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Lords of Misrule
‘Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!
We command that the peace of our lady the Queen be well kept by night and day but that all manner of whores, thieves, dice players and other unthrifty folk be welcome to the city, whether they come late or early, at the reverence of the High Feast of Yule till the Twelve Days be past.
God save the Queen!’This remarkable proclamation, inviting the riff-raff of the Tudor underworld into the city of York, was in the 1560s read out by the city’s sheriffs every year on December 21. And it testifies to a longstanding Yuletide tradition — the legitimised disorders of the Lords of Misrule.
Governing wild Christmas revels and with roots in pagan antiquity, the Lord of Misrule was a figure who presided over seasonal mayhem in courts and manors, in churches and in the streets.
From ancient times, midwinter marked the solstice, the turning of the year, a time to welcome the lengthening days. Across the face of Europe in the late Middle Ages it was celebrated with festivals of inversion, that is, celebrations that turned the normal social order upside down.
Elected or chosen by lot, the Lord of Misrule acted as a mock sovereign with all the trappings of a royal court. During the period of his reign noble heads of households and leaders of town corporations were required to do his bidding. For once, servant or apprentice might go arrayed in sumptuous costume with his own stewards, marshals and cupbearers. Grotesque masques, mummeries, wild pranks, dancing and debauchery all featured in his revels.
Lords of Misrule were employed by the Lord Mayor and sheriffs of London, and by the law schools known as the Inns of Court where elaborate rites surrounded a wealth of figures: a ‘King over Christmas Day’, a ‘King over New Year’s Day’ and a ‘King of the Cockneys’ on the feast of Holy Innocents, 28 December. Even the Church had its topsy-turvy celebrations. In English cathedrals a choir boy was elected mock bishop for one or more of the holy days, and boy bishops are also recorded in two Oxford colleges – Magdalen and All Souls. Out in the country parishes, frolics were especially associated with the antics of the morris, and playlets about Robin Hood - the archetypal English subversive. At Abingdon in 1566, churchwardens themselves set up Robin Hood’s ‘bower’.
Misrule, in short, was actively supported by the authorities. It was as if the controlling hierarchies of Church, Crown and Nobility themselves craved some annual catharsis – they needed a break from routine. Symbolically, the Lord of Misrule absolved his subjects of their wisdom. They should be just wise enough to make fools of themselves – an important warning against spiritual pride.
But there was another argument for the festivities. If there was real risk of the people rioting, better they should do so in a licensed and ritualized manner than challenge the status quo in earnest.
So it seems to have been in Oxford. The colleges had their own rites of Misrule, enacted over the long Christmas vacation when students had little with which to entertain themselves besides putting on plays, and holding facetious satirical debates (riddled with excruciating Latin puns).
A Lord of Misrule is reported at Merton College in the late 15th century, but no merrymakings are better-documented than those of 17th-century St John's. In 1607 the long lead-up to Christmas began there as early as 31 October - All Hallows Eve (or Halloween) - when riotous disorders broke out in the fire-lit Hall. The students’ boisterous tomfoolery grew so violent that it became clear that if things went on it would lead to the ‘utter annihilating of all Christmas sports for the whole year following’.
So it was proposed that a ‘Christmas Prince’ should be elected to control the revels, a figure neglected at St John’s since the 1570s. Thirteen senior Graduates withdrew into the Parlour to make a selection, but when they came out and seized a young candidate, he vigorously declined the honour. Being Christmas Prince, it seems, could get a man into a lot of trouble. Following further debate in the Parlour the Seniors made a second sortie. When the new candidate, Senior Tucker, got wind of their intention he ran into hiding. The hapless scholar was, however, eventually tracked down to his room, hauled out and carried about the Hall to cries of glee.
The new Christmas Prince was then arrayed in fine ceremonial robes. He went on to hold his own parliament, to draw up coats of arms and proclaim titles for his loyal subjects. With the right to levy taxes to pay for the festivities, he also mulcted college tenants for venison and wine. A funeral and feast concluded Tucker’s reign, and he survived the ordeal of office (on graduating at St John’s he would take up a post at the Cathedral in Bristol).
Student plays were a key feature of the Christmas Prince’s festivities, and scripts survive at St John’s with such titles as The Dream of the Founder, The Origin of Christmas Candles, The Altar of Fortune, The Days of the Week, Philomela and Narcissus. The items of expenditure evoke costume and setting: For a shute of tawny taffety for the Prince £4.
8o yardes of flannelle for the guardes coates £5. 6. 8.
For 2 longe women's haires £2 For fethers, spangles, roses etc. £1.10 For 4 thoudsand of pinnes 3s.
For a sett of musitians entertained for 12 days £5.
The additional ‘10 dozen of torches £4.10’ and the ‘dozen of greate waxe tapers 15s’ would not pass Health and Safety regulations today. Nor would £5 suffice for the ‘Carpenters for setting up the stage scaffolds twise and for lending boards.’ In fact, performances seem to have been hilarious for their mishaps - the old, old story of amateur dramatics. Actors needed incessant prompting, or suddenly remembered, just as they were going on to the stage, that they had not got an epilogue and had to invent one. Stage carpentry was unfinished, and scenery collapsed on top of players. In Periander, the tyrant going to kill his daughter Eugenia, actually stabbed her through her costume, while the Prince had ‘got such an exceeding cold that he could not be heard’. The woeful tale is chronicled by one of the St John’s students, Griffin Higgs (a future Dean of Lichfield), who wrote that they all set out with good intentions to the good name of their college and the university, only to be met with ‘peevishness at home, perverseness abroad, contradictions everywhere.’ All too many of his fellows were ‘willing to see much and do nothing.’ And yet, he concluded, ‘we cannot complain of all. Some meant well and said well, and those took good will for good payment, good endeavours for good performance.’ By the end of Periander ‘All were so pleased at the whole course of this play that there were at least eight general plaudits given in the midst of it. In the end, they clapped their hands so long that they went forth of the college clapping.’ Tim Healey tells of the Lords of Misrule at the Oxford Waits annual 17th-century Christmas concert at the Holywell Music Room, Sunday, December 19; 4pm (matinée) and 7.30pm (evening). Tickets from Tickets Oxford at the Oxford Playhouse, tel 01865 305305 or online at www.ticketsoxford.com