I’m delighted to welcome Carol McGrath back to my blog with her post on Medieval Christmases.
Before the Reformation of the 1530s Christmas Eve, the last day of Advent, would have been a day of fasting until after noon on Christmas Eve when fish dishes were served. The real feasting began on Christmas Day. The Yule log was traditionally dragged to the hearth where it burned throughout the twelve days of Christmas. People believed if it went out bad luck could occur during the following year.
They believed that between Christmas and Twelfth night the power of the new-born Christ would outrank that of ghosts and spirits and ensure good luck rather than bad. Medieval people were in general superstitious.
The first day of Christmas was 25th December when everybody attended Church before tucking into a traditional dinner. In London the Worshipful Company of Butchers marched with drummers in a colourful procession to present a boar’s head to the Lord Mayor. This ceremony dates back to 1343. Hospitality was the rule of the season when people visited family and friends and ate and drank as much as they could afford. Christmas Day was a time for feasting, dancing and watching plays and this continued throughout the season until Twelfth Night, the twelfth day of Christmas.
The second day of Christmas, 26th December, was St Stephen’s Day. St Stephen was the patron saint of horses. It was a day for charity when leftovers were given to the poor as almsgiving. Carols were sung. Good King Wenceslas originated in the medieval period but the words we know today are Victorian.
The 27th was another day of feasting with two or three courses served with a lavish selection of dishes. It was the feast of St John the Evangelist and in commemoration of St John who miraculously recovered from drinking poisoned wine, wine was consumed in huge quantities on this day. Wine was a potent delight for poor people who were used to drinking ale throughout the year. Wine was expensive and regarded as a gentleman’s drink. Often children would carry a wassail bowl from house to house with seasonal greetings hoping it would be generously replenished.
The 28th December reflected the Feast of Holy Innocents, the massacre of the innocents by King Herod. It was appropriately called Childermass. In great houses the twelve days of feasting were not presided over by the master of the household but rather by the Lord of Misrule or Master of Merry Disports. He took control of Christmas revelry and his train might include heralds, musicians and fools in fancy dress. They were at their most popular in fourteenth century England and during the early Tudor era. Boy Bishops were appointed in abbeys on 6th December and held office until Holy Innocents Day.
The fifth day of Christmas, 29th December was the anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop, Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. It was marked by a pilgrimage along the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury Cathedral when pilgrims would pray for healing and miracles at St Thomas’s Shrine. They might purchase a pilgrim badge. For those not on pilgrimage the season continued to be a season of honest pastimes such as mummers’ plays, pageants, masques and music. Hunting was popular during the season and in 1564 when the Thames froze over people played football and skated on the ice.
The 30th of December was traditionally a day of making music. Most carols are anonymous, their words and music passed down by oral tradition. The first carols in English were translated or composed by Francisian friars in the thirteenth century as aids to learning about the scriptures. The earliest carols by English composers date from the fifteenth century.
The 31st December, the seventh day of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, was a full day of revelry, a day of games and sporting activities. Board games such as chess, backgammon and dice and cards were popular. Huge sums might be lost or won. The Lord of Misrule might organise Hide and Seek and Hood Man Blind.
New Year’s Day marked the liturgical New Year. However the date did not change on documents until 25th March, Lady Day, when the legal New Year began. Lovers exchanged nutmegs glazed with egg whites to spice their drinks. New Year’s Day was called The Feast of Fools. It was a time to reflect on the past year and resolve to do better in the New Year. A knight might make the vow of the peacock by placing his hand on a roasted bird and renew his vow of chivalry.
Picture 5 The 2nd January was a traditional day for mumming. Nativity plays were performed in churchyards, streets or market places, acted by monks or by groups of masked mummers. These were generally spoken in Latin. Cycles of mystery plays became famous. The Coventry Cycle dates from 1392 but there were others such as The Wakefield, York and Chester collections. The word mummers means ‘masked actors’.
Let us jump to the 5th January, Epiphany Eve and twelfth night of Christmas. This was a time of celebration involving feasts, games and more plays. This night marks the culmination of the Yuletide Season. At court there would be a sumptuous banquet and an enormous cake was baked containing dried fruit, flour, honey and spices. Inside the cake was a coin or bean to be offered to guests as they arrived. The lucky recipient would be king or queen of the bean and hoisted shoulder high to chalk crosses on the ceiling beams. The chalk marks were intended to ward off cursed devils, sprites, and other crawling things from conjuring charms.
Finally, Christmas ends. Some thought it bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up after midnight on Twelfth Night. After that the power of the Christ child would no longer hold sway. If greenery was not put outside again the tree spirits might bring disaster to the household during the coming year. When the Yule log was finally allowed to burn out, people would save a piece of it to light the next year’s log. They might keep some of the ashes in the house to protect against fire, lightning and toothache!!!!!
Carol McGrath Author
Following her first degree in Russian Studies, English and History, Carol McGrath completed an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast, followed by an English MPhil from University of London. She is the author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. Her seventh historical novel, The Stone Rose, published by the Headline Group, set during the High Middle Ages features Isabella of France. Carol also writes Historical Non-Fiction for Pen & Sword. Tudor Sex and Sexuality was published on 30th January 2022. She is currently writing a novel about The Anarchy titled The Stolen Crown to be published May 2023 and is already available on Amazon pre-order.
A guest post this week from Carol McGrath whose latest novel, The Stone Rose, is published on 21 April.
Isabella of France, the protagonist of my new novel, The Stone Rose, left her homeland in 1308 on 7th February, aged twelve. She had married Edward II of England in Boulogne in January. Edward was twenty-three and certainly, despite a reputation given him by later Historians, was not adverse to women. He already had fathered a boy named Adam by a woman unknown to History. It has been thought, too, that later he had a sexual relationship with his eldest niece, Eleanor de Clare. This was suggested as possible by Historian, Kathryn Warner. Edward and Isabella did have a successful partnership for many years despite the fact Edward was predominantly a lover of men and probably bisexual.
Piers Gaveston, the third party in this love triangle, was a nobleman from South Western France, Gascony. In 1307 he was married to one of the King’s other nieces, Eleanor’s sister, Margaret. There are three Clare girls in this story. Edward had known Piers at least since he was sixteen and he was infatuated with the dashing Gaveston. Edward’s and Isabella’s marriage was a political match designed to consolidate peace between France and England and it never mattered what the personal desires of Edward and Isabella were. Edward scandalised his kingdom and his barons were furious when he appointed his best friend whom he called his ‘brother’ and who was possibly his lover as regent of England during his absence abroad. Edward’s first cousin, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, for instance, would have been more appropriate.
Edward might have been enchanted by the exceedingly pretty, educated Isabella who was exceptionally well-connected but for some years after their marriage he paid her little attention. She was, after all, very young and he was eccentric. He enjoyed the company of carpenters, blacksmiths and fishermen. He liked to thatch and dig ditches. His other hobbies were swimming and rowing. Isabella must have found these rather odd pursuits for a king. This was the medieval era after all. Equally, Edward was cultured and loved books, music and poetry as did Isabella. Writing this part of the book, I felt the Piers’, Edward’s and Isabella’s relationship was that of a young court, often extravagant and at odds with their elders. They were, within the pages of my novel, behaving as a charmed circle. We do not actually know how Isabella really saw Piers Gaveston and the royal marriage may have been initially consummated once to make it legal and binding. Given Isabella’s youth it was unlikely they had much of a sex life. Most girls of the nobility did not produce children before they were sixteen. Yet, Edward and Isabella would have passed time in each other’s company hunting, feasting and during Christmas and Easter courts.
Isabella arrived in England into a swirling maelstrom of conflict between her husband, who was utterly infatuated with Piers, and his barons. This created a crisis that threatened to bring the country to the brink of civil war. Amongst those waiting for the royal wedding in Dover that February, amongst the great lords and ladies, was of course Piers. Edward had eyes for none other. Piers has been described by various contemporary chroniclers. He is said to have been ‘graceful and agile in body, sharp-witted, refined in manners and sufficiently well-versed in military matters.’ Others said he was ‘haughty and supercilious’ but also ‘very magnificent, liberal and well-bred.’ He was a man of ‘big ideas’ and he was ‘haughty and puffed up.’ Edward adored him and this clearly went to Piers’ head. Poor Isabella! When Edward arrived in Dover he hugged and kissed his friend but this was a tactile age when kissing was common as a greeting amongst men.
The real trouble was Edward ignored the other barons. It is assumed Isabella hated Gaveston but there is no actual evidence she did. Much later, Isabella did loath Hugh Despenser but this was a very different situation. Piers never threatened Isabella or her queenship. Nor was she ever insulted by him. However, Gaveston did poke fun at the nobility. It is hard to get a sense of Isabella’s personality in the early years of her marriage. She was young for politics and too young to begin a family. We have no glimpse of her correspondence from these years either. Edward was generous to Isabella without doubt and there is no evidence of neglect. Piers was prominent at her coronation. It was extravagant and it was written in the chronicles that at the banquet following the coronation Edward payed more attention to Piers than to Isabella.
After the coronation almost all the English barons led by the Earl of Lincoln demanded Piers’ exile. Gaveston was banished but recalled after the Earl of Lincoln’s death. Edward made Piers Earl of Cornwall. The difficult situation continued with further banishments and further threats of civil war over Gaveston’s influence on Edward, until in 1312 Piers was captured by his enemies and taken from his castle of Scarborough to Wallingford. Edward thought the Earl of Pembroke would ensure his friend’s safety on this journey south and Parliament would make a decision about his future, probably exile again. Yet, when he reached Deddington, he was kidnapped by Guy Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, an enemy Piers had frequently mocked as the Black Dog of Arden. Piers was thrown into a dungeon at Warwick Castle, given a ridiculous trial and told he was to die. He was run though by a sword and beheaded on Blacklow Hill on the road to Kennilworth, his body left there to be discovered later by travelling clerics.
Isabella was four months pregnant at this time and in the North with Edward. The royal couple heard the news near Hull. Edward never ever forgave Piers’ murder but how Isabella reacted cannot be known. She most likely did her best to comfort Edward.
I found it fascinating to translate these events into a novel, to play with their emotions, second guess these and create living, breathing historical persons and portray all three, Edward, Isabella and Piers fairly. Read The Stone Rose to find out how I wrote this first part of Isabella’s queenship, a love triangle, as a work of fiction which I hope has integrity.
About the Carol McGrath
Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs – and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in history, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.
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Carol McGrath’s latest is a fictionalised biography of the life of 13th century Queen Ailenor, wife of Henry III. You probably know her (if you know her at all) as Eleanor but McGrath prefers the alternative spelling.
I knew practically nothing about the 13th century when I started this book and I was certainly massively better informed by the end. It is packed with politics and personalities as well as details of everyday life.
McGrath used to teach history and her knowledge of the period is evident throughout the book. It is a great primer for anyone wanting to understand the power plays of the medieval period and the importance of marriages to bind together the families that controlled the countries of Europe. At the top, King Henry’s marriage ties together England and Provence, just as his daughter’s marriage will, in time, bond Scotland to the English throne. Further down the social scale, the marriage prospects of the embroideress, Rosalind, are viewed by her tailor father as a way to further his business connections, as his own marriage with a widowed haberdasher has.
The web of family relationships that marriages produce can bind the prosperity of a tailor to the political success of an earl. The personal is always political, the political always personal.
The book reminds us that England and France shared ties of blood as well as economic and political alliances. Tracts of what is now France were the property of King Henry, while Scotland then was a foreign country. And over all, there was the Church, a separate and mighty power, able to mobilise armies as well as threaten excommunication to those who crossed it.
Money, too, was central to the relationships in this book. Money has to be raised so that money can be spent. The church must be taxed and God appeased by ever more extravagant buildings. Henry is building Westminster Abbey and the nation is paying for it. Unrest is calmed with acts of extravagant generosity but stoked when taxes are raised to pay for them. Earls are, essentially, bribed to support the king against other earls who will, in turn, demand bribes of their own.
It’s a chaotic, dangerous world, in which Queen Ailenor often retreats to shelter amongst her own ladies, dressed in the finest gowns, eating food flavoured with spices imported from thousands of miles away – a life of unimaginable luxury, not only intrinsically desirable but necessary if she is to retain the status and authority of her role.
McGrath’s book offers an insight into a lost world. It almost makes the world of today’s political and economic powers look sane by comparison.