Just as the company Christmas party can lead to embarrassing situations, some 15th century festivities could also lead to scandal. This was the case of the Christmas feasts held by England’s King Richard III, which in the words of one writer was “shameful.”
Some of the music from the period will be featured in a concert to be held next month at the University of Leicester. It will coincide with the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology, which might be the venue where it will be revealed if the remains found in Leicester earlier this year are actually that of the English ruler who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
The 15th century writer of the Croyland Chronicle wrote disapprovingly of ‘the goings-on’ at court during Christmas in 1484. The writer says that he was unable to account for many of the activities “because it is shameful to speak of them” – but is particularly critical of the dancing, festivity and “vain changes of apparel” of Queen Anne and Elizabeth of York, Richard III’s niece.
Bishop Thomas Langton, who was a close supporter of Richard III, was similarly disapproving. The bishop wrote that ‘sensual pleasure holds sway to an increasing extent’, though he tactfully refrained from elaborating on that elusive comment.
Professor Norman Housley, of the University of Leicester School of Historical Studies, comments that ‘Compared with the wild parties that were held at Rome during the reign of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), the English court under Edward IV and Richard III was a model of virtue’.
Janet Forbes, a graduate of the Royal Conservatory, The Hague, and one of the performers at the upcoming concert, added, “Even in the 15th century there were disagreements about the ‘REAL’ meaning of Christmas. Those who criticise him for his Christmas parties are religious figures – so naturally they think that the focus at Christmas time should be exclusively on religion.
“During the power struggle before his ascension to the throne, Richard III had spread rumours about how licentious and morally corrupted Edward IV’s court had been – he was trying to cast aspersions on the Queen’s family, and show, in contrast, how virtuous he was.
“In this he styles himself as a good, pious, learned, serious, virtuous man – so his propensity to party would have annoyed those people who believed and supported this image and these qualities in a King.”
Christmas celebrations in 15th century England were somewhat different from modern ones, with the festivities being held over a number of days. While the traditions of Santa Clause or Father Christmas were not yet occurring they did celebrate a saints’ day for St Nicholas on 6 December. They believed that St Nicholas brought fruit, nuts, sweetmeats and spiced cakes; hence marzipan and gingerbread became associated with Christmas; while figs, dates and raisins, mixed with sugar and spices and meat was the origin of ‘mincemeat’.
6 December was the day when cathedrals chose their ‘boy bishop’ or ‘lord of misrule’, assisted by their fellow scholars and choristers they were allowed to direct the merry making. In some places this took place on 28 December, Holy Innocents Day, and the festivities could last for two days. This inversion of the normal roles, where masters served servants at dinner, symbolised the levelling of rank and the overturning by God of human ideas of rank and glory. The 1 January was the Feast of Fools and priests and clerks would wear masks, sing wanton songs and use old shoes for incense. The subversion of order and the desire to make merry could lead to riots, and during the twelve nights of Christmas Lords often set up special force of watchmen to try and maintain order.
Eating, drinking and singing were one part of Christmas activities; people would also, play cards and games and mummers would perform plays generally around St George and the dragon. Such raucous entertainments led Margery Paston to enquire what the acceptable form was at Christmas, while a household was in mourning. She asked her near neighbour, Lady Morley, what she had permitted following the death of her husband. Her reply was that there were no ‘dysgysyngs, ner harping, ner luting, ner syngyn, ner non lowed dysports, but pleying at the tabyllys, and chesse, and card … and non odyr’
Gift giving took place on 6 January, the Epiphany, the day when the three Magi arrived with their gifts. This custom reflected a belief that gifts could foretell the future luck of the household for the coming year. The superstitions that had developed over Christmas were often loudly condemned by the church.
The concert will be held on Friday 11 January, 2013, 6:30 pm at the University’s Fraser Noble Hall in Leicester and will feature a trio of leading Early Music performers. Entitled, Richard III: A Musical Biography, it will explore the kind of music he would have grown up with in England as well as during his time abroad. There will be singing and dance music, as well as more serious pieces.
The concert will take place on Friday 11 January from 6.30pm to 7.30 pm and will be held at the Fraser Noble Hall, Leicester. Tickets are £5 for the general public and £3 for Society for Historical Archaeology delegates, and can be booked through the University’s Shop@le website. Tickets will also be available at the door.
See also Seven Medieval Christmas Traditions
Source: University of Leicester