Thursday 7 December 2017

Christmas at the Court of Edward the Confessor #Christmas #History @Paulalofting

Christmas at the Court of
 Edward the Confessor
Paula Lofting

Winter began in November, according to Anglo-Saxon tradition. The 7th of November to be exact, and from the 15th of November, 40 days before the Christmas season began, it was a time of fasting and alms giving, which was the origin for gift-giving at Christmas. ‘Christmas’, comes from the Anglo-Saxon, Cristesmæsse, a word first recorded in 1038. It replaced the old pagan ‘yule-tide’, known back then as Geola and still referred to when talking about yule logs etc. As we know, the early Christian church instructed their emissaries to allow the Christianisation of some pagan traditions, a clever strategy on their part, to encourage people to give up their pagan ways by allowing them to retain some of the features and customs of the old religion. During this time of fasting and strict observance, it was not just the clergy who were expected to fast, attend prayers and vigils, and give alms to the more unfortunates of their world, but the secular communities also. It was a sign of your wealth and status if you could afford to give alms, something that many people were eager to do, for the Anglo-Saxons were as keen as any for their soul to get a free pass to the afterlife.

So, that was a lot of days of hardship for less than half the days in return of feasting! Anyway, that aside, only those who were employed to do necessary tasks, were excused from taking 12 days off work. Quite honestly, I could not imagine anyone complaining about that unless they were one of those who were engaged in those aforesaid important occupations.

Oh, there’s one other little thing I have forgotten, there were no carnal relations allowed during this fasting period, after all, with all the vigils and extra prayers and psalm singing, how was one going to fit in having sex as well? But, should one fail in this expectation, and need absolution to restore their spiritual equilibrium with God, there was always confession and more fasting as penance.

During King Edward’s time, the Christmas period was usually spent at Gloucester. Edward was a keen sporting huntsman, something the church frowned on but were able to forgive because he was pious in other aspects of his life. Since the Forest of Dean was his favourite hunting ground, it seemed natural that after a good Autumn’s hunting, that he would spend Christmas at King’s Holme in Gloucester. He did, however, spend his last Christmas on this earth in the newly built palace of Westminster, whilst the new church of St Peter was consecrated that year, in time for the celebrations and his funeral.

Poor Edward. His life’s work, just ready for him to enjoy and he pops his clogs. At least he got to see it glorified to God, that must have been a very auspicious day for him, for he would be able to go to his rest with the knowledge that he had help to build one of the finest churches this side of the British Channel. No matter though, for the Normans would soon rebuild it more to their taste after the conquest.

It couldn’t have been much fun that year of 1065, when he succumbed at last to the illness that seemed to have been brought on by the exile of his favourite courtier, Earl Tostig. The stress of losing Tostig and having to give in to the recalcitrant northerners a few months earlier, obviously affected him badly, because hitherto, he had been quite robust and sprightly for an old man of sixty; a great age in those times. So, Christmas of 1065 would have been quite a miserable one that year, so perhaps we should hearken back to happier times, and the Christmas of ’64, when having had a good hunting session during the month of October and some of November, Edward was ready to put on his virtuous head, start the fasting and alms giving and settle down to pottage for supper each night until the 25th December when the holiday would begin.

Kings Holme (now known as Kingsholm) was the site of an old Roman fortress, significant in size to have made the Roman city an important strategic place. We know that there was definitely a palace located there in 1051, and possibly, it may have dated back much further. At least by 1064, the palace was a well-used one, having been one of three important palaces in Edward’s England, besides Westminster, in London, and Winchester. A hoard of early 11thc coins was found at the site and said to be a large collection from probably a wide area, indicating that this was not and just any old burh. To add to the evidence of its possible magnificence, excavations at the site have uncovered indications of large timber buildings dating to around this time.

We cannot say what King Edward’s palace consisted of for sure, but there must have been quite a few domestic and guest quarters amongst the buildings found. At Christmas time, the whole of Edward’s court would have been present in Gloucester, and among them, his secular officials as well as many foremost ecclesiasticals, bishops and abbots and possibly some Abbesses, some of whom were very powerful indeed. Many of the king’s thegns would have been there, and possibly they brought their wives with them, perhaps some brought their sons also, and maybe their daughters, to be presented at court. If those who owed service to the king couldn’t make it for whatever reason, then they would no doubt have to send a representative. The most important of the king’s guests, would have been the archbishops, Ealdred of York and Stigand of Canterbury, and leading earl of the realm, Harold Godwinson. Aside from them, the other lords of the earldoms: Tostig of Northumbria, Morcar of Mercia, Oswulf of Bamburgh, Leofwin and Gyrth Godwinson, earls of the South Eastern Counties and East Anglia respectively, and Waltheof, son of the great Siward, Tostig’s predecessor. No doubt they would also have brought their wives and perhaps their families too, not to mention their retinues, servants, and household guards. No wonder there were several large buildings found on the complex, they would have needed them to house everyone.

Its most likely that Edward’s great feasting hall was a timber construction, as no evidence for stone foundations have been found during the excavation. Edward had been building his wonderful complex at Westminster in stone, but that was a special undertaking that had been under construction for years. The king’s feasting-hall was basically a large-scale version of the smaller halls that one might find on manorial estates. It was rectangular, with doors in the longest sides, front and back, and possibly with ante chambers at both ends, perhaps one of those rooms could have been where the king and queen slept. The space inside would have been large enough to contain a good few hundred people and was the heart of the community during the Christmas period. During the last few days of fasting before the feast of Christ, the final touches to the décor would have been carried out. Around the walls, were murals decorating the lime washed walls and possibly hung with fine embroidered hangings depicting biblical scenes. Holly and Ivy would have decked the hall, a throw-back to earlier times. Things might have changed somewhat from the early days of the mead-halls as described by Steven Pollington in his book The Mead-Hall, where a lot of the symbel (the feasting) had its rituals rooted in Pagan beliefs and old Teutonic ideals based on the ways of warriors. However, the principle that the hall was the place where the joys of life could be found, drink, merriment, and good times, remained even in the 11thc. The feasting-hall, or the mead-hall, was where it all happened, much like how some of us nowadays see pubs, clubs, restaurants, and bars.

In the early Anglo-Saxon halls, the lord, chieftain or senior clansman would have had a dais erected on both sides of the hall. The side where the chieftain sat, was raised higher than the guest’s dais across the hearth, obviously to enforce his higher position within the hierarchical structure of the feast. In Edward’s time, if there was another dais, it would most likely have included the most prominent of his people that were not already seated with him around his table.

People often have this idea that the wooden halls of Anglo Saxon times were draught-ridden, smoky, cold places, and this must have been so, but once that big central hearth got going, and the smoke rose upwards to the apertures in the gables at each end of the rectangular building, the place could be surprisingly clear and warm. Obviously the closer you were to the king and the hearth, the more important you were. Servants would usually sit on the floor if there was no room at the tables, or boards as they were often called, being mainly trestles with wooden boards resting on top of them. No doubt, however, King Edward would have had a rather more refined structure for his meal, with his high-backed chair, brightly coloured and bedecked with cushions. His queen, Edith, who sat with him, would also have sat in an ornate chair, but it is also possible that for the Christmas celebrations, they may have wanted to make use of their thrones, both of which were said to have been decorated with gold and precious gems. I for one would not have wanted to spill anything on those beautiful cushions once I’d got a little merry.

The most important tables would have been covered with the best table linen, the best accoutrements and have the best choice cuts of meat. Feasting in Anglo Saxon times would have been nothing without meat, turkey would not have been on the menu. For the most highest-ranking nobles, meat would have included wild boar and venison, most likely hunted by Edward himself, and preserved for the occasion. Edward would have loved that, to see the products of his efforts being enjoyed by his guests. Apart from these meats which would have been consumed as said earlier by the most noble of the nobility, there would have also been available goat, lamb, and pig. Vegetables were also consumed, and were often preserved by drying by the fire, just as slaughtered animals were. Items such as mushrooms, herbs, fish, and seaweed, were routinely dried and smoking also was a popular method, such as the carcasses that were hung in the rafters.

Medieval people of this time did not know sugar, but they enjoyed sweet tastes, and would have used honey to sweeten their cakes, or dip their breads in. There were opportunities to flavouring their food with salt and pepper, ginger, cinnamon, very expensive commodities. It’s also conceivable that they stewed fruit and served it with cream and it is said that a form of jelly was made from cow heels.

Often a hall’s hearth was used for cooking over, with great pots hanging on chains with stews of pottage, or with pork bubbling away in them with leeks, onions, garlic, and carrots as part of the ingredients. But in larger halls like Edward’s, the hearth was for warmth and light only, for apart from perhaps some shuttered windows in each end of the hall, there would not have been much light without the hearth. They of course had candles made from bees wax for the wealthy, and tallow from animal fat for the poor. I’m sure that Edward made himself available to the bees wax makers, for they looked and smelled better than animal fat. Torches were available in their sconces on the walls to give off more light and warmth in this cold, dark season, and rushes dipped in fat also made light.

The roasting of meats would have been done over hearths in the kitchens which were in buildings separate from the hall. Food would have been brought to the tables on huge platters carried in by members of the king’s household to be served to the guests. I hope the kitchens weren’t too far from the hall, for at this time of years it would have been very cold, perhaps even snowing.

So, we have a picture of what the hall would have looked like, decorated for Christmas with holly, ivy and mistletoe and frescos and wall hangings in bright colours depicting the nativity and other biblical representations. The hall would have been full to brimming with people seated at tables, standing, or sitting on the rush mats with Edward’s hounds. The day would have begun with people attending early morning mass in the precinct’s chapel, which would most likely have not accommodated everyone, with the excess standing out side to try and hear the mass. I’m sure that if both archbishops were present, they would have participated in the mass, perhaps taking it in turns. Then everyone would pile into the hall to break their fast, glad that the ritual of abstinence was over at last and they could get their gnashers stuck into what they really wanted to eat, which was meat. But for their first round of food they would have had breads, finely sifted for the top tables, until the bread was white, which was what they preferred to eat, if they had the chance, pretty much like us. And cheese and butter, boiled eggs washed down by ale.

As the day progressed, during the feasting which was pretty much nonstop, there would have been all sorts of entertainment, in between going to mass of course. There were scops, jugglers, musicians, singers, acrobats, dancers, and jesters. The king’s own scop would have sung his praises, about how wonderfully kind, brave and majestic he was. He must have been a great liar, also. There would have been dancing, boasting, or flyting, where men (and perhaps women, too) would compete in a game of words. Perhaps the epic tale of Beowulf would have been told in the evening, when people were subdued, and more willing to listen. It is said that Edward enjoyed the poems and songs of the scops, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear he knew a song or two himself.

One thing the Anglo-Saxons loved was a good knees up and after the serious fasting, praying, and alms giving, they must have looked forward to letting their hair down and getting merry, sloshed even, and knowing the old English, they would have loved a scrap or two during the day, I hope no one got killed, but an English feast would not have been an English feast without a fight somewhere in the middle of it. Then everyone would have made amends, said their sorries (hopefully) and all would be well again.

For it was Christmas, a time for good will to all men, wasn’t it?

With much thanks to Regia Anglorum for the photos of the Saxon Longhall in Wychurst, Kent.
Stephen Pollington, 2003 The Mead Hall – Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England Anglo-Saxon Books, Thetford, England.
Frank Barlow,1997 Edward the Confessor Vale University Press, Newhaven and London.
British History online.

 Paula Lofting
Paula Lofting’s début novel, 'Sons of the Wolf' was first published with the assistance of SilverWood Books in 2012. More recently she has republished it with her new publishing company Longship Books, in kindle. A new paperback version will be published by June. It is a story set in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of England and the first in the Sons of the Wolf series, about this amazing time in English history.

She has always admired the works of Sharon Penman and Bernard Cornwell, Edith Pargetter and Mary Stewart, amongst many others. History is a great love of hers and her interest in the subject goes beyond that of the keyboard. She also enjoys Anglo-Saxon re-enactment with Regia Anglorum.

 You can find Paula... Website  Blog  Facebook Twitter

Sons of the Wolf

 1054, pious King Edward sits on the throne, spending his days hunting, sleeping and praying, leaving the security of his kingdom to his more capable brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex. Against this backdrop we meet Wulfhere, a Sussex thegn who, as the sun sets over the wild forest of Andredesweald, is returning home victoriously from a great battle in the north. Holding his lands directly from the King, his position demands loyalty to Edward himself, but Wulfhere is duty-bound to also serve Harold, a bond forged within Wulfhere's family heritage and borne of the ancient Teutonic ideology of honour and loyalty.

Wulfhere is a man with the strength and courage of a bear, a warrior whose loyalty to his lord and king is unquestionable. He is also a man who holds his family dear and would do anything to protect them. So when Harold demands that he wed his daughter to the son of Helghi, his sworn enemy, Wulfhere has to find a way to save his daughter from a life of certain misery in the household of the cruel and resentful Helghi without compromising his honour and loyalty to his lord, Harold. 

Sons of the Wolf is a panoramic snapshot of medieval life and politics as the events that lead to the downfall of Anglo Saxon England play out, immersing the reader in the tapestry of life as it was before the Doomsday Book. With depictions of everyday life experienced through the minds of the peoples of the time; of feasts in the Great Halls to battles fought in the countryside, it cannot help but enlighten, educate and entertain.


  1. Replies
    1. Mary Anne i am so pleased to have been asked!

  2. This era of history isn't something I am familiar with. You have wet my appetite to learn more. Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Beatrice, am so happy to have been able to share with you...

  3. Great post! I felt like I had stepped back in time.

  4. Lovely post, Paula. Great detail. I can't imagine fasting in the early winter. My body just tells me to eat. Sadly, I tend to listen.

  5. Very detailed and engaging insight, well done!

  6. Can you imagine all the delicious smells of the cooking wafting about!

  7. Thank you, Tim, I hope your Christmas has been all you could hope for and more

  8. Certainly would have been a delight to behold


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx