A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley – BBC 2

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I’ve always rather fancied the idea of Christmas at the court of Henry VIII, although I dread to imagine how many calories people must have got through.  Eat, drink and be merry … before the Puritans come along and put the kybosh on it all!  Decorate your work tools so that they can’t be used: come on, folks, get those office computers festooned with holly and icy.  Keep dancing into January, and then get stuck into a Twelfth Night cake that’s a full yard in diameter.  And make sure you get Henry a good prezzie, because he’ll be opening it in full view of the entire court.  This really was good fun, and, it being the festive season, Lucy’s dressing up didn’t seem that annoying for once.

Henry apparently spent £7,000 on Christmas festivities in 1509.  That’s a serious amount of money even now, never mind over 500 years ago.  And he didn’t even eat most of the food that was put in front of him.  Well, not then, when he was young and slim, anyway.  However, the leftovers were given away to the poor.  Marinated pigs’ ears wouldn’t really do it for me, but it was fascinating seeing the re-creation of the sort of things that would have been on the menu then.  The intricate creations in marchpane particularly caught my eye. You see them abroad sometimes, especially in Sicily, but it’s rare to see them here.

Roast beef … now, that’s more my thing than marinated pigs’ ears would be.  And it was interesting to hear about the Welsh influence on the mead they drank – it’s well-known that Henry VII was keen to play up his Welsh links, but you don’t think so much about Henry VIII doing the same.  A lot of drinking went on!   It’s easy to fall into the Victorian trap of imagining a Merrie Englande that never actually existed, but, in the case of Tudor Christmases, it really did.  Court masques.  Carol singing.   The Lords of Misrule on Twelfth Night.  And all that food!

Twelve days of feasting.  The biggest difference between Christmas then and Christmas now is probably that, in Tudor times, it was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas, with people fasting during Advent.  The pre-Christmas fast still seems to be a thing in some predominantly Orthodox countries, but it certainly isn’t here.  The partying starts well before Christmas Eve, and then no-one really knows what to do with themselves during “Twixmas”, and it’s usually back to work and diets on January 2nd.  I’ve always wanted a Twelfth Night cake, ever since I first read about them in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!  Maybe not one a yard across, though.

Of course, this was only at court, but, even for the less well-off people, Christmas was a time of celebration.  Homes were decorated with greenery – and that’s a tradition going way back before Christianity.  Lords of the manor would usually give out food.  “We want some figgy pudding … we won’t go until we get some!” There were mummers’ plays.   And sports were enjoyed – rather miserably, they were banned for much of the year, to stop rowdy behaviour and to make people concentrate on archery.  Except at court, obviously.  Play as much tennis as you liked there!  But, at Christmas, play as much as you liked anywhere!

Then along came the Puritans.  Mind you, I keep going on about the Puritans spoiling people’s fun, but, until the early 1830s, there were over 30 Bank Holidays in England – secular holidays like Oak Apple Day and Bonfire Night, as well as religious holidays.  Wakes weeks were still going until very recently.  William Harrison Ainsworth writes about Twelfth Night festivities in Manchester well into the 19th century, and Dickens mentions Twelfth Night as well.  So a lot of these festivities long outlasted the Puritans … but didn’t make it through till today.  Shame!  As Lucy said, early January can be a pretty miserable time, and a bit of singing and dancing would liven it up no end.

I really enjoyed this.  It was good fun.  We do still have quite a Puritanical culture in many ways, and it’s easy to frown at excessive eating, drinking and spending, but life is short, winter nights are long, and people deserve to enjoy themselves.  £7,000 in 1509’s money – Google informs me that a labourer’s annual wage would have been £5 to £10 – does seem a bit extravagant, though …