour. Not yet queen, she was nonetheless installed in the Queen's Lodgings at Greenwich, although Henry was sensitive enough to have her avoid the court's formal Christmas celebrations. Her fifth Christmas at Greenwich was another matter; by 1532 Anne was queen in all but name, presiding over the court festivities with such spectacular excess that temporary kitchens had to be erected on the palace grounds. There has been some speculation that Elizabeth I was conceived while Henry and Anne were making merry that year.
Occasionally, Christmas guests overstayed their welcome. Elizabeth, desperate to rid herself of her erstwhile suitor the Duke of Anjou in 1551, tried to appeal to his parsimonious nature by suggesting he head home before New Year's, thus avoiding the need to indulge her with an expensive gift. Instead, he bestowed upon her a jewelled anchor brooch and stayed on until February. Elizabeth was not amused.
Don We Now Our Gay Apparel!
If the Twelve Days of Christmas set the stage for high drama, rest assured that the players were appropriately costumed. The festivities of the holiday season provided the swells with the opportunity to over-awe their competition with their opulent finery - pity the poorer noble who had to scrape and pinch in order to maintain a suitably glamourous image. Of course, none would dare to outshine the king and queen (dressing to put your guests at ease was unheard of in this circle).
This was one of the three times annually (the others being Easter and Whitsunday) when the monarch would don the official Crown of State, a massive gold headpiece, commissioned by William the Conqueror and modelled after the crown of Charlemagne. Ermine, the regal fur of choice, would lend the sovereign further splendour.
For some, such as Henry II, well-known for his lack of interest in the outward trappings of majesty, this would be enough of a fashion statement. Others seized the opportunity for peacock-like posturing. In 1482, a Christmas guest noted that Edward IV - a notorious clothes-horse - strode into court "clad in a great variety of most costly garments, of quite a different cut to those which had usually be seen hitherto in our kingdom." Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth consistently rose to the fashion-occasion, as well.
Richard II had grave - and justifiable! - misgivings about his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. An astrologer had once warned the king that he would be "slain and destroyed" by a toad. If the prediction seemed ludicrous at first, it must have seemed less so when Henry appeared at the king's Christmas feast, merrily attired in a robe embroidered 'round with toads (guess he wasn't a reindeer sort of guy). Ever quick on the uptake, it took Richard no time to make the dire connection.
Clothes were not the only area where extravagance ruled. Conspicuous consumption was expected when it came to gift-giving. Christmas gifts were typically exchanged on New Year's Day, or occasionally on Twelfth Night. After a week of suspense ("I wonder what Santa brought this year ?"), the eager recipients were ready for the really good stuff. Of course, the biggest and best gifts were to be given to the royal family.
No one seemed at all embarrassed by the possibility that an expensive cache of gold or silver plate, a jewel-studded accoutrement, or an exotic beast might be construed as trying to buy one's way into royal favour. On Twelfth Night, 1392, the citizens of London, anxious to bury the hatchet with Richard II, bestowed upon the king and Queen Anne a one-humped camel and a pelican, novelties for the royal menagerie at the Tower of London.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was one of the most successful gift-givers of the Tudor era, lavishing original and expensive gifts on Elizabeth year after year ( a good thing, since Glorianna would have expected nothing less). On the first Christmas of her reign, she was presented with elegant silk stockings - henceforth she never wore wool stockings again. Dudley also gave Elizabeth what is believed to be the world's first wristwatch ... appropriately bedecked in glittering jewels.
Of course, it is a joy to give, as well as receive - particularly if the recipient understands the hidden message. Medieval and Tudor monarchs bestowed gifts upon their favourites in descending order: the more lavish the gift, the higher the esteem with which you were held - or the bigger the favour the king was about to ask. Gift-giving was a very public occasion, and courtiers jostled for position to see who had given or received the most important presents.
Yet, it wasn't just the court that received royal treats at Christmas. Throughout his reign, Richard II made significant contributions to religious institutions at Christmas, including the bestowal of the Holy Innocents relics to York Minster in 1395. Nor were all Christmas gifts presented in a box with a bow - titles and honours were rarer (but exceedingly more welcome) treasures. In 1470, as part of a formal pacification program between sparring Yorkist "supporters", Edward IV elevated John Neville's son, George, to the dukedom of Bedford . . . and threw in a betrothal to the princess Elizabeth of York (the marriage never came to pass), for good measure.
Deck the Halls: Feasts and Balls
Still, the most extravagant displays of excess during the holiday season took place during the seemingly endless rounds of banquets, balls and sporting events staged to entertain the throngs of guests and on-lookers throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. This was the court at its most visible - commoners could catch an all-too-rare glimpse of the royal family as they processed to the tournament grounds in their finest fur-lined attire.
If they were lucky, the poor could also dine as kings - or least on scraps from the king's great table. Generous, rich scraps they were too! Not only were as many as 24 courses offered at each banquet, but it was expected that the royal kitchens would cook far more than needed for these grand feasts - not only to impress the company, but for the express purpose of feeding the needy when the night's merriment had drawn to a close.
In turn, the town folk frequently favoured the court with glad tidings of their own. Carolers, jugglers, mummers, magicians, actors, musicians, poets and bards would throng the halls and add their talents to the evening's entertainment. Usually the court found such past times highly amusing, but not always. The prudish Henry VI was downright furious when a group of local lasses, hired by a mischievous young lord, bared their bosoms and proceeded to dance provocatively before the king and his men. "Fie, fie, for shame!" were Henry's parting shots as he dashed to his privy chambers.
Such hum-bug reactions were far from the norm, however. Despite the important behind-the-scene machinations and political networking that invariably took place, most monarchs found time to rejuvenate their spirits during the celebrations. Even with matters of state weighing on her mind, Elizabeth typically enjoyed the Twelve Days of Christmas to the utmost, usually at Whitehall or Hampton Court. Although the queen preferred to spend Christmas Day in prayer, she gave reign to her playful side for the balance of the holidays.
For many years, Lord Robert Dudley was in charge of Elizabeth's holiday entertainment, a task he undertook with great relish. Legendary balls, masquerades, hunts, and theatricals and banquets were staged round-the-clock for the queen and her courtiers. (This chap would have given Martha Stewart a run for her money). It is of little surprise, therefore, that Elizabeth's "Sweet Robin" would choose Christmas of 1565 to publically propose to the queen. It is no less surprising that Elizabeth merrily turned him down.
Elizabeth despised eating in public and took most of her meals in the privacy of her privy chamber. At Christmas, she would make an exception, indulging before the public's eye in the rich foods and sweetmeats of the season. (Being served by handsome young lords who knelt at her side throughout the meal might have been her incentive ... we can understand the appeal!)
Families, Feuds and Fidelity
The holidays can be a trying time even for the closest of families. One can only imagine the undercurrent of familial tensions when a monarch summoned his next-of-kin for a seasonal fireside chat.
It was during a Christmas court at Windsor Castle in 1126 that King Henry I, who had no legitimate male heir, tried to force his barons to accept his daughter Matilda as his successor. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles reported that "... there he caused archbishops and bishops and abbots and earls all the thegns that were there to swear to give England and Normandy after his death into the hand of his daughter." Swear they did, but they were not happy about it.
None of those present were interested in being among the first to owe allegiance to a woman. The stage was set for the 19-year-long bloody struggle for the throne that rent England apart after Henry's death. Ironically, the final resolution to that civil war, the peace treaty between King Stephen and Matilda's son Henry of Anjou, was ratified on Christmas Day at Westminster in 1153.
Being assured of the crown was the end of one chapter for Henry of Anjou - keeping that crown was the next. His reign was riddled with filial uprisings and rebellions, often led by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry kept the lid on Mamma's influence by keeping her imprisoned for 16 years - but he recognized that her absence from the Christmas table in 1184 would put a damper on the holiday spirit needed to induce his sons Geoffrey, Richard and John to unite in a pledge of fidelity. In a true Lion in Winter moment, the loving family was reunited long enough for reconciliations to be offered, inheritances settled and pledges to be made around (think anyone noticed the gritted teeth and crossed fingers?)
Everyone knows Christmas is a time for children. We suppose that made it much easier for the adult sons of Edward III to pledge, before throngs of gathered nobility, to peacefully accept 10-year-old Richard of Bordeaux, son of their dead brother the Black Prince, as heir to the throne in their stead. After all, it's better to give than to receive, right? (Well, maybe not when the gift is a crown ...) On some occasions, it was the parents themselves - not the nobility or contenders for the throne - who had to be convinced of their heir's worthiness.
It was not until Christmas 1406 that Henry of Monmouth - well past his majority - was finally admitted to his father's council, the first significant gesture Henry IV made towards acknowledging his son's readiness to inherit the Crown. Six Christmases later at Eltham, with death imminent, the king summoned Prince Hal to his side and worked out a strategy to assure that sibling rivalry between the future Henry V and his brother Thomas of Woodstock would not threaten the succession.
Hark! Heralds from the King
Coronations being so scripted and tradition-bound, it was often not until the next major gathering of the court - usually the Christmas immediately following a coronation - that the monarch had the opportunity to flex his or her muscles in a manner that would define the style of his or her reign.
Of course, for William the Conqueror, the distinction was moot, but he chose another English Christmas court in which to announce one of the most profound and far-reaching decisions of his reign. In 1085 at Gloucester, the Bastard commissioned England's first nation-wide census of all landowners and their holdings, a work of mammoth scope known to history as the Domesday Book.
For Henry III, the wait between his coronation at age nine and his first official Christmas as an adult monarch must have seemed insufferably long. Despite the sensible guidance of his Protector, William Marshal, discontent and political sniping was rampant at court in the days preceding Christmas 1223.
At Northampton, young Henry took matters in his own hands, finally assuming possession of the royal seal and declaring himself to be the true and total king. He arrived at the castle on December 23, according to a contemporary source, with "so many bishops, earls, barons and armed knights, neither in the days of the (king's) father, nor afterwards, is such a feast known to be celebrated in England." The rumblings were quieted - if only for a very brief time.
Not surprisingly, the religious controversies of the day took centre-stage during Elizabeth's first Christmas at Whitehall in 1558. Despite specific orders by the queen to the contrary, the Bishop of Carlise proceeded to elevate the Host during the celebration of the Mass, a symbol of transubstantiation, which Protestants found distasteful. The new queen stormed from her chapel rather than be subjected to papist customs. Two days later, she issued her first proclamation on religious matters, declaring that specific parts of the mass be spoken in English (rather than Latin), and banning all sermons until parliament could further address the issue.
"Oh, You Shouldn't Have!" Plots and Plunders
Truces may have been called on the battlefield during the Christmas sojourn, but at court, peace and physical well-being were not necessarily givens. One would assume that with so many people of such importance in close proximity to the king, the holiday season would not be the prime time to attempt a royal kidnapping or assassination (and hardly in keeping with the yuletide spirit, we might add). Yet such dire events were barely averted several times during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Chivalric code called for a 12-day battle truce over the Christmas holidays. However, such niceties were not always observed. One of the earliest - and bloodiest - confrontations of the Wars of the Roses took place during the holiday season. It was on December 30, 1460, at the battle of Wakefield, that Richard, Duke of York and his son the earl of Rutland lost their lives in battle against the Lancastrian forces. Their corpses were horribly defiled, which turned the tide of sentiment temporarily in favour of the Yorkists. At other times, truces were put to productive use. Pope Benedict used the truce of 1337 to negotiate an important (if all too short-lived) peace treaty between Edward III and the king of France.
Henry IV's first Christmas at Windsor in 1399 brought the king and his sons perilously close to being murdered. Noble supporters of the recently-deposed Richard II aimed to restore him to the throne and recover their influence at court in the process. One of the conspirators, the Earl of Rutland, had a last-minute change of heart; the earls of Salisbury, Gloucester, Exeter and Surrey were immediately run to the earth, lynched and decapitated. Nor was this the last time that Henry had to worry about who might have spiked the wassail. Rumours were rife in 1403 of a second assassination plot, this one by Edward, Duke of York, to take place during the Eltham Palace Christmas celebration. Advance warning and lack of evidence put the entire issue to rest - at least on the surface.
Eltham was also the focal point of a dangerous - and luckily foiled - attempt to inflict mortal harm on Henry V during the height of the Lollard rebellion. Masterminded by Henry's one-time crony and boon companion, Sir John Oldcastle, the plan was to smuggle a number of hostile rebels, disguised as mummers, into the king's presence.
The rebels were to kidnap the king and hold him for ransom until their religious demands were met. Although the plot was exposed well before the holidays and Oldcastle was imprisoned in the Tower, it did not prevent a hapless (dare we say "witless") group of dedicated Lollards from attempting to execute the plan, regardless. They were captured, and dealt with harshly. Oldcastle, however, managed to escape the Tower and flee for Wales.
Shakespeare's bluff and bungling Sir John Falstaff, central to Henry V and Henry V, is believed to have been based on the character of Sir John Oldcastle.
It was on New Year's Day, 1593, that the Earl of Essex uncovered a plot against Elizabeth, involving her personal physician, Roderigo Lopez. Although she hosted a dance until one o'clock in the morning, her mind must have been consumed by Lopez's betrayal and subsequent arrest. The Queen, however, had her own dark Christmas deeds to atone for: it was in 1586, while keeping Christmas at Greenwich, that Elizabeth drafted the formal warrant for her cousin Mary Stuart's execution - granted, she did not sign it until February.
Perhaps the most tragic event to result from the heightened passions of the season is the infamous murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170. Although tensions had been rife between the monarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury for years, Becket's inflammatory sermon from the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas morning seems to have been the final straw for Henry II. In a typically-Plantagenet burst of temper, the king spat out the fateful words, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" Four knights in attendance at Henry's court took the opportunity to make their liege lord's Christmas wish come true. Riding pell-mell from the coast to Canterbury, they entered the Cathedral on December 29 and foully murdered Becket in cold blood in the Cathedral's north transept. It was not a Happy New Year for any of those involved - Henry suffered the horrifying consequences of his outburst for the rest of his reign.
No Place Like Home For the Holidays
Three of the favourite Christmas palaces - Windsor, Westminster and Eltham - can still be visited today. However, they were by no means the exclusive sites of medieval and Tudor Christmas courts. If trouble was brewing in a far-flung outpost of the kingdom, the royal family and their entire entourage would embark upon an arduous winter journey in order to celebrate the season in a more strategic (or defensive) venue.
So heightened were the tensions of the Wars of the Roses during December 1467, that Edward IV ensured his security by surrounding himself with a bodyguard of 200 personally-selected valets and archers as he travelled to Coventry to celebrate Christmas. As an added caution, he commanded his duplicitous brother George, Duke of Clarence, to make merry at Coventry with him.
Nor were those away-from-home Christmases necessarily merry. Eleanor of Aquitaine spent any number in reduced circumstances during her years of enforced confinement. Sometimes her children would visit; often not. Edward III spent more than his share of winter "hols" in cold, wet misery on the battlefields of France. And, in a tragically foreboding scenario, Richard II spent 1387 as a virtual prisoner in the Tower of London; there is some thought that this may actually have been his "first" deposition, foiled due to lack of support from John of Gaunt.
Decrying the Christmas season for its decline into crass commercialism had become as much a part of today's Christmas vernacular as "Season's Greetings". We wonder: were the days of ancient Christmases past, with their royal excesses and intrigues really any more admirable? We think not. (But we can't help thinking that, in their own odd way, they were tons more fun!)
Sarah Valente Kettler and Carole Trimble are the Amateur Historians. In addition to their recently-published guide to Medieval & Tudor London, Amateur Historian's Guide to Tudor and Medieval London, the authors have just completed the second book in the Amateur Historians series, Day Trips to the South of London (published by Capital Books in January 2002). They are currently researching the medieval and Tudor sites to the north of their favourite city.