Tudor Christmas

A Tudor Christmas

by Ben Johnson

Long before the birth of Christ, midwinter had always been a time for merry making by the masses. The root of the midwinter rituals was the winter solstice – the shortest day – which falls on 21st December. After this date the days lengthened and the return of spring, the season of life, was eagerly anticipated. It was therefore a time to celebrate both the end of the autumn sowing and the fact that the ‘life giving’ sun had not deserted them. Bonfires were lit to help strengthen the ‘Unconquered Sun’.

For Christians the world over this period celebrates the story of the birth of Jesus, in a manger, in Bethlehem. The scriptures however make no mention as to the time of year yet alone the actual date of the nativity. Even our current calendar which supposedly calculates the years from the birth of Christ, was drawn up in the sixth century by Dionysius, an ‘innumerate’ Italian monk to correspond with a Roman Festival.

Detail from Holbein
Detail from the Oberried Altarpiece, ‘The Birth of Christ’
Hans Holbein c. 1520

Until the 4th century Christmas could be celebrated throughout Europe anywhere between early January through to late September. It was Pope Julius I who happened upon the bright idea of adopting 25th December as the actual date of the Nativity. The choice appears both logical and shrewd – blurring religion with existing feast days and celebrations. Any merrymaking could now be attributed to the birth of Christ rather than any ancient pagan ritual.

Tudor Christmas copyright Tudor Group

One such blurring may involve the Feast of Fools, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal. The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment. The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for a while.

The Church entered the act by allowing a choirboy, elected by his peers, to be a Bishop during the period starting with St. Nicholas Day (6th December) until Holy Innocents Day (28th December). Within the period the chosen boy, symbolising the lowliest authority, would dress in full Bishop’s regalia and conduct the Church services. Many of the great cathedrals adopted this custom including York, Winchester, Salisbury Canterbury and Westminster. Henry VIII abolished Boy Bishops however a few churches, including Hereford and Salisbury Cathedrals, continue the practice today.

The burning of the Yule Log is thought to derive from the midwinter ritual of the early Viking invaders, who built enormous bonfires to celebrate their festival of light. The word ‘Yule’ has existed in the English language for many centuries as an alternative term for Christmas.

Traditionally, a large log would be selected in the forest on Christmas Eve, decorated with ribbons, dragged home and laid upon the hearth. After lighting it was kept burning throughout the twelve days of Christmas. It was considered lucky to keep some of the charred remains to kindle the log of the following year.

Whether the word carol comes from the Latin caraula or the French carole, its original meaning is the same – a dance with a song. The dance element appears to have disappeared over the centuries but the song was used to convey stories, normally that of the Nativity. The earliest recorded published collection of carols is in 1521, by Wynken de Worde which includes the Boars Head Carol.

Carols flourished throughout Tudor times as a way to celebrate Christmas and to spread the story of the nativity. Celebrations came to an abrupt end however in the seventeenth century when the Puritans banned all festivities including Christmas. Surprisingly carols remained virtually extinct until the Victorians reinstated the concept of an ‘Olde English Christmas’ which included traditional gems such as While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and The Holly and the Ivy as well as introducing a plethora of new hits – Away in a Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem – to mention but a few.

The twelve days of Christmas would have been a most welcome break for the workers on the land, which in Tudor times would have been the majority of the people. All work, except for looking after the animals, would stop, restarting again on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night.

The ‘Twelfths’ had strict rules, one of which banned spinning, the prime occupation for women. Flowers were ceremonially placed upon and around the wheels to prevent their use.

During the Twelve Days, people would visit their neighbours sharing and enjoying the traditional ‘minced pye’. The pyes would have included thirteen ingredients, representing Christ and his apostles, typically dried fruits, spices and of course a little chopped mutton – in remembrance of the shepherds.

Serious feasting would have been the reserve of royalty and the gentry. Turkey was first introduced into Britain in about 1523 with Henry VIII being one of the first people to eat it as part of the Christmas feast. The popularity of the bird grew quickly, and soon, each year, large flocks of turkeys could be seen walking to London from NorfolkSuffolk and Cambridgeshire on foot; a journey which they may have started as early as August.

A Tudor Christmas Pie was indeed a sight to behold but not one to be enjoyed by a vegetarian. The contents of this dish consisted of a Turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case, called a coffin and was served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl. Small pies known as chewets had pinched tops, giving them the look of small cabbages or chouettes.

Pies for the Tudor Christmas table

And to wash it all down, a drink from the Wassail bowl. The word ‘Wassail’ derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes-hael’, meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be of good health’. The bowl, a large wooden container holding as much as a gallon of punch made of hot-ale, sugar, spices and apples. This punch to be shared with friends and neighbours. A crust of bread was placed at the bottom of the Wassail bowl and offered to the most important person in the room – hence today’s toast as part of any drinking ceremony.

Shared courtesy of the author and Historic UK

The “Other” Tudors

The “Other” Tudors: Edward VI and Mary I

Mary I and Edward VI

King Henry V’s only son and eldest daughter grab fewer headlines than King Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, but their actions helped shape the religious and political history of England and Europe. Edward VI was a zealous reformer dedicated to establishing strong Protestant doctrine in England. His first Book of Common Prayer promoted uniform worship throughout the country, and his second prayer book provided a model used in the Church of England for 400 years. His dedication to religious reform lasted until the end of his life when he tried to upend the law to prevent a Catholic from taking the throne.

But his Catholic half-sister Mary acted quickly and gathered supporters, staging the only successful revolt against central government in the 16th century. As the first crowned regnant Queen of England, she overcame centuries of preference for male rule. Her Parliament passed the Act for Regal Power, enshrining the power of queens and creating precedence for all the Queens to follow. She exerted every effort to undo Edward’s reform and return England to Catholicism. Join Royal Oak and historian and educator Carol Ann Lloyd to explore the lives of the often overlooked Tudor monarchs.

Thank you to our co-sponsor: The Union League Legacy Foundation

Thank you to our cultural co-sponsors: The Oxford & Cambridge Society of New England; The American Scottish Foundation 

Carol Ann Lloyd

Carol Ann Lloyd

Noted Speaker

Carol Ann Lloyd is a popular speaker who shares the stories of Shakespeare and English history. She is the former Manager of Visitor Education at Folger Shakespeare Library, where she gave workshops and tours about Shakespeare and Early Modern England. Carol Ann has presented programs at the Smithsonian, Folger Shakespeare Library, Agecroft Hall, and TEDx, among other venues. Ms. Lloyd is a member of the National Speakers Association

LIVE

Tuesday, November 17th at 6:00 pm (Eastern)

Online via Zoom Webinar

$15, members*; $20 non-members

Free to Heritage Circle members

Register for Live

After registering, you will receive an email with a link to the webinar.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Field of Cloth of Gold Summit

During a blustery 18 days in June 1520, an historic event took place in the Pale of Calais. Here King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France met in an ostentatious display of power, wealth and status. Masterminded by Thomas Wolsey, the aim was to join the two kingdoms in a pact of solidarity and friendship, notably against the insurgence of the Ottoman Empire, which was threatening Christian Europe at the time.

It was a spectacular event that became famous in its own lifetime. Now 500 years on, over the weekend of the 9-10 May 2020, The Tudor Travel Guide is celebrating this historic event by holding a FREE two-day virtual summit. You will hear from experts in their fields talking about a range of different aspects of the event: from the social, political and cultural context, to original research to locate Henry’s celebrated temporary palace, clothing & textiles, food and more…

Speaker line up:

Saturday 9 May:  

Many of the speakers have offered to give away a copy of one of their books as part of a book bundle giveaway to one lucky winner, who will be selected at random at the end of the event. The winner will be notified by email and The Tudor Travel Guide will post the winner’s name on FB and Twitter. Books included in the bundle are:

  1. The Field of Cloth of Gold, by Glenn Richardson
  2. In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII, by Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger.
  3. Henry VIII and the Men who made Him, by Tracy Borman
  4. A Banquet at the Old Hall: An Invitation to participate in Historic Cooking, by Brigitte Webster
  5. Tudor London, by Natalie Grueninger
  6. The Great Wardrobe Accounts of Henry VII and Henry VIII, by Maria Heyward (tbc)
  7. A colour paper by Julian Munby of his original research on finding he location of the temporary palace at the Field of Cloth of Gold will also be included.

Yale University Press have also kindly offered to make free sample chapters available from a range of their Tudor related books (details still to be finalised) for EVERY registrant to the summit.

How to sign up:

This online summit is FREE attend. You simply need to register you name and email address. Don’t worry if you can’t make the dates and times advertised or are in a different time zone. All the videos will remain available to view until the 24 June 2020 to coincide with the final day of the actual event, 500 years ago. However only those registering for the event will have access to the videos.

How to register:

Sign up will open on Thursday 9 April 2020 and will remain open until 48 hours before the event, i.e. Midnight on Wednesday 7 May 2020.

Follow this link to the sign-up page & join today! REGISTER

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All images either Public Domain or shared courtesy of Dr Sarah Morris

A Banquet at the Old Hall: an Invitation to Participate in Historic Cooking 

Brigitte Webster is a culinary historian with a teaching degree in history & cookery. Four years ago she finally followed her dream of sharing Tudor history with like-minded people and swapped the classroom for her home, which she spent sixteen years into turning into a private Tudor heaven. There she welcomes small groups to experience Tudor history through material culture and actual home-made Tudor food in an all authentic Tudor residence.

Brigitte has devoted the last four years to the re-creation of late medieval-circa 1700 recipes from England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Spain. Each re-created dish was photographed and given to visitors to taste. Some recipes had modern measurements and cooking instructions added.

When Brigitte began to share her re-creations on social media, she noticed that there was a genuine demand for recipes. People started asking for a cook book. Finally, popular Tudor Janet Wertman, author of The Seymour Saga who, while visiting Brigitte and experiencing her food, encouraged Brigitte to collate recipes into a book.

A Banquet at the Old Hall is a hardback, limited edition recipe collection by Brigitte and invites Tudor history fans to participate in 16th century cooking. Hopefully it will inspire readers to create the recipes and in doing so, connect with people from the past as well as Brigitte and family at the Old Hall! The book features 21 recipes, each one showing a picture of the finished dish, and also gives the reader an insight in what the banqueting course entailed. Some recipes have their original text displayed to help the reader appreciate the challenges in following an 16th century recipe which regularly assumes certain steps. Each modernized recipe also gives the details of the original source.

According to Brigitte, “With this book, it is hoped that even total beginners and not very keen cooks are tempted to re-create a little bit of Tudor history for the forthcoming festivities.”

Brigitte also offers Tudor cooking classes on days and weekends, and is always happy to give advice from a distance for those who get a bit stuck in the depth of Tudor recipes.

At the moment she is busy translating an exciting 16th century royal Austrian recipe collection into English and further recipe books are in the pipe line. For the autumn of 2020, YouTube Tudor cookery clips are planned.

The cook books are only available directly from Brigitte at brigittewebster@tudorexperience.com and retail at $50 plus shipping. Each book is signed and can include any message of your choice.

If you are interested in staying at the Old Hall for a Tudor cooking experience or a Tudor History vacation, you may get in touch via the website:

www.tudorexperience.com