Today in London’s festive history: Puritan ban on Xmas widely ignored in London, 1644.

Everyone knows that Cromwell and the puritans of the English Revolution banned Christmas…
Perhaps less well-known is the opposition and resistance the ban aroused. In London, as elsewhere, the repression of popular culture was not imposed without rioting and disorder…

During the seventeenth century, as now, Christmas was one of the most important dates in the calendar, both as a religious festival and as a holiday. Over the twelve days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; pretty much everyone went to Christmas Day church services, presents were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Large quantities of food were obviously also eaten – this period of winter following on from the annual slaughtering of livestock, and a couple of months after the harvest, it was one time in the year when food was in relatively plentiful supply (in contrast summertime was comparatively lean); so great quantities of brawn, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’, minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed. Dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays filled the days.

Also associated with this time of year were drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess (so some things have TOTALLY changed then…!) Most of the festivals dotted through the year had an element of disorder and licence to go a bit wild. The idea of ‘misrule’, and of a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas (generally associated with Holy Innocents Day, 28th December), a time of limited licenced reversal and breakdown of hierarchies, a useful safety-valve for the simmering class and other tensions within society.

The disorderly pleasures of Christmas, however, enraged the Puritans of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes, the author of The Anatomie of Abuses, complained:

“That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”

The celebration of Christmas emerged as one focus of a kind of culture war, a religious division within early seventeenth-century society. This was a contributing factor to the tensions that lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution in the 1640s. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it.

Pressure had been building before the civil war, from zealous Protestants, outraged by the unruly and immoral nature of Christmas festivities (and other festivals) and suspicious of feast’s link to Catholicism and the old saints’ days. The 1637 Scots Presbyterian Rebellion jacked up the pressure – the Scots had already banned Xmas before, and did so again in 1640. As both England and Scotland slid into Civil War, the alliance of English parliamentarians with the Scots church led to a spreading of the idea of doing away with the celebrations south of the border.

The controversy over how Christmas should be celebrated in London and the other Parliamentary centres surfaced in the early stages of the Civil War. In December 1642 Thomas Fuller remarked, in a fast sermon delivered on Holy Innocents Day, that ‘on this day a fast and feast do both justle together, and the question is which should take place in our affections’. While admitting that the young might be ‘so addicted to their toys and Christmas sports that they will not be weaned from them’, he advised the older generation among his listeners not to be ‘transported with their follies, but mourn while they are in mirth’.

There were three angles to the repression – the phasing out of traditional Xmas church services, the closing down on the more festive celebrations, and the enforcing of 25th December as a normal day not a feast day.

In 1643, some Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other, while several London ministers kept their church doors firmly shut. Puritan MPs also turned up to sit in the parliament on Xmas Day.
But the cancellation of Christmas aroused huge popular resentment – not just in the royalist camp, but in the districts controlled by parliament, too. In 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers in Cheapside who had opened on Christmas Day, and, in the words of a delighted royalist, “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”. In reporting the incident Mercurius Civicus sympathised with the shopkeepers but argued that to avoid ‘disturbance and uproars in the City’ they should have waited ’till such time as a course shall be taken by lawful authority with matters of that nature’.

The following year Christmas Day happened to on the last Wednesday in the month, the day set aside for a regular monthly fast, upon which parliament’s supporters were enjoined to pray for the success of their cause. On December 19th an ordinance was passed directing that the fast day should be observed in the normal way, but:

“With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights…”

Both Houses of Parliament attended fast sermons delivered by Presbyterian ministers on December 25th, 1644, the Commons hearing from Thomas Thorowgood that:

“The providence of heaven is here become a Moderator appointing the highest festival of all the year to meet with our monthly fast and be subdued by it.”

But again there was resentment and resistance. Many therefore simply defied the government, and despite the pressures and intimidation, refused to abandon their traditional practices. On 24 December 1644, the editor of a pro-parliamentarian news-pamphlet expressed his support for the MPs’ decision to favour the monthly fast over the traditional feast, but admitted that “the parliament is cried out on” by the common people as a result, with incredulous shouts of “What, not keep Christmas? Here’s a Reformation indeed!”

Immediately following this (in January 1645) parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, aimed at replacing the Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all. At Christmas-time 1645 it was said, you could walk right through the parliamentary quarters, and “perceive no sign or token of any holy day”. Over the following year and a half, the king was beaten in the civil war, and the puritans strengthened their hand over the country.

MPs suspected those celebrating Xmas of harbouring sympathies for the king. In some cases this might have been true (though the London apprentices who rioted in favour of keeping this and other festivals had also formed part of the shock troops of the early struggles against the king a couple of years earlier). But its also apparent that such social repression drove previously sympathetic or neutral folk into a more pro-royal position.

But most Englishmen and women continued to cling to their traditional Christmas customs. So strong was the popular attachment to the old festivities, indeed, that during the postwar period a number of pro-Christmas riots occurred. Most notably, in December 1646 threats by a crowd of young men at Bury St Edmunds against local tradesmen who had opened their shops on Christmas Day led to a riot.

In June 1647, parliament passed an ordinance which abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month; it also declared the celebration of Christmas to be a punishable offence. But again there were pro-Christmas riots, on 25 December 1647, at Bury St Edmunds again, and at Norwich and Ipswich. During the course of the Ipswich riot, a protestor named ‘Christmas’ was reported to have been slain – a fatality which could be regarded as richly symbolic, of course, of the way that parliament had ‘killed’ Christmas itself.

In London, a crowd of apprentices assembled at Cornhill on Christmas Day, and there “in despite of authority, they set up Holly and Ivy” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit. The lord mayor sent militia “to pull down these gawds,” but the apprentices fought them off, until the mayor and a party of soldiers arrived to break up the demonstration by force. During the Christmas of 1647, a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title The Stillborn Nativity.

The worst disturbances of all took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city. This riot helped to pave the way for a major insurrection in Kent in 1648 that itself formed part of the ‘Second Civil War’ – a scattered series of risings against the parliament and in favour of the king, which Fairfax and Cromwell only managed to suppress with great difficulty.

The least successful prong of the attack on Xmas was Parliament’s attempt to abolish the traditional holiday over the Christmas period. With the churches and shops closed, the populace resorted to its traditional pastimes. In 1652 The Flying Eagle informed its readers that the ‘taverns and taphouses’ were full on Christmas Day, ‘Bacchus bearing the bell amongst the people as if neither custom or excise were any burden to them’, and claimed that ‘the poor will pawn all to the clothes of their back to provide Christmas pies for their bellies and the broth of abominable things in their vessels, though they starve or pine for it all the year after’.

On December 27th, 1650, Sir Henry Mildmay reported to the House of Commons that on the 25th there had been:

“…very wilful and strict observation of the day commonly called Christmas Day throughout the cities of London and Westminster, by a general keeping of their shops shut up and that there were contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof.”

Several newsbooks reported a similar complete closure in London in 1652, and on Christmas Day 1656 one MP remarked that ‘one may pass from the Tower to Westminster and not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’.

However, as time went by, and puritan culture achieved ascendancy through the 1650s, Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. The Anglican diarist John Evelyn could find no Christmas services to attend in 1652 or 1655, but in 1657 he joined a ‘grand assembly’ which celebrated the birth of Christ in Exeter House chapel in the Strand. Along with others in the congregation, he was afterwards arrested and held for questioning for some time by the army. Other services took place the same day in Fleet Street and at Garlick Hill where, according to an army report, those involved included ‘some old choristers and new taught singing boys’ and where ‘all the people bowed and cringed as if there had been mass’.

Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.

In February 1656 Ezekial Woodward had to admit that ‘the people go on holding fast to their heathenish customs and abominable idolatries, and think they do well’. The same fact was also obvious to those few MPs who attended the Commons on Christmas Day 1656. One complained that he had been disturbed the whole of the previous night by the preparations for ‘this foolish day’s solemnity’, and John Lambert warned them that, as he spoke, the Royalists would be ‘merry over their Christmas pies, drinking the King of Scots health, or your confusion’.

Traditional Christmas festivities duly returned to England with Charles II in 1660, and while the Restoration’s association with maypoles and ‘Merry England’ may have been overstated in the past, there is no doubt that most English people were very glad that their Christmas celebrations were once more acceptable. According to The Kingdom’s Intelligencer, at Maidstone in Kent, where there had been no Christmas Day services for seventeen years, on December 25th, 1660, several sermons were preached and communion administered, ‘to the joy of many hundred Christians’. On the Sunday before Christmas, Samuel Pepys’ church in London was decorated with rosemary and bays; on the 25th Pepys attended morning service and returned home to a Christmas dinner of shoulder of mutton and chicken. Predictably, he slept through the afternoon sermon, but he had revived sufficiently by the evening to read and play his lute. The Buckinghamshire gentry family, the Verneys, resumed their celebrations on a grand scale; in 1664 a family friend wrote that:

… the news at Buckingham is that you will keep the best Christmas in the shire, and to that end have bought more fruit and spice than half the porters in London can weigh out in a day.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s theatrical history: playing Bottom on a Sunday gets Mr Wilson into trouble, 1631.

The branches of protestant Christianity generally lumped together and described (particularly when discussing the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain) as puritanism were in fact widely variable.

But we’re not going to go into that… What follows may include a lot of simplification.

Puritans were generally concerned to reform and ‘purify’ the existing church, or to separate themselves as an elect apart from those they considered unsaved or unsaveable.

One well-known aspect of puritan belief was their attack on popular culture; a widespread attempt to close down many of the festivals, holidays, pastimes, performances and other daily pleasures that had characterised everyday life for centuries. Puritans were far from alone in campaigning to shut down the teeming rambunctious whirlwind of drink, dancing, sex, satire and abandon that made life bearable – catholic and protestant authorities were also often jointly keen to clean up daily life and its immoralities. The puritans were pretty dedicated however…

Puritan activists had tried and failed in the late sixteenth century to capture and reform the national church according to their program… However to some extent they fell back on what has been called the “puritan reformation of manners” – attempting to impose their moral reforms on the communities around them at a local level. This took the form of denouncing what they saw as the excesses of popular culture, trying to enforce restrictions as to how people were allowed to behave in their daily and weekly life, especially their pleasures. Most notably on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day Christians considered holy, a day puritans thought should be spent in worship of God only. But Sunday was most people’s only day off, so where they could, large numbers would spend the day in pleasure, whether taking part in games and sports, drinking, meeting up and hanging out… The puritans did not originate the idea of the Sabbath as holy, or a day that should be upheld morally, it had a long history on various branches of Christianity

So on a local level, puritans attempted to enforce the ‘holiness’ of the Sabbath; in the early 17th century, they were successful in London (and elsewhere) in making links with constables and justices, through whom they administered their moral agenda, which became translated into ‘county and corporation orders’…

Attempts to repress culture they considered immoral and ungodly took many forms, and formed a constant barrage of local laws, agitation, denunciation… Another aspect of life many (though not all) puritans took a dim view of was theatre. Between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth century, sections of puritan opinion waged a propaganda war against the putting on of plays; when a Parliament with a substantial ‘godly’ element came to power as the English Civil War was fermenting and breaking out, the banning of theatre in 1642 was among its early acts relating to social policy.

For many of the Godly, theatre encouraged disorder, immorality, sexual banter and frivolity. Philip Stubbes in his Anatomie of Abuses, (1583), levelled a barrage of charges against plays: “Do they not maintain bawdry, insinuate foolery, and renew the remembrance of heathen idolatry? Do they not induce whoredom and uncleanness? Nay, are they not rather plain devourers of maidenly virginity and chastity? For proof whereof mark but the flocking and running to Theaters and Curtains, daily and hourly, night and day, time and tide, to see plays and interludes, where such wanton gestures, such bawdy speeches, such laughing and fleering, such clipping and culling, such winking and glancing of wanton eyes, and the like is used, as is wonderful to behold.”

It wasn’t just the content of the plays themselves, it was also the nature of the threatres, spaces where crowds of man and women gathered together, jostling and unruly, encouraging intimacy, levity, intermingling… But the huge popularity and attention given to plays was also time and energy that should be directed to more serious matters – theatre is mocking godliness, in that “the attention which the plays commanded is not unlike worship… there are analogies between dramatic and and religious expression in the ritual participation of actor and audience, in the use of heightened language and dressing up…” (Margot Heinemann). Theatre is setting itself up as dangerously close to a mockery of true religion.

Puritan repression could fall not only on the licensed theatres. On the 27thSeptember, 1631, a Sunday, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was privately performed in the house of John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, in London, “by order of the right reverend prelate, and for the amusement of himself and divers knights and ladyes…”, beginning about ten at night and ending about two or three in the morning.

Putting on plays on Sunday was bad enough – a definite breach of the Lord’s Day; however there is also a suggestion that Mr Wilson, the actor playing the character of Bottom (said to have been the brains behind the event), had perhaps offended against other mores.

The Puritans had become a powerful force in London life by this time, though still in opposition to the hierarchy of the established church. Their political influence led to an inquiry into the affair. Puritan preacher John Spencer condemned the bishop, wrote at least one letter a letter of reproof from John Spencer, a Puritanical preacher, to a lady who was amongst the audience; and Mr Wilson was punished.

Although puritans are sometimes labelled as being humourless, as the writer of the Chambers Book of Days commented: “there is something rather humorous in what was decreed to the performer of Bottom the weaver”:

‘We do order that Mr. Wilson, as he was a special plotter and contriver of this business, and did in such a brutish manner act the same with an ass’s head, shall upon Tuesday next, from six o’clock in the morning till six o’clock at night, sit in the porter’s lodge at my lord bishop’s house, with his feet in the stocks, and attired with an ass’s head, and a bottle of hay before him, and this subscription on his breast:

‘Good people, I have played the beast,
And brought ill things to pass;
I was a man, but thus have made,
Myself a silly ass.”

Mr Wilson was described as a ‘cunning Musition’… It has been suggested that he could be John Wilson, known as having written songs for theatre company the Kings Men from 1614, and as being a lutenist in this company in 1635. He was later a professor of music at Oxford in 1656.

To some extent, its thought that this may have been an episode in an ongoing culture war, which also played out in political faction fighting in London in the tense years pre-civil war. Bishop Williams was a major player in church and state hierarchies, an opponent of the high church authorities like Archbishop Laud, and tolerant towards puritanism, but a liberal, who tried to steer a middle course in the civil war years… Whether this played part in the puritan denunciation of the play in September 1631 is hard to discern.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s dramatic history: Garrick refuses justices’ request to change the Beggars Opera, 1773.

In September 1773, the actor and impresario David Garrick got into a dispute with the Westminster magistrate John Fielding, over Garrick’s plan to shortly begin staging John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (see our previous post). Fielding was trying to persuade Garrick not to put the play on, as the Opera ‘made people laugh at scenes which they ought to condemn’, thus corrupting the morals of the ‘lowers orders’. Writing to Garrick, Fielding suggested changing the ending of the play, proposing that the protagonist Macheath should be hanged instead of being reprieved.

Fielding was keen to censor immorality on the stage – a long tradition in London, where the authorities saw theatres as potential hotbeds of unrest. From Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century the Lord Chamberlain’s office oversaw theatres and regularly closed down plays seen as unruly or immoral. Nor was the widely held view among magistrates and government that the ‘mob’ that gathered to watch plays could easily become a riotous crowd and a political challenge entirely unjustified… Gradually however, the protection of public morality became a bigger concern for the censors.

Fielding claimed that stagings of the Beggars’ Opera had always resulted in a wave of crime and immorality in the city. Critics replied that he had the cart before the horse – John Gay’s Opera was commenting on the state of the world, not responsible for it.

In reply to Fielding, Garrick ‘in return pleasantly remarked, that it did not seem his interest at present to carry conviction to such lengths’…

Commentators of the time were amused by the request, since Fielding himself was thought to be immured in vice, and to tolerate and profit from the bribes from, any number of rackets in the area he nominally policed… As William Augustus Miles pointed out in a letter to Fielding, ‘not endeavouring to suppress the open practice of all manner of vice and immorality in his own neighbourhood, before he made application to Mr Garrick for the suppression of the Beggars’ Opera… considering the uniform practice of your life… your being intrenched up to your very chin in all manner of vice… the request to Mr Garrick was neither decent nor plausible, and what a man, the least conversant with your character, can hear without a mixture of laughter and indignation…. Do you imagine that to expose vice is the same as to encourage it?’

Ironically, although Garrick refused to play Fielding’s game, Fielding could easily have thought Garrick would be up for it, since he was well-accustomed to re-writing famous dramas. He continued the Restoration tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s tragedies to give them happy endings or editing out classic scenes, although he did bring some whole chunks of Shakespeare’s texts that late 17th century playwrights had excised. Garrick also took a dim view of the unruly culture of the theatre-going crowds, who were fond of making a racket, heckling, entering and leaving noisily when they liked, and carrying on in what sounds like a most enjoyable fashion to break down the strict separation of audience and viewer. However Garrick’s attempts to reform the audience – refusing admittance behind the scenes and on the stage and attempted to discontinue the practice of reduced entry fees for those who left early or came late, but these changes resulted in riots. Theatre crowds were made of sterner stuff back then and took no shit when it came to price rises or controls on their behaviour… (We will hopefully come back to this on 18th September).

Fielding’s attempt to censor, or persuade Garrick to censor the Beggars Opera itself inspired drama. Shortly after, an anonymous play was staged in London, called “The Bow Street Opera in Three Acts. Written on the Plan of the Beggars’ Opera”. It featured deeply satirical and scathing attacks on the politics an hypocrisy of the justice system, aimed directly at Fielding, who was portrayed as ‘Justice Blindman’ (he had been blind since an accident at the age of 19), but very much in the style of John Gay, also relating a thinly veiled account of the career of radical demagogue and bogy of the establishment (at least until he joined it), John Wilkes.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel past: London Apprentices march to demand restoration of holidays banned by puritans, 1647

The London apprentices for centuries had a reputation for their rowdiness, and willingness to cause trouble; for centuries they were famed for getting involved in political upheavals, of all dimensions. Their economic position sparked many grievances; their youth led to much boisterousness. They were also jealous of their traditions; and because their working lives were notoriously long and hard, they celebrated the public holidays drunkenly, loudly, and often riotously.

So when the puritan regime that had taken control of Parliament during the English civil war years began to impose a leaner and more moralistic society, it didn’t go down well with the apprentices…

In 1647, having largely beaten king Charles I in the war, Parliament declared that it was planning to ban all of the old public holidays – Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, Saints Days and the like. Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. Not only were they all relics of the old catholic church, idolatrous expressions of what the puritans saw as worldly heresy, but they also encouraged immorality of all kinds, and could easily end up in riots or insurrections. (In fact a repression of such popular culture was in swing throughout all of Europe, catholic and protestant). An ordinance in 1644 closing down many of the festivals had been implemented previously, to limited effect and some resistance.

On April 20th 1647 a march of apprentices took place, from Covent Garden to Westminster, to protest at the plan. They petitioned Parliament to replace the banned holidays with a day off of their own.

However Parliament pressed ahead, issuing the Ordinance on June 8th: “Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”

The apprentices threatened a mass meeting; at a time when the captive king was negotiating a peace with the parliament, but some of the moderate elements at Westminster were plotting with him, and the New Model Army was threatening to march on London. More disorder from the apprentices wasn’t what Parliament needed at this time. They partially caved in, granting “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”…

But the apprentices were not a homogenous mob. Different political opinions were distributed amongst them, although certain trades often adhered to strand of ideas, and some wards were known for particular politics.

The discontent of the apprentices left some of them vulnerable to manipulation by agents of the royalist party, poised to exploit popular agitation against the government. Although in the early days of the civil war thousands of apprentices had taken up the parliamentary cause, some were now willing to side with the king. One faction was pressing for the king’s return to power, albeit with a negotiated settlement of some of the original grievances that had led to war. In July, a mass meeting of apprentices and watermen pledged to support the king. This, together with threatening clouds of royalist intrigue, led to the New Model Army’s march on London in late July and August:

“This occasioned a great tumult, which originated in Moorfields, and agitated the metropolis for a couple of days. It is said that, but for the vigorous action of Fairfax, the Government would have been overthrown. The people mastered a part of the trainbands, seized their drums and colours, beat up for recruits, then forming into something like military order, they surprised Newgate and Ludgate in the night, and seized the keys. The rioters divided into two parties: one marched upon Whitehall, but were discomfited en route; the other ranged the city, possessing themselves of ordnance, arms, and ammunition. Prompt measures were, however, taken at a council of war, and Fairfax, entering the city at the head of two regiments, put several to the sword, took many prisoners, and dispersed the rest.”

The puritans were to press forward with the repression of festivals, however, banning much of the pageantry associated with Christmas; however riots and disorder continued to disrupt their purse-mouthed prudery…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online