While much has rightly been made this year of the career and legacy of Col. Josiah Wedgwood, MP, the founder of the History of Parliament, his pioneering biographical volumes were not without their quirks, and, at times, a degree of involuntary humour. A seasonal example of this is provided by the entry for Nicholas Christmas, MP for Heytesbury in the Parliament of 1491.
Having failed to discover anything about the man, Wedgwood stated laconically:
‘This would almost seem to be a “fake” name – “Santa Claus”; and possibly, Heytesbury returned no real man.’
While Wedgwood’s conclusions might seem quirky, perhaps even quaint, they were not entirely without foundation. It was not unheard of for hard-pressed medieval administrators to insert fake names into official documentation, and Wiltshire was a particular hotbed of this practice. In the 1430s, the clerk of this county on more than one occasion not merely invented the names of the numerous sureties he was required to list in the parliamentary return, but literally exercised some poetic licence. So, in 1432, the clerk made the surnames he listed spell out ‘Robyn Hode Inne Grenewode Stode, Godeman Was Hee’, while a year later he indulged in an even more elaborate prayer for the electoral assembly.
At the same time, while men bearing the surname of Christmas (Crestmas, Crystmas, etc.) are documented in a number of parts of England, no Nicholas Christmas has to date been found at Heytesbury. Yet, where the connexion of the saintly Bishop Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day falls on December 6, with the Christmas season might have seemed as obvious to Wedgwood, as it does to us today, in the medieval period it was simply one of a number of Saints’ days that fell within Advent (rather than the Christmas season proper). Even the wide-spread Christmas-tide custom of having a ‘boy-bishop’ preside over the liturgy on a particular day was associated with Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December) rather than with St. Nicholas. It is thus likely that Nicholas Christmas was indeed a real, if obscure fellow, and for some festive thoughts we may have to look to the Wiltshire county clerk of 1433, perhaps a fore-bear of a certainly fictitious Tiny Tim:
‘God save alle this faire compayne,
Ande gyffe theym grace weel forto spede,
For fayn wold they been ryght mery.
They been ryght mery this too pray hyt hys nede.
Godde thatte alle this worlde ganne make,
Ande for usse dyed apon thee roode tree
Save usse alle.’