A late medieval Christmas - or two, by Alex Marchant
With the holidays fast approaching, I thought it would be apt to offer a little festive post. A year or two back I was asked by a fellow blogger to write a Christmassy guest blog for her. As her blog covers mostly historical fiction, she asked me to take the theme of 'Christmas during the reign of King Richard III', King Richard of course being the focus of my two books to date (four if one counts the two charity anthologies I’ve edited!)
King Richard Christmas tree ornament!
Given that only two Christmas seasons were celebrated during Richard’s short reign, it seemed a slightly tricky prospect and I fell back on the idea of the ‘topsy-turvy Christmas’ of the medieval period, which features in The King’s Man – when a Lord of Misrule is elected and servants are waited upon by their masters, etc. (See https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/topsy-turvy-christmas/).
But after a little more thought, I realized that in fact we do know rather more about those two Yuletides than I had initially thought. While the records of Richard’s reign are woefully thin on the ground (owing in some cases to deliberate destruction, because they didn’t fit the preferred story of the Tudor regime about this maligned king), enough survive for various reasons to give an idea of how he – and perhaps others of his time – celebrated this important religious and secular occasion.
I suspect in many ways, the feasting, dancing, mumming and other festivities, along with the religious observations, were not unlike those enjoyed in the previous reign of Edward IV or the following ones of the early Tudor monarchs, but a small window on King Richard’s Christmases can just about be prized open. This is particularly the case with his final Christmas, that of 1484, owing to the waspish words of a chronicler, who was likely writing some time after Richard’s defeat at Bosworth ... and taking the opportunity to view that time in hindsight and make the dead king’s actions blameworthy for what would come later.
Richard ascended the throne in the summer of 1483. The previous Christmas, 1482, it seems he spent in London, perhaps at his brother Edward IV’s court: Parliament had been called for the middle of January and Richard is known to have purchased gifts from a London goldsmith during the festive period. The following months wrought great changes in his life, and that of many around him: his brother died unexpectedly, Richard became Protector of the realm, his nephew – the new King Edward V – was declared illegitimate owing to his parents’ bigamous marriage, and Richard then was offered, and accepted, the throne as the next legitimate heir.
Autumn 1483 brought rebellion against the new king – by rival Lancastrians presumably seeing the upheaval as a chance to try again for the throne – but it was relatively easily quashed and King Richard returned to his capital in triumph, just in time for Advent. The scene was set for a magnificent Christmas at the new court.
|From the Histoire d’Olivier de Castile|
There is some evidence that Richard’s finances were precarious in the early part of his reign, owing to difficulties in securing his brother’s treasury during the Protectorate, and then the expenses of gathering and equipping the army to put down the rebellion. But his relations with the wealthy merchants of London and elsewhere were always amicable, especially after the various favourable laws he enacted in his only Parliament, and they were happy to advance money on various royal treasures, such as a gold and jewel-encrusted salt cellar and a helmet embellished with gold, gems and pearls, in order to fund the festivities. A bill to the enormous sum of £1,200 was run up with a mercer, no doubt to supply sumptuous gowns, outfits and gifts for the king, queen and courtiers, and Richard likely treated his wife, Anne, to the finest jewels, having earlier in the month licensed a Genoese merchant to import precious gems, so long as he himself was given first option to buy.
|The Middleham jewel: might it have been made |
for Queen Anne, perhaps as a Yuletide gift?
The following year, 1484, again brought tragedy for Richard’s family with the death of his only legitimate son and heir, little Edward of Middleham, in the spring. But in December, as the twelve days of Christmas began, it was again time for the conspicuous consumption that was required of a king. The court must impress with lavish feasting, gifts, entertainments, largesse, charitable donations, a display that would show all was well in the kingdom – whatever personal tragedy might befall its premier family, or whatever threat might be lurking abroad. For it is said that King Richard was brought news of Henry Tudor’s planned invasion during the Twelfth Night festivities – although that might be that devious chronicler juxtaposing unrelated events once again for his own purposes.
That chronicler, writing a year or two later at Crowland abbey in Lincolnshire, was also at it – as mentioned earlier – when deploring the opulent nature of the festivities. As so often happens with Edward IV, he let the previous king’s magnificent, even excessive celebrations a few years before have a bye, but Richard must be castigated – now that Henry Tudor has become king! He laments the expense, the splendour, even the quantity of singing and dancing (perhaps it was too much for a cleric) at the Yuletide court – but in particular he targets the ‘vain changes of dress – similar in colour and design’ of Queen Anne and her niece, Elizabeth of York, illegitimate daughter of the old king, saying ‘At this people began to talk, and the lords and prelates were horrified.’ His aim appears to be to link this with the later rumour that surfaced after Queen Anne’s tragic death the following spring, that Richard was considering marrying his niece – and may even have been responsible for his wife’s death – in the same way as he also appears to suggest little Edward’s death was somehow retribution for Richard’s earlier ‘crimes’.
Yet in truth it had long been a tradition in medieval courts, both in England and elsewhere, that the entire household would dress in the same colour on certain feast days: during the lengthy Christmas revelries, they might alternate colours on different days, with the ladies wearing colours to complement the men’s outfits (which may have led to the enormous mercer’s bill mentioned above). And Richard had pledged to ensure Elizabeth married well, despite her illegitimacy, and by the spring was in negotiations for her to wed Duke Manuel of Beja, later King Manuel I of Portugal.
|Elizabeth of York, Richard's eldest niece, |
later wife to Henry Tudor
In my own novel for children, The King’s Man, telling the story of Richard’s ascent to the throne and his all-too-brief reign, my leading protagonist, Matthew, is kept abreast of events at court by letters from his good friend, Alys, which are ‘full of the colour and finery of the royal festivities’. And her words about the King and Queen fill him ‘with the good cheer suitable to the Christmas season’:
During Christmas they have looked happier than I had seen them for months, at least since that terrible time in the spring [when Edward died]. The Queen and Elizabeth and all the ladies have been wearing the most sumptuous gowns of cream and gold, while the gentlemen have dressed mostly in blues and greys. But on Twelfth Night – what a spectacle! We were all clad in red or gold, like flames in the great fireplaces of the palace. The Queen had made a gift to Elizabeth of a gown exactly like her own, and the King had presented them both with the most beautiful jewels. He then led both of them out to dance while everyone cheered and clapped.
One last moment of pleasure, maybe, before the dire events of the coming months. But, as always seems to be the case with Richard, everything must be viewed by Tudor sources and the later historians that follow them in the light of what later transpired, and must be related back to the crimes that this most maligned of kings is alleged to have committed. However, I prefer to think that perhaps Christmas 1484 offered this royal couple a brief glimmer of light, hope even, in an otherwise grim year. And it offers us a glimpse of the colourful celebrations of the time. Excess at this time of the year is nothing new!
Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, r and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name