‘A good preparation for Christmas’: Revolution and Augustan Yuletides

Christmas cheer at times came a distant second to political intrigue for those featured in our recently published volumes, The House of Lords 1660-1715. Dr Robin Eagles and Dr Charles Littleton tell us more…

Christmas was not always a time of mirth and celebration at the English royal court in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Christmas of 1688 was marked by a severe political crisis, as in the two weeks leading up to the day itself the Catholic king James II lost his nerve, and ultimately his kingdom, in the face of William of Orange’s invasion and march on the capital. James’s first attempt at flight had failed when he was recognized at Faversham and brought back to London on 16 December to an (ironically) enthusiastic public reception. William responded by sending a detachment of his troops into the capital to secure the royal palaces, and a delegation of English peers to persuade James to leave the palace, ostensibly ‘for his own safety’. James had little choice but to agree and travelled to Rochester under Dutch escort. In the early hours of 23 December he slipped away and was this time able to make his way to France, with the tacit encouragement of William, who wanted him out of the country.

For James’s own brother-in-law, Henry Hyde, 2nd earl of Clarendon, Christmas Eve was hardly a day of festivity.  After learning of the king’s flight, he lamented in his diary ‘Good God! What will become of this poor, distracted and distempered nation? … It is like an earthquake’. He was one of the peers and bishops of the realm that had been meeting at William’s request since James’s departure. The session of 24 December was particularly long, lasting from the morning until half past five in the evening, and it became hot-tempered as the discussion quickly turned to the circumstances of James’s escape and whether it constituted a voluntary abdication of the throne. ‘A good preparation for Christmas’, commented Clarendon wearily. The Lords met again on Christmas Day, but their proceedings were mercifully briefer, as the main business was to present William with addresses requesting him to summon a Convention to settle the nation and to take over the administration of the realm.

James II undoubtedly endured a miserable Christmas, abandoned by his own daughter Anne, humiliated and put under restraint by his nephew (and son-in-law) William of Orange and compelled to flee his own kingdom and seek refuge with his cousin Louis XIV of France. Meanwhile, the usually morose William could allow himself a small celebration at the thought that he might soon govern both England (and Scotland) and be able to bring their resources into play in his campaign against Louis. Sure enough, on 13 February the Convention Parliament formally offered William and his wife, Mary, the crown of England.

Dour from the beginning, towards the end of his reign William III became if anything more withdrawn. A newsletter of 27 December 1701 noted that for the Christmas service two days before, the bishop of Salisbury (Gilbert Burnet) had preached before the king at Kensington, but had been requested ‘to be short in his discourse by reason of the coldness of the season’, with which the asthmatic king struggled to cope. William may not have revelled at yuletide but the accession of Queen Anne early the following year did not necessarily mean much increased jollification at court (or elsewhere) either. By the time of her accession, Anne was in poor health and her reign was characterized by vigorous politicking between the parties from which the festive season offered no respite. In the December 1705 debates on the regency bill, following ‘much blustering in the House of Commons’ and ‘the foulest Billingsgate language’ Robert Harley claimed ever to have heard, one Tory MP, Charles Caesar, was committed to the Tower. He remained there over Christmas and for the remainder of the session. There was equal dissent on the Whig side with the radical Whig organ, The Observator, complaining of a gradually worsening state of affairs. In the issue for 26-29 December 1705 ‘Countryman’ griped:

if I can’t keep a good Christmas I can do nothing; Christmas comes but once a Year; and in the Days of Yore they us’d to say It brought good Chear along with it; but now the case is alter’d, unless it be here and there; Our Country Gentry can’t afford to keep as good Houses as their fore-fathers did.

It was not just the country gentry who struggled to identify reason for good cheer. Personal tragedy also stalked the queen and in October 1708 the death of her consort, Prince George of Denmark, plunged her further into introspection. Her bedchamber was fitted out with bedding in appropriately sombre purple and it was not until the onset of the Christmas season that the onerous requirements of mourning were partially scaled back. In mid-December the theatres reopened but New Year festivities were muted and it was not until March 1709 that the queen at last gave way to petitions on behalf of silk manufacturers to allow her ordinary subjects out of their sombre black clothes for the sake of the economy. She, herself (and thus the court) remained in mourning until Christmas 1710.

All this is not to say that the Augustan age was without wassail. The duke of Bedford’s accounts noted him doling out Christmas boxes and New Year gifts to a variety of people, ranging from the king’s trumpeters (10 shillings) to the doorkeepers of the House of Lords (£1) and the drummers and marshals of two regiments (£2 for each set). If the king of Prussia was noted as giving his queen and daughter fairly traditional gifts of diamond rings for Christmas, Lord Gower may have won the prize for one of the odder presents when he offered to his kinsman, Rutland, ‘a Brace of Trentham oxen’. Robert Harley, meanwhile (by then earl of Oxford) as a way of averting catastrophe for his administration went one better by doling out a dozen peerages during the Christmas recess of 1711/12.


Further Reading:

  • Beddard, ed. A Kingdom without a King (1988)
  • S.W. Singer, ed. The Correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and his brother Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester: with the diary of Lord Clarendon from 1687 to 1690 (1828)
  • Anderson Wynn, Queen Anne: patroness of arts (2014)

The History of Parliament has recently published our first set of volumes focusing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is available from Cambridge University Press.

Click here for other blogposts inspired by our House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

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