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…
In December 1641, London was a boiling cauldron of unrest – but not because of arguments over Christmas. It was to become what one eye-witness, Captain Robert Slyngsbie, described as ‘the maddest Christmas that ever I saw’.
On 27 December, a series of riots erupted that foreshadowed not just the coming war but also the now-familiar ‘tribal’ identities that would come to define the two sides.
Tensions were already high – Ireland was in rebellion, English forces had been defeated by the Scots in the second Bishops’ War the previous year with Durham and Newcastle now occupied by a Covenanter force (for which the English were paying a massive £850 a day for quartering costs), a desperately skint King had been forced to summon his first Parliament in eleven years, his advisor the Earl of Strafford had been beheaded, the controversial Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, had been impeached, opposition to bishops was at fever-pitch, and the leader of the Parliamentary opposition, John Pym, was turning the screws – with the aid of the mobs of London.
In early December, under the pretext of organising an army to fight in Ireland, Parliament tried to wrest control of armed forces from the King with the Militia Bill. The bid failed but, in trying to seize the initiative, Charles then did something extremely provocative – he appointed Colonel Thomas Lunsford as Lieutenant of the Tower of London.
If Prince Rupert of the Rhine represented everything noble and dashing about supporters of the King, Lunsford was all that was degenerate and corrupt. Even his own cousin, Lord Dorset, described Lunsford as ‘a young outlaw who neither fears God nor man, and who, having given himself over to all lewdness and dissoluteness, only studies to affront justice, [taking] glory to be esteemed… a swaggering ruffian’ . Convicted of attempted murder in 1633, he escaped to France as a soldier of fortune but returned to England to offer his services to King Charles when the Bishops’ Wars erupted in 1639. Always a great judge of character, Charles pardoned him. Showing great bravery in the rout at the Battle of Newburn in 1640, Lunsford then became one of the many demobbed soldiers, known as reformadoes, who found themselves adrift in the streets of London, petitioning for their backpay and seeking employment in the war against the Irish rebels.
In 1641, the Tower of London was still the capital’s primary fortress, mint and arsenal, and controlling it and its garrison effectively meant controlling the city. So an increasingly-outmanoeuvred Charles appointed Lunsford ‘partly to reassert his prerogative and partly to secure a more than symbolic stronghold in his troubled capital’ . It installed someone with unquestioning loyalty while also removing from the post Sir William Balfour, who had foiled an attempt to spring the Earl of Strafford ahead of his execution.
Londoners, already aware of Lunsford’s reputation, were horrified. The City complained and petitioned the Commons, the Commons agreed and insisted Lunsford was ‘of a decayed and desperate fortune’ and of a ‘desperate condition’ and could not be trusted. Even late on Christmas Day crowds made up of poor apprentices and rich gentlemen alike gathered at the doors of Westminster demanding that Lunsford be dismissed, merchants removed their bullion from the Tower Mint, and the Lord Mayor twice visited Charles in Whitehall to tell him of the ‘tumultuous rising of the Prentices and other inferior persons of London’ who threatened further unrest.
The King, finally sensing the danger of the situation, dismissed Lunsford. But it was too little, too late.
Parliament took two days off over Christmas and when they reassembled on 27 December there was serious disorder. Some MPs actively encouraged the mob to prevent bishops from entering the building, and a large and angry crowd – including future Leveller leader John Lilburne – filled Palace Yard and crowded into Westminster Hall, shouting ‘No bishops!’. When they heard that Lunsford had been removed they did not disperse, making a line in both Palace yards to demand their anti-bishop demands be met:
‘and no man could pass but when the rabble gave him leave to … There was an undignified tussle between the Archbishop of York and a boy whom he unwisely tried to arrest.’ 
But they weren’t the only ones at Westminster that day – the humiliated but freshly knighted Lunsford arrived with about 30 or 40 supporters and, with some provocation, attacked the crowd:
Lunsford’s party ‘all drew their swords and Rapiers, and fell upon the people with great violence’. Lilburne recorded that the cavaliers ‘fell to slashing and cutting’ the crowd driving them in panic ‘up the very Parliament staire’. Some fled into the adjacent Court of Wards and some up the stairs to the Court of Requests. There they found parliamentarian stalwart Sir Richard Wiseman who ‘perceiving how it went, spoke most bravely to animate them to return with such weapons as they had’. Lilburne recalled ‘Sir Richard Wiseman, my selfe, and divers other Citizens with our swords in our hands freely adventured our lives’ to drive back Lunsford’s cavaliers. Wiseman fought two or three of Lunsford’s gang, breaking the rapier of one into two pieces. He was joined by some sailors with clubs. But they were outnumbered until more apprentices and sailors arrived and began to fight back using tiles prised from the floor or walls. A running fight was now in process across Westminster Hall. 
News of the confrontation spread like wildfire and hundreds of pro-Parliament apprentices flocked to Westminster, armed with swords and staves, and throwing stones. They got better of Lunsford and ‘his crue of ruffians’, who were scattered or ‘beat down’. Lunsford had to escape by wading into the Thames to a boa, the water slopping over the tops of his boots.
It is at these riots that we see one of the first uses of a term we’re all now familiar with – ‘Roundhead’, the pejorative name for a supporter of Parliament. Captain David Hide, a demobilised soldier, drew his sword and said he would ‘cut the throats of those Round headed Dogs that bawl against the Bishops’. As with ‘Cavalier’ it was a term of abuse – the lower sorts and apprentices often had short haircuts, so ‘Roundhead’ meant a rough and uncultured person of low birth.
This Christmas skirmish not only showed how law and order had broken down in the tussle between King and Parliament, but demonstrated just how hostile London had become to Charles and his supporters. His inflammatory appointment of Lunsford and support for bishops had alienated MPs, Lords, and commoners, and just a month later he would make a further blunder by entering Parliament with an armed guard and trying to arrest five MPs and one peer. By February, following further riots, Charles – concerned for his family’s safety and fearing his wife was about to be impeached by Parliament – fled the capital.
It was far from a peaceful Christmas in London in 1641, but worse was to come as England continued its slide into Civil War.
 B Morgan – ‘Sir Thomas Lunsford’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
 Austin Woolrych – Britain in Revolution 1625-1660
 Diane Purkiss – The English Civil War: A People’s History