Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Riotous Reigns of the Misruling Monarchs

                   If Phillip Stubbes, that po-faced Elizabethan Puritan preacher, was offended with festive dice- and card-playing, what really worked his cassock into a wad was another traditional English Christmas custom – the Lords of Misrule. He borders on apoplexy in his condemnation of the practice in his The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), in which he delineates how these miscreants with  
“… their hobby-horfes, dragons and other antiques, tigether with their baudie pipers and thundering drummers ftrike up the devils daunce withall. Then, marche thefe heathen company towards the church and church-yard, their pipers pipeing, their drummers thundring, their ftumps dauncing, their bels jyngling, their handkerchefs fwinging about their heds like madmen, their hobbie horfes and other monfters skirmifhing amongst the route: and in church (I fay) and into the church.” 

A Godless Heathen

They interrupt the service, collect money from the congregation (which they will later spend on drink), distribute special badges  
“… thefe they give to every one that wil give money for them to maintaine them in their hethenrie, divelrie, whordome, drunkennes, pride, and what not.” 

Phillip Stubbes - The Anatomie of Abuses - 1583

Once again, it was the Romans who were blamed for this, with their Saturnalia celebrations, when a lowly citizen or even a slave would be elevated to the position of the Lord of Misrule and presided over the celebrations, his word carrying as much authority as a real Lord. The practice was carried on in the courts of the English kings, an especially sumptuous Christmas being held in 1348, by King Edward III. A Lord of Misrule was appointed and given the title ‘Master of Merry Disports’, who organised and ruled over all the games, masques, disguisings and dances. 

The Lord of Misrule

The duties of the Lords of Misrule varied, as did the length of their term of office, but in general they ruled over the twelve days of Christmas and commanded that all should participate and be merry, with no one sitting apart and refusing to join the revels. The nobles followed suit in their own households, the Mayor of London gave over control to a Lord of Misrule, as did the Inns of Court, and the office was even mentioned in the original draft of statute founding Trinity College, Cambridge in 1546. 

The Lord of Misrule

In the early years of his reign, the young King Henry VIII, before he became swayed by flattery and sycophancy, loved the Christmas festivities and delighted in pageants, masques and merry-making. His first Christmas at Richmond was governed by a Lord of Misrule, who was paid £8 6s 8d, and this sum was increased in later years to £15 6s 8d. 

The Lord of Misrule's Procession

The conceit of the Lord of Misrule extended to the provision of costly robes of office, as rich as the King’s own, and the establishment of a mock court, replete with a chancellor, treasurer, gentleman-ushers, pages of honour, sergeants-at-arms, footmen, messengers, trumpeters, heralds, jugglers, tumblers and fools. But the election of the Lord was not reserved to the high and mighty, as each lowly community would appoint its own Lord to rule over the festivities and keep things cracking along, with entertainment for all. 

The Lord and his Jester

There is a strange wisdom in this, similar to that of the court jester who may, with impunity, point a finger at pomp and self-importance and utter a wholesome truth when others held their fearful tongues. Turning things on its head was a valuable moral lesson, and the Lord of Misrule gave even the lowliest the command and the permission to be merry for even a short while; indeed, one of his first commands was to absolve all present of their wisdom and they were to be just wise enough to make fools of themselves. 

The Lord of Misrule

In Scotland, the position was taken by the Abbot of Unreason, who performed a similar purpose, if not quite as enthusiastically as his English counterparts, until an ordinance by the Scottish legislature in 1555 suppressed all the annual burlesques of this sort. 

Misrule in action

In England, the festivities went the way of the monarchy under the Commonwealth and although Charles II attempted to revive them at his court after the Restoration, they never assumed the splendour and importance of earlier Christmases and eventually the reign of the Lord of Misrule passed away.

A Cheeky Monkey
... and a Happy New Year to you all.

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