Monday 3 December 2018

Christmas in the Time of King Henry VII: What do the records tell us? By Tony Riches, author of the Tudor Trilogy #Christmas #History #Tudors @tonyriches

Christmas in the Time of King Henry VII:
 What do the records tell us?
By Tony Riches,
 Author of the Tudor Trilogy

Henry Tudor has been described as ‘miserly’ by those who don’t know better, but surviving records show that he spent a small fortune on entertainments at the court, mainly around the twelve days of Christmas, New Year and Twelfth Night. Christmas day marked the end of a month of fasting and became a blend of religious celebration and merry-making.

Although there are few eye-witness accounts of Henry Tudor‘s celebrations, we know from the writs issued under the Privy Seal that as early as 1486, one year into Henry’s reign, Richard Pudsey, serjeant of the king's cellar, was paid a generous forty pounds for the preparation of a ‘disguising’ for Twelfth Night.

These ‘disguisings’ were performances by mummers and professional actors wearing masks and taking part in elaborately planned and choreographed entertainments. Over the course of Henry’s reign, these entertainments began to involve dramatic special effects and amazing scenery. They would typically aim to glorify the king and court – and included plenty of audience participation.

Court records also mention the Christmas celebrations for 1487/8, which describe a ‘goodly disgysyng’ on the evening of New Year's Day and that ‘also this Christmass ther wer many and dyvers playes’. The entertainments continued at the Twelfth Night banquet when the king’s minstrels played and the Gentlemen of the Chapel sang carols.

Disguisings and plays became common features of the Christmas celebrations. In the account of Christmas 1489 the herald notes that there was sickness abroad and, ‘This Christmass I saw no Disgysyngs, and but right few Pleys, but ther was an Abbot of Misrule that made muche Sport, and did right well his Office.’

The ‘Abbot’ or, as he was often called, ‘Lord of Misrule’ oversaw masques and ‘interludes’, such as poetry readings and amusing antics of the court fools. It was a well-paid job, as the records of Christmas 1491/2 show payment to a man named Ringley of a hundred shillings as ‘Lord of Misrule’ and the same again the following year as ‘Abbot of Misreule’.

In November 1493 Walter Alwyn received sums totalling twenty nine pounds for the Christmas revels and disguising, and there is an account in the Great Chronicle of London of the revels for Twelfth Night 1494. The performance began with a ‘goodly interlude’, interrupted by the dramatic appearance of Master William Cornish, ‘apparaylid afftyr the fygure of Seynt George’, followed by a young girl dressed as a princess who led a fire-breathing dragon through the hall. Cornish led the Chapel in an anthem ‘off Seynt George’ " then made his exit with the dragon.

These records provided the source for this short extract from Henry ~ Book Three of the Tudor Trilogy:

January 1493

Christmas at Westminster Palace was marked by a nativity feast of fat geese, painted with saffron butter to give them a golden glow. A private family occasion, a choir sang to the accompaniment of musicians with lutes and dulcimers, as well as Henry’s precious new clavichord, paid for from his own purse.

To Henry’s left sat his son Arthur, then his mother, Lady Margaret and her white-bearded husband, Sir Thomas Stanley. Beside him sat Sir Jasper, with his beautiful young wife Catherine Woodville. At the side of the queen sat her sisters, Lady Anne and Lady Catherine, both yet to be found suitable husbands.

The great yule boar, carried by four men to a fanfare of trumpets, seemed to snarl at them with gilded tusks and glittering diamonds for eyes. Henry’s kitchens excelled themselves with a nativity scene of sculpted sugar, complete with shepherds, wise men of the East and angels suspended overhead on fine silk thread.

Sir Jasper, as the elder of the Tudors, stood to propose the toast to peace and prosperity. He spoke of Christmases past, when Henry had been a child young Harry’s age, then in Brittany, where the late Duke Francis had shown them great kindness. He finally raised his goblet and dedicated the feast to the honour of her grace Lady Margaret, the king’s mother.

Later, at a midnight mass in the Royal Chapel of St Stephen, Henry knelt at the side of his mother and gave thanks to the Lord for his many blessings. He liked to make a new pledge before God with the dawn of each new year, and chose to honour the promise he’d made to himself to become a better father. His fears of losing his youngest daughter reminded him he’d become too preoccupied with matters of state.

His children were becoming strangers to him. It didn’t help that his family were dispersed over several palaces. Prince Arthur, now in his seventh year, had been hidden away with his tutors at Farnham in Hampshire. A thin-faced, serious boy, he’d hardly spoken to Henry since returning to London.

Their daughter Margaret, turned three the previous November, looked like a miniature version of Elizabeth, with a reddish tint to her golden hair and large, amber eyes, and seemed in awe of him. With little Harry, she’d been brought to Westminster from Eltham Palace. Once a hunting retreat and a favourite palace of King Henry IV, Eltham now served as the royal nursery.

Harry had the red hair of the Plantagenets and the build of his grandfather, Edward of York. Able to walk unaided much earlier than Arthur, he’d already learnt to run at every opportunity, a trial to his nursemaids. Henry was relieved that Arthur owed more to his Tudor heritage. He wondered how much work it might take to prepare his high-spirited second son for a life of devout contemplation in the church.

Elizabeth hardly ventured away from Sheen as she recuperated from the birth of their newest daughter. Little Elizabeth’s size and frailty had been a great worry to them both, yet at last she seemed to be thriving, thanks to the care and attention of her devoted wet-nurse, the likeable Lady Cecily Burbage, daughter of a neighbouring nobleman.

‘We shall mark the Twelfth Night as a family,’ Henry announced, ‘with music and singing, magic and disguisings!’

He placed his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. ‘I have a present for you, a fine new bow crafted from Spanish Yew. We’ll try it out at the butts tomorrow?’

‘Yes, Your Grace.’

‘Father.’ He corrected his shy son. ‘You must call me father.’ Henry studied his son’s thin, pale face and glimpsed an echo of himself at the same age. ‘You are growing into a fine scholar, Arthur,’ he grinned, ‘but we must make time for merrymaking. We shall spend more time together. I will teach you how to lose your money at cards!’

‘I should like that, Father.’ Arthur smiled, the first time Henry had seen him do so since he’d returned to Westminster.

Elizabeth picked up little Harry, already escaping on sturdy legs. ‘And you, sir, shall have sugar fancies.’

Harry’s bright eyes shone with affection for his mother, although he seemed not to even recognise his father. Henry produced a silver bell on a red silk ribbon from the pocket of his doublet. The shining bell tinkled musically as he dangled it in front of his youngest son.

‘A present for you, Harry!’

Strong little fingers grabbed the ribbon and Harry started swinging the silver bell so violently Elizabeth had to take it from him. He bawled in loud protest and she called to her ladies-in-waiting.

‘Fetch the minstrels to play, if you will.’ She smiled at Henry. ‘Music seems to calm him.’

‘As it does his father. Let there be music—and fools to cheer my son!’

Servants carried steaming cups of mulled wine for Henry and Elizabeth, as well as sweet treats for the children, who were brought low chairs and velvet cushions to sit on. A colourful satin curtain pulled back as if by magic, to reveal a candlelit wooden stage, with a canopy of state supported by long wooden poles, painted in spirals of Tudor green and white.

A musician beat his drum and the king’s trumpeters blasted a discordant note as Patch the fool appeared on the stage. Dressed as a knight, with a coat of knitted woollen mail and a cooking pot on his head, he began the entertainments as master of ceremonies, mimicking the arrogant tone of Sir John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as he read from an over-large scroll.

He drew an enormous wooden sword, which he waved at the children while bellowing a humorous song of his great bravery. In a flash of smoke, another of Henry’s fools appeared. A stocky dwarf dressed as a bright red dragon, he did his best to avoid the oversized sword, roaring and dancing around Patch as Elizabeth’s minstrels played a lively jig. Little Harry clapped his hands in delight as the unconvincing dragon fell over his own tail and tripped from the stage.

Next came another of Henry’s fools, carrying a shepherd’s crook and wearing an absurdly high, gold-painted bishop’s mitre. Disguised as the Bishop of Misrule, he proceeded to wag his finger in the air and lecture the king and his family in a stentorian voice, yet none of his words made any sense.

‘He mocks Bishop Foxe!’ Elizabeth laughed.

‘A poor resemblance,’ Henry grinned, ‘yet his manner is unmistakable.’

A troupe of Flemish jugglers amazed them with their skill, throwing heavy wooden clubs to each other and spinning them high in the air. As the last of the jugglers vaulted from the stage, Patch the fool returned and bowed to Henry and Elizabeth with exaggerated reverence to announce the finale.

The choir of Westminster Cathedral entered, all dressed in white and wearing silver wings of angels. Their carolling echoed through the palace as they sang Henry’s favourite songs, accompanied by musicians with drums and flutes.

In January 1496 Ringley was paid forty shillings and in 1501 another payment of a hundred shillings to ‘Ryngesley for hym and his company’.  More important than the ‘Abbot's’ pranks were the disguisings and plays presented at court for the Christmas revelry. There were often performances by professional companies and by the king's own players.

In 1501 there were several performances by the Gentlemen of the Chapel, the king's players and the prince's players, although there were no Twelfth Night disguisings. One reason might have been that King Henry was saving for the costly and extravagant wedding of his eldest son, Prince Arthur, in the autumn of that year.

Everything changed for Henry after the sudden death of his son at Ludlow Castle in 1502 and his wife Elizabeth of York the following year. No more ‘disguisings’ are mentioned in the accounts until Christmas 1507/8 when Master Wentworth made a ‘disguysing for a moryce
Daunce’ and there is a Revels Account which shows that Wentworth was with preparing disguisings and pageants for the Flemish ambassadors to England in 1508/9.

King Henry VII died on the 21st April 1509 but his legacy was a Christmas tradition of merry making, music, elaborate fancy-dress masked balls, and parties. This was taken up with great enthusiasm by his son, the new young King Henry VIII, (who enjoyed taking part) as well as Queen Elizabeth I, which Queen Elizabeth II continues to this day!

Source:  The Court Festivals Of Henry VII: A Study Based Upon The Account Books
of John Heron, Treasurer of The Chamber,  By Sydney Anglo, B.A., Ph.D.

Tony Riches

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on  Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.


  1. Love the picture of Henry in the hat!

  2. Great article - some lovely research details and I really enjoyed your vignette. Oh, and of course the hat!

  3. Love the idea of a Lord of Misrule. Looks like it paid well to be one too!

  4. Henry looks very festive! Great post, Tony!

  5. wonderful post, enjoyed the excerpt!

  6. A very interesting post, Tony. Why do you think Henry VII was considered ‘miserly' if he clearly wasn't?


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