Friday, December 23, 2016




On the Sunday before Candlemass, in the night, one hundred and thirty citizens, disguised and well horsed, in a mummery, with sound of trumpets, sackbuts, cornets, shames, and other minstrels, and innumerable torch lights of wax, rode from Newgate, through Cheape, over the bridge, ... and so to Kennington beside Lambhith, where the young prince remained with his mother and the Duke of Lancaster


Medieval mummers, disguised wearing animal heads and stag's antlers.
The royal Christmas celebrations of 1377 have been thought to be quite the gold standard in holiday affairs by those who study medieval English Christmas celebrations. Doubtless planned by Gaunt in the first year of his nephew's minority, they rivaled those of the previous year at Windsor in which Gaunt's father, Edward III, presented his grandson Richard of Bordeaux as his intended heir. Festivities and feasting were reportedly provided for more than 10,000 people, requiring the slaughter and preparation of 28 oxen and 300 sheep.

The good citizens of London seemed to have temporarily put aside their political differences with Gaunt and provided mummers, games & gifts for the entertainment of the boy-king and his entourage, which included the royal courts of his mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales Joan of Kent, and that of his powerful uncle John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, at Kennington Palace.


In the first rank did ride forty-eight in the likeness and habit of esquires, two and two together, clothed in red coats and gowns of say or sandal, with comely visors on their faces; after them came riding forty-eight knights in the same livery of colour and stuff; then followed one richly arrayed like an emperor; and after him some distance, one stately attired like a pope, whom followed twenty-four cardinals, and after then eight or ten with black visors, not amiable, as if they had been legates from some foreign princes...

Kennington Palace was no courtly backwater; earlier that year, when Gaunt was experiencing some difficulties and personal affronts from the Londoners, he was thought to be at his famous Palace of the Savoy where an unruly mob sought him as well as Henry Percy, Marshall of England. Gaunt and Percy instead happened to be dining with John of Ypres at his Inn and, when alerted of the mob, hastily departed by barge to Kennington where the Princess of Wales and her son Richard of Bordeaux were residing and were given shelter.  Joan of Kent's residence was thus doubtless a luxuriously confortable, if not entirely defensible, palace and an altogether appropriate place to celebrate the first Christes' Mass of the boy-king Richard II. It was a place in which, as we've seen above, was a good place in which to spend the celebratory days of Christmas rife with feasting, gaming and pageantry.  Unfortunately, history has seemingly erased all trace of the medieval palace and the image below cannot be dated to earlier than its presumed 1531 destruction under Henry VIII:



One reason for Christmas feasting and merriment was that it followed Advent, a period during which no animal products were to be consumed, with the exception of fish (which one simply did NOT serve during Christmas as people were sick of it and the host thought the more poorly for it serving), goose (as long as one claimed in good conscience that it was the mythical barnacle goose) and tail of beaver (it was declared sufficiently fish-like as it lived in the water). The hours of daylight were shorter and the cold could be bitterly so. The feasts on Christmas day, however, served to mitigate some measure of all that. Eggs, cheese, milk and meats could be eaten (the boar's head presentation was fairly common throughout the land and even in those areas where there were no boars to eat, it was still traditional to serve up some foodstuff resembling a boar's head). Goose, ox, all manner of other birds, pigs and venison were artfully served at the aristocrat's table, basted and baked with butter and saffron to give a golden hue. The royal even ate swan (The Carmina Burana songs written from a set of 13th century German poems, even contain a humorous entry Cignus ustus cantat about a swan being cooked for dinner which ends somewhat amusingly if ominously with the line, dentes frendentes video). Frumenty, a fruited and spiced grain pottage, was also popular as was mincemeat (actual minced meat with spices) and, well, anything you could do with the meat you could procure.
For the period between here and Lent people found reason to come together in food, wine or ale, the warmth of the pagan Yule log, games and the singing of songs that the church at the time was not particularly fond of (one can almost see why they would not be enthralled by the idea of drunken revelers singing non-liturgical songs in their hallowed grounds). Collectively, these would be the precursors to the caroling tradition – the joyful, sometimes dancing, probably always inebriated singing of non-liturgical songs or “carols,” some of which we continue to hear today.

Also doubtless present at the Kennington celebrations' cosy if prominent royal family affair were Gaunt's family, including his Duchess, Constance, and their daughter Catherine/Catalina; his son and heir Henry; his daughters Philippa and Elizabeth, as well as their governess, Katherine Swynford, and her then-three children by Gaunt, John, Thomas and either Henry or Joan Beaufort, all of whom would have been young children of the approximate age of 5 and under. Also likely present was Katherine's sister, Philippa Chaucer, who had joined the court of Gaunt's Duchess Constance in 1372 (her husband, Geoffrey Chaucer, however, was away this Christmas on the King's diplomatic business). Though Gaunt had had his problems with the Londoners and their disapproval of his handling the affairs of his father in his dotage and now his nephew in his minority, 1377 had been a good year for Katherine. Earlier that March she had received confirmation of Gaunt's grant to her of the Nottinghamshire manors of Gringly and Whetly, the resources from which may have been used for her improvement programme at Kettlethorpe, where she may have sometimes retreated in times of advanced pregnancy (we know, for example, that Gaunt ordered wine to be immediately delivered to her there, and some of his financial registry entries are dated from Kettlethorpe). Katherine was secure in her position, both as governess to Gaunt's daughters as well as his recognized mistress and preferred female companion. Indeed, these were heady years for her prior to the tumult of the 1381 Peasant's Revolt and the uncertainty it would bring to her position at court. But in 1377, at Christmas, she likely enjoyed family, the mummeries, games, and smells and sights, good food and the happiness and security of her life near the very center of the court of the country's largest land owner and richest magnate.

These masters, after they had entered Kenington, alighted from their horses, and entered the hall on foot; which done, the prince, his mother, and the lords, came out of the chambers into the hall, whom the said mummers did salute, showing by a pair of dice upon the table their desire to play with the prince, which they so handled that the prince did always win when he cast them.

Then the mummers set to the prince three jewels, one after another, which were a bowl of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the prince won at three casts. Then they set to the prince's mother, the duke the earls, and other lords, to every one a ring of gold, which they did also win...


Medieval MS illumination of gaming with dice; see
http://www.larsdatter.com/games-dice.htm for more information.
The playing of various games was another important feature of medieval Christmas festivities. The 1377 accounts clearly reference various dice-based games of chance that somehow always ended in the doubtless delighted nine-year-old Richard II winning. These pre-Christian activities were to be repeatedly denounced by the church and yet repeatedly ignored by the populace for a few hundred years. Participants would bet upon the outcome of the dice thrown, usually two or three, as in the image above.  John of Gaunt had a distinct fondness of high quality luxury goods, one of which was likely the famous "Duchess of Lancaster" ring of intricately-worked solid gold with a prong
14th C. Duchess of Lancaster gold ring with sapphire and
the blackletter engraving on the inside reading 'Alas but for fate.
set natural blue sapphire, which recently sold at 
auction within the last year for nearly US $70,000!





Also popular quite possibly were the card games which may have come to England by 1377 via the Castilian companions of the Duchess Constance, who themselves likely acquired the carding habit from Spain's Moorish population. The church wasn't fond of these games, either. A card game named “naibbe” was forbidden by decree in Florence by May, 1376 and another card game preached against in Switzerland by a Dominican friar in Basle in 1377. But merriment was the order of the day and likely all such games that were known to the English at the time were played that season at Kennington.

After which they feasted, and the music sounded, and prince and lords danced on the one part with the mummers, which did also dance; which jollity being ended, they were again made to drink, and then departed in order as they came.

Unlike today, in which Christmas is a single day of celebration (two at most if you consider Christmas Eve), Christmas in the high middle ages for the wealthy was an extravagant series of events lasting for several weeks from Christmas through 12th Night, through New Year and to Candlemass in early February. According to John of Gaunt's extant printed financial Registers and other sources, the family exchanged the more extravagant gifts on New Year's rather than on Christmas, as it was the more celebratory holiday in terms of gift-giving.


John of Gaunt was particularly magnanimous in his New Year's gifts. We know, for example, from his 1373 financial accounts, that he spent a fair amount of money on gifts to his household and that he purchased his luxury goods from the finest London guild of goldsmiths, comprising of divers silver-gilt hannaps and divers gold beads [paternosters] and gold brooches and rings and phials and other jewels bought from them for us and given away on New Year's Day at Eltham last year.  Indeed, in that same year, Gaunt had provided a gift for Philippa Chaucer, of his wife's court, of a “botoner” and six silver-gilt buttons; he later in 1381 and 1382 gave her gifts of a covered silver hanap and two additional silver hanaps.


Gaunt purchased his luxury gift items from only the best; his favorite seems to have been the Nicholas Twyford noted in his financial accounts as well as London record. Nicholas Twyford was most fortunate in securing the favor of both John of Gaunt as well as the young Richard II. Twyford was a member of the London Company of Goldsmiths (a guild), recognized as early as 1327 and having a membership of 135 by 1368. Twyford himself would become Mayor of London in 1388 having no doubt distinguished himself in 1377 for the coronation of the boy-king: “When the royal procession reached Cheapside where the shops of the goldsmiths were concentrated, beautiful young ladies showered the ten-year-old monarch with leaves of gold and presented him with gold cups full of fine wine. A golden angel descended with a golden crown, which was offered to Richard as he rode past. The king must have been well pleased with the spectacle, as well as the guild's generosity, because the entire pageant was restaged as part of his 1392 royal entry into London.”  John of Gaunt would continue to utilize Twyford's services for a decade or more to come.

Ahh, and then, there was the food itself. Richard II is notable for many things, including increasing the numbers of women and their roles in the Order of the Garter (Katherine herself would be inducted in 1386/7), and his artistic as well as his culinary interests. The “Forme of Curye,” ca. 1390, is a collection of his court's recipes and provides an interesting insight into what may have been consumed on that Christmas period of 1377 inasmuch as it is a collection of what was likely Richard's favorites. It contains 196 recipes, many of which would appear strange to the modern eye.




Fish, of course, was entirely out of the question. People were likely sick of eating nothing but fish and little else during Advent. Cooking with (mostly imported) spices heightened the dining activity, and known to have been in use are cinnamon, mace, cloves, ginger, pepper, cardamom and nutmeg.17 Honey was likewise more prevalent in use than 'white sugar' as a sweetener, and it was sometimes clarified by boiling it with egg whites. Every manner of bird and flesh animal (any bird that could be caught, deer, rabbits, hens, pigs, cows, boars), when provisioned, would be served, often in sauces that might make some of us wince. Almond milk was used rather a lot, as was wine. Sweets, too, such as marchpane, would be served in curiously devised forms meant to delight the person eating them. For the wealthy, dishes as well as goblets for wine, both domestic as well as imported, would be provided, and the evening would end with people singing, dancing, drinking and, eventually, sleeping.

Christmas in later medieval England for the non-noble classes, however, was a somewhat different affair. Certainly, the period was celebrated albeit in a less luxuriant manner. The period would be amongst the last feasting days sanctified by the Church, itself perhaps a grudging admission that there simply wasn't much celebratory foodstuffs available to the non-noble class in winter. In an age of no refrigeration and few preservatives, village laborers – who may have received time off from work – could perhaps expect to share a hen with another; maybe a whole hen if he or she were really fortunate. Such persons were welcomed to the local manor, such as Kettlethorpe, where such a feast would be prepared, together with the lighting of a Yule log, and Katherine would have presided over the festivities at the head table as Lady of Kettlethorpe. Each villager would have been expected to provide his own plate/trencher or use the supplied bread as a plate to be scooped out and filled with meats and other savory fare; each was also to supply his or her own firewood lest s/he receive insufficiently cooked meat as well as a tankard or other cup. (And, if you wished for a napkin, you were on your own, although if you brought one, you were sometimes allowed to carry away any excess food that would fit.) Each was also to be provided with continued ale or alcohol (some of which ironically could be purchased at the larger churchyards) and sometimes a bed in which to sleep. It was good, celebratory, hearty fare, and Katherine's Kettlethorpe residents no doubt appreciated every minute of the days of feasting. However, it was nothing like the 300 sheep slaughtered for Gaunt's spectacular celebration for 10,000 Londoners at Kennington.


Bowers, John M. The Politcs of Pearl: Court Poetry in the Age of Richard II., (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001)


Wintle, Simon. “A 'Moorish' Sheet of Playing Cards.” The Journal of the International Playing-Card Society (London), Vol. XV, No. 4, May 1987

'Vintrie warde', A Survey of London, by John Stow: Reprinted from the text of 1603 (1908), pp. 238-250. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=60042&strquery=christmas 1377

Royal panoply: brief lives of the English monarchs‬. Erickson, Carolly
Taylor, Charles. The Literary Panorama. Vol. 10, p. 1124. (London: 1810).
Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days: a miscellany of popular antiquities... Vol. 2, p. 739. (London: 1832).
Murray, Alexander, "Medieval Christmas", History Today, December 1986, 36 (12)

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