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…
‘water is nat wholesome by itself for an Englysshe man’ – Andrews Boorde, Dyetary of Healthe (1547)
‘Superfluitie of meat, causeth dulnesse of mind; but superfluitie of drinke, bereaveth men of wit: for so I have seene in some hospitals of mad men, sundry differences of madness, so I have found not unlike humours of drunkennesse; for some are merry mad, some melancholy mad, some furious, others fainting: so in drunkennesse, some you shall have merry drunke, others dead drunke, others raging, others casting.’ – Thomas Wright – The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1604)
As many prepare to celebrate the passing of another year with copious amounts of alcoholic beverages, it’s fitting to take a look at drinking during the English Civil Wars, which occurred in the middle of a ‘golden age’ of the English alehouse.
Alcohol was a ubiquitous and essential part of 17th Century life and during the Twelve Days of Christmas drinking was an essential part of the celebrations. This wasn’t just indulged in at home, but in one of the many ale-houses England now boasted, thanks to an explosion of such establishments since the 1550s. These become unrivalled places for drinking, socialising, and ‘good fellowship’, becoming a secular site for public recreation in villages and market towns that challenged the dominance of the parish church.
But if you entered your local ale-house on New Year’s Eve in the 1640s, what kind of tipples would you be savouring?
Ale was drunk everywhere in Britain other than the Highlands of Scotland  and most homes of a decent size would brew their own; the problem is that it only keeps for a few days while beer, which includes hops, keeps longer and so was the most common drink in England.
If straightforward beer was too bland you might enjoy a cup of mum, a heavy ale brewed from wheat and flavoured with herbs, a small beer flavoured with bitter cucumber called Coloquintida, or cock ale, made with malted barley with a parboiled cockerel steeped in sack (imported fortified wine similar to sherry) left to soak in the beer with raisins, dates, and spices. During the Twelve Days, a very popular seasonal drink was lambswool, a mulled ale with eggs, spices, sugar and roasted apples. Ale was cheaper than beer, small beer was cheapest, but beer cost between two and three pence per two pints, while strong Yorkshire ale would cost you a groat (four pence).
The trade in wine boomed during the middle of the 17th Century as the expensive tastes of the growing merchant class drove a massive increase in imports from the Continent. According to a statute of 1636, it was illegal to sell wine by the bottle, so the cellars of taverns would be filled instead with casks and barrels with their contents brought to the table in a jug and served in wine glasses. Wine was sometimes known by its country of origin, so fortified wine from the Canary Islands was often called Canary , while popular types included claret (red from Bordeaux), Rhenish (white from the banks of the Rhine), Malmsey (from Greece), Candy (from Crete), and La Ribera (from Spain).
The bottling and ageing of wine was a preserve of the rich and during the 1630s the Roman Catholic Royalist courtier Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665) used his glassworks to manufacture wine bottles which were stronger and more stable than existing types, which made ageing wine in the bottle easier. Champagne from France, aided by the advances in bottle technology, came to London after the Restoration and fuelled the rise in exclusive dining establishments. Wine was a status symbol and the English quickly became known as huge biggest consumers of wine so that, at the time of the Restoration, Parliament was forced to state maximum prices for the sale of wines, usually based on its country of origin.
If you fancy something finer, then you might indulge in a glass of genever, or gin, which had been introduced to England by the Dutch in the late 16th Century. Recreational spirits were enjoying something of a boom, if only to avoid taxation – there was a huge variety of somewhat interesting spirits, including ‘cock water’, which tried to follow the same principle of ‘cock ale’ by distilling the ‘essence’ of the cockerel into the drink.
Drinking was a highly communal activity – individual pots or cups of ale or beer could be purchased, but it was more common for a group to buy a shared jug and perhaps even bring their own cup. There were no pint glasses, but instead drink was served in ceramic, leather, or pewter mugs.
By the time of the Civil War, drinking had also become a deeply political activity, thanks to the drinking of ‘healths’ or toasts. A health to the King or Queen was a simple protest and declaration of one’s support for the Royalist cause:
The Red Lion alehouse on the High Street in Bristol, for example, was the location of a vicious fight when a group of Parliamentary soldiers overheard a health being drunk to Charles and the Marquess of Ormonde in 1649. Two men died as a result. 
Such toasts became so incendiary that Parliament banned all health drinking in 1654. Much like anything to do with Christmas, the Royalist cause became deeply intertwined with ‘traditional’ values such as merry-making and feasting from before the Puritan ascendancy and subsequent removal of feast days from the calendar. But even legislation against drunkenness did little to quell the English thirst for booze.
Speaking of Puritan disapproval, the excess consumption of booze is not a modern condition and there were countless warnings and admonishments against drunkenness in print and legislation. In early acknowledgement of the dangers of alcoholism, these often focused on condemning those who spent all their money in the alehouse, leaving their wife and children destitute. The 1615 ballad Nobody Loves Me warns of the consequences of such behaviour:
Now that I have no Chinke,
With the ducks may I drinke,
All my friends from me shrinke,
Nobody loves me.
If you’re out on the town and looking for a good time, make sure you put on your best yellow stockings – a sure, if old-fashioned way of signalling your bachelorhood (or indicting a desire to return to such a state) was to don brightly-coloured hose. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio dons yellow stockings and ‘cross-garters’ to signal that he is ready for an affair, producing the comedic sight of a man past his prime parading like a younger galant – some early modem Londoners understood the wearing of yellow stockings ‘to signal illicit sexuality and marital betrayal’. 
We also get an idea of heavy drinking culture thanks to details of the trial of Thomas Marsh, a member of a group of men drinking one Wednesday evening at Turner’s Alehouse, a group which included parish constable, John Lufkin:
‘John Outlings, who was the witness in the case, arrived at the alehouse at 6 p.m., by which time the merry crew were already assembled. At around 9 p.m., John Lufkin dramatically called for the landlord to bring them the ‘fowler’: a huge ‘stone pot’ that Outlings estimated must have contained nearly two gallons of strong beer. It may have been refilled at some point, for when our witness, who was staying in one of the chambers overnight, came down at dawn, Lufkin and several of the others were still ‘playing’. Thomas Marsh, however, was ‘so drunk he fell asleep at the table, hanging down his head, foaming, slavering and pissing as he sat’. His compatriots thought this was a great joke, fetched a sack and placed it over Marsh’s head. When Thomas Marsh made no response, clearly unconscious rather than asleep, John Lufkin then took the opportunity to shout in his ear that he would henceforth be known as ‘fowler’ and then undid his codpiece, exposing his genitals to view. It would not be until the following morning that the last of the drinking part left the alehouse, after a forty-eight-hour session.’ 
This wasn’t just a male pursuit, however, women also frequented ale-houses, though not on the same scale. A German visitor to England in the 1660s was aghast to see groups of women drinking in public, while ballads celebrated female ale-house conviviality. The female drunkard was also not uncommon, employed particularly to imply that their husbands were cuckolds or naive.
So, as you welcome the New Year in with a toast, remember that festive drinking has long played a part in these celebrations and, while the names and measures may have changed, the myriad of drinking options in today’s Britain would come as no shock to our ancestors in the 17th Century.
 Mark Hailwood – Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England
 Ian Mortimer – The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain
 Shakespeare refers to canary wine in both Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor
 Ruth Goodman – How to Behave Badly in Renaissance Britain
 Loreen L. Giese – Malvolio’s Yellow Stockings: Coding Illicit Sexuality in Early Modern London
 Goodman ibid.