Top tips for Christmas at the Jacobean court

As History of Parliament staff prepare for their Christmas break, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section ponders the pleasures and pitfalls that might have awaited a Jacobean courtier 400 years ago…

Tip 1: No partying on Christmas Day

In the early 17th century, unlike today, 25 December was primarily a time for solemn religious observance. The entire royal household was expected to attend church, and listen to lengthy sermons. For James I, who enjoyed a well-argued homily, this was no hardship. Indeed, he so enjoyed the Christmas sermon delivered in 1609 by his favourite preacher, Lancelot Andrewes, that he reputedly kept a copy of it under his pillow. However, even the king found all this gravity a bit much, and in 1607 suggested that he’d like to see a play as well – only to be told firmly by his councillors that this would not be appropriate.

Tip 2: Pace yourself

This sombre start was of course the prelude to 12 days of non-stop celebrations, culminating in Twelfth Night. Strictly speaking, Christmas was deemed to run right through to Candlemas, on 2 February, but the festivities were concentrated into this initial period, the high point of the Jacobean court’s social calendar. What then could people expect?

Tip 3: No surprise presents

The traditional time for exchanging gifts was not Christmas Day but New Year’s Day. And for bishops, peers and other leading courtiers, there were firm regulations about what they should give the king, namely a specific number of gold coins, according to their rank. In return, they received a piece of gold plate of equivalent value, which they were allowed to choose for themselves at the Jewel House. Records show that James was also regularly presented with perfumed gloves – apparently the Jacobean equivalent to the modern default gift of socks.

Tip 4: Nothing exceeds like excess

James’s court was notoriously extravagant, and the watchwords for Christmas food were superfluity and expense. The more costly the ingredients, and the larger the number and variety of dishes, the better. A feast given in 1618 by the royal favourite George Villiers (later 1st duke of Buckingham) included a pie containing 17 dozen pheasants and 12 partridges; the whole meal reportedly cost £600 (more like £79,000 in today’s money).

Tip 5: Know your place

Court life was governed by rigid rules of precedence, which decided the relative importance of each courtier. This affected which rooms people could enter at Whitehall Palace, and also where they sat during meals and entertainments. Arguments between courtiers of similar rank were common, and visiting foreign ambassadors were notoriously fussy, sometimes even boycotting events if they thought that an envoy from a rival state was getting better treatment.

Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery (attrib. William Larkin, c.1615)
Philip Herbert, earl of Montgomery (attrib. William Larkin)

Tip 6: Turn on the style

Jacobean courtiers were nothing if not competitive, and Christmas was the perfect time to show off the latest fashions, the most expensive outfits, and any personal accomplishments. The festive calendar largely comprised opportunities to attract attention, from dancing and high-stakes gambling, to martial displays such as tilting, and running at the ring. Participants were assessed as much on their appearance as on their abilities, and handsome young courtiers like Philip Herbert, 1st earl of Montgomery used these occasions to burnish their reputation, generally running up heavy debts in the process.

Tip 7: Brush up your Shakespeare

Christmas at court invariably included the regular staging of plays, many of them by the king’s own company, which in the early years of the reign was managed by William Shakespeare. This was the perfect opportunity for the great playwright to showcase his own material, and the 1604-5 season included no less than four of his own works, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘A Comedy of Errors’, ‘Love’s Labours Lost’, and ‘Henry the Fifth’.

Tip 8: Make your own entertainment

The theatrical highlight of most Jacobean Christmases was the masque performed on Twelfth Night. No expense was spared, with scripts generally penned by Ben Jonson, and ground-breaking costumes, scenery and special effects by Inigo Jones. However, the professional actors got a night off, as masques were an opportunity for the courtiers (sometimes even the queen and the prince of Wales) to strut their stuff. Think amateur dramatics on the most lavish scale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, what most observers remembered afterwards were the costumes, special effects etc., rather than the individual performances.

Thames frost fair, 1608 (Houghton, STC 11403)
Thames ‘frost fair’, 1608

Tip 9: Get your skates on?

Whitehall Palace stood on the north bank of the Thames. Twice in James’s reign, in 1607-8 and 1620-1, the river froze over, rendering it an alternative playground for adventurous courtiers. On the former occasion, there was bowling and dancing, and temporary booths sold food, beer and mulled wine, the latter heated in situ, since the ice was thick enough for fires to be lit on it. (There are no firm records this early of aristocrats skating on the Thames – the sport was then relatively new to Britain – but it’s a possibility; in 1609 Francis Norris, 2nd Lord Norreys amused himself ‘sliding’ on the frozen moat at his Oxfordshire house.)

Tip 10: Say hello to Father Christmas

Forget Santa Claus, a 19th-century rebranding of the medieval St Nicholas. The personification of the festive season is a Jacobean invention, and made his earliest-known appearance in Ben Jonson’s ‘Masque of Christmas’ in January 1617. Jonson described him as ‘attired in round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat, with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs and garters tied cross’ (Nichols, iii. 234 – full details below). Quite what the assembled courtiers made of this novel character is not recorded, but he’s been with us in some shape or form ever since.




Further reading: 

John Nichols, ‘The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities of King James the First’ (4 vols., 1828) [available online at] 

Ronald Hutton, ‘The Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in Britain’ (1997) 

Ian Currie, ‘Frosts, Freezes and Fairs’ (1996) 

Biographies of Lancelot Andrewes, George Villiers, Philip Herbert and Francis Norris will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-29.

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