Christmas Challenges at the Stuart Court
By Elizabeth St.John
The generality of the gentry of the land soon learned the court fashion, and every great house in the country became a sty of uncleanness. To keep the people in their deplorable security, till vengeance overtook them, they were entertained with masks, stage plays, and sorts of ruder sports. Then began murder, incest, adultery, drunkenness, swearing, fornication, and all sort of ribaldry, to be no concealed but countenanced vices, because they held such conformity with the court example.
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
|Masque Costume “A Star” by Inigo Jones|
Thus Puritan Lucy described the Court of King James, writing some thirty years after his death. She prefaced her dim view of James by further writing “the court of this king was a nursery of lust and intemperance; he had brought in with him a company of poor Scots, who, coming into this plentiful kingdom, were surfeited with riot and debaucheries, and got all the riches of the land only to cast away.”
King James did not disagree he had a problem. In a speech before the Star Chamber in 1616 where he severely scolded the courtiers for their profligate and free-wheeling ways, he announced that they were no longer welcome in London to celebrate the festivities. “Christmas,” he announced, “should be celebrated properly.” The aristocracy should return to their country homes, and “keep hospitalitie” in the traditional English fashion “especially at Festiuall times, as Christmas and Easter, and the rest.”
Putting his finger on the pulse of his subjects, James had detected a sea change underway; Londoners were refusing to support the king’s extravagant Christmas celebrations, and the Court was under scrutiny for its immoral behavior. There was a widening gulf between court and city, and the king and his masque-producers recognized this.
So politically significant was this, that Ben Jonson wrote a text to be performed that year, entitled “Christmas His Masque.” And central to this work–which was more in the form of a mummers’ entertainment than the prohibitively costly extravaganzas he’d designed in previous years–Londoners, upper and working classes alike, were accused of failing to keep Christmas the way the king thought it should be observed.
Up until this point, the lords in their vast country houses celebrated Christmas with much merriment, feasting, dancing, and gambling, all under the jovial direction of the Lord of Misrule, head of the festivities. In the city, gift-giving and pageantry filled the days, all the way through Epiphany to Twelfth Night. In both locations, costs were getting way out of control, and resentment was creeping in from those who were being forced to pay for these excesses.
In this context, King James was his own worst enemy. To feed his passion for masques and sumptuous entertainment (shared by his wife and masque-star, Queen Anne of Denmark), especially around Christmas-time, he spent outrageously from the coffers filled by the good citizens of London. Resenting the expenditure of their taxes on these extravagant shows, Londoners found numerous ways to avoid these costly and obligatory demonstrations of love and loyalty. In fact, a court masque in 1610 which included a lavish gift to the king intended to show foreign diplomats “the loving support” of Englishmen for their king, had to be paid in advance by the treasury, since there was insufficient confidence that Londoners would cough up.
Enough of all this Christmas commercialism. The City had had enough.
As far as King James and his masque-maker Ben Jonson were concerned, there were even darker forces at work. Puritans. There was a conviction among reformed Christians that these drunken feasts and rude mummers could be traced to Roman times; and thus idolatrous pagans were the root of these Christmas evils. Elsewhere in his Star Chamber speech, King James accused the “Puritans and Nouelists” of undermining the very spirit of Christmas. He despised Puritans, and he felt their attacks on his court completely unjustified and misplaced.
And so, back to Ben Jonson’s masque. Always one to smooth over sticky situations and weave current political messages into his performances, in 1616 Jonson wrote a simple throwback mummers’ play populated with charming London apprentices and shopkeepers, all alleged to be supporting the spirit of Christmas. Gone was the complex and hideously expensive multiple-act masques with great scene changes and elaborate costumes. In this production, one by one these jovial citizens appear in front of the king in their traditional working clothes and clever names, accompanied by torchbearers and all demonstrating London’s support of their king’s beliefs. In fact, Christmas even announces at court:
“Now their intent is about the present,
With all the appurtenances
A right Christmas, as of old it was,
To be gathered out of the dances.
There was only one problem. The audience knew that these were all actors, and that the play actually points out the failure of any Londoners to show up at court to celebrate Christmas or support the king. And the central message of the play was more about advising the king on how to use his royal power to recapture his rebellious Londoner’s loyalties, than a sentimental yearning for Christmas past.
This was by no means the last of the Christmas masques, and Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones continued to write and produce an extraordinary collection of opulent, extravagant and complex masques well into Charles’ I’s reign.
But perhaps Christmas His Masque was the first indication that not all was at peace at Christmas time in London. Deeper forces were at work challenging the king’s decree that hinted of political dissention, not just a disagreement on how Christmas should be kept.
The full text of “Christmas his Masque” can be found here:
Here’s a guide to Masques from the Banqueting House in London:
The Lady Of The Tower
Orphaned Lucy St.John, described as "the most beautiful of all," defies English society by carving her own path through the decadent Stuart court. In 1609, the early days of the rule of James I are a time of glittering pageantry and cutthroat ambition, when the most dangerous thing one can do is fall in love . . . or make an enemy of Frances Howard, the reigning court beauty. Lucy catches the eye of the Earl of Suffolk, but her envious sister Barbara is determined to ruin her happiness. Exiling herself from the court, Lucy has to find her own path through life, becoming mistress of the Tower of London. Riding the coattails of the king’s favorite, the Duke of Buckingham, the fortunes of the St.Johns rise to dizzying heights. But with great wealth comes betrayal, leaving Lucy to fight for her survival—and her honor—in a world of deceit and debauchery. Elizabeth St.John tells this dramatic story of love, betrayal, family bonds and loyalty through the eyes of her ancestor Lucy and her family’s surviving diaries, letters and court papers.
By Love Divided
Fiercely independent, Luce Apsley rejects the dazzling English court and an arranged marriage by her aristocratic family, and falls in love with a Roundhead soldier. Desperate to rebuild their lives, her mother embraces the Puritan cause and yet Luce’s beloved brother, Sir Allen Apsley, chooses to fight for king and joins the gallant Royalists. As England marches into civil war, Luce embraces Parliament's radical views and challenges the very core of the family's beliefs. When their influential Villiers cousins raise the stakes, King Charles demands a loyalty of Allen that could jeopardize them all. Allen and Luce face a devastating challenge. Will war unite or divide them? In the dawn of England’s rebellion, love is the final battleground.
Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost.
Elizabeth’s debut novel, The Lady of the Tower, has been an Amazon best seller since its release in 2016, and has won numerous awards for historical fiction. By Love Divided, the second in The Lydiard Chronicles series, follows the fortunes of the St.John family during the English Civil War, and was featured a the 2018 Swindon Festival of Literature as well as recognized with an “Editors’ Choice” by the Historical Novel Society. Elizabeth’s currently working on the next in the series, telling of the lives of the St.John women after the Civil War and into the Restoration.