In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional twelve days of celebrating, feasting, and drinking but was also a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
We all know people who take Christmas to the next level – tinsel on their work computer well before 1 December, always wearing Santa hats, abundant Christmas lights, probably a little overindulgence at the office party. But someone with a surfeit of ‘Christmas Spirit’ is not a new phenomenon. In fact, until the 17th Century, it was a specific job…
The Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II is often painted as featuring a return to a ‘Merry England’ with its ‘traditional’ Christmas and Twelve Days of celebration and feasting. However, one of the figures that did not return from the ‘dark days’ of the Civil Wars, was the person who oversaw the entire Twelve Days of Christmas – The Lord of Misrule.
The tradition of the Lord came from ‘The Feast of Fools’ in the late medieval and early Tudor period, a figure deliberately chosen from the lower classes to manage Christmas festivities held at court, in the houses of great noblemen, in the law schools of the Inns of Court, and in many of the colleges at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
During his reign, which lasted anywhere from 12 days to three months, the Lord was responsible for arranging and directing all Christmas entertainment, including elaborate masques and processions, plays, and feasts. The lord himself usually presided over these affairs with a mock court and received comic homage from the revellers.
Richard Evelyn, father of the diarist John Evelyn, on appointing his retainer, Owen Flood, as Lord of Misrule, gave a detailed description of the powers granted to him:
‘… I give free leave to the said Owen Flood to command all and every person or persons whatsoever, as well servants as others to be at his command whensoever he shall sound his trumpet or music, and to do him good service, as though I were present myself, at their perils … I give full power and authority to his lordship to break up all locks, bolts, bars, doors and latches, and to fling up all doors out of hinges …’ 
They were a classic medieval ‘inversion’, much like the Boy Bishops, which was meant to mirror Christ’s humility while the generous revels contained, as Diane Purkiss suggests, ‘an implicit agreement: the labouring poor would shame the life of the lord for whom they worked for the twelve days of Christmas, in exchange for quiescence for the rest of the year’. 
The post appears to have emerged out of summer ‘Robin Hood’ plays and reached their apogee during the reign of Edward VI , in what Ronald Hutton calls ‘the golden age of the Lord of Misrule’ , when George Ferrers became the ultimate Lord, overseeing lavish celebrations that ‘combined the traditional fun of inversion and parody with a dash Renaissance metaphysics, both supported by considerable expense’. 
During the short reign of Edward VI, over Christmas 1551, the revels of the Lord of Misrule were especially magnificent. The courtier George Ferrers of Lincoln’s Inn, appointed to the role of ‘lord of merry disports’, took ‘great delight in his pastimes’. The costumes made for him were rich and lavish in the extreme. For his procession through London on Twelfth Day, for example, he wore ‘a robe of wrought purple furred velvet, the inside white and black, like powdered ermine, with a coat … of the same; the garment welted above with blue and yellow gold tinsel, [his] hat garnished with purple velvet, striped with threads of silver …’ and so on, and was accompanied by his revenue, all also richly dressed, enough magnificence to ‘turn any moderate man’s head’. Stow describes his progress by river from Greenwich to Tower wharf, from which he was conducted to the house of the Lord Mayor for a great banquet. Afterwards, he was given a silver gilt cup, ‘a hogshead of wine and a barrel of beere … for the traine that followed him’. 
From 1553, the English court ceased to appoint a Lord of Misrule. Instead, the Master of the Revels supervised the production and financing of elaborate court entertainments. He later became the official issuer of licenses to theatres and theatrical companies, as well as the censor of publicly performed plays. However, Lords of Misrule continued to appear each Christmas in some wealthy households, and in colleges, urban corporations, and Inns of Court.
Predictably, the Puritans hated the reign of the Lord of Misrule, which they blamed for encouraging drunkenness, promiscuity, and ungodly excess. They also linked it with pre-Christian pagan ritual and English pamphleteer Philip Stubbs was disgusted by the behaviour of the season:
‘First, all the wilde-heds of the Parish … chuse them a Graund Captain (of all mischeefe) whome they innoble with the title of ‘my Lord of Mis-rule’ … this king anointed chuseth forth [a number of] lustie Guttes, like to him self … then have they their Hobby-horses, dragons & other Antiques, together with their baudie Pipers and thundering Drummers to strike up the devils daunce withal. Then marche these heathen company towards the Church and Church-yard, their pipers pipeing, their drummers thundering, their stumps dauncing, their bels iyngling, their handkerchiefs swinging about their heds like madmen, their hobbie horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the route’.
While the tradition of Christmas excess and lordly generosity towards the lower orders continued into the 1600s, The Lord of Misrule fell out of favour during the reign of Elizabeth I due to it often resulting in disorderly behaviour and promoting rebellion. Despite the re-establishing of much of the season’s traditions at the Restoration, the Lord of Misrule disappeared in the 17th Century, possibly because, as Hutton suggests, ‘after a taste of genuine misrule during the Interregnum, nobody in the ruling elite seems to have had any stomach for simulating it’. [jjj]
 Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People’s History
 Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England, the ritual year 1400-1700
 Hutton ibid.
 University of Leicester, ibid.
 Hutton ibid.