Sitting at Christmas: getting business done, 1643

In a previous blog our director, Dr Stephen Roberts, explored legislation by which parliamentarians of the 1640s tried to promote what they saw as more appropriate ways of celebrating Christmas; contrary to popular historical myth, Oliver Cromwell was not the driving force. As Dr Vivienne Larminie of our Commons 1640-1660 section explains, Parliament itself began cutting back on the Yuletide festivities some years before Cromwell came to power

It had been a hard year.  Those MPs and peers who, in the early months of 1643, had anticipated a swift exit from civil war via a conclusive military victory for Parliament’s forces, followed by a negotiated settlement with a weakened Charles I, had been disillusioned.  Those Members like Sir John Evelyn who, over the summer, appalled at the fall-out from armed conflict, had flirted with defection to the king, had been suspended from their seats.  Others like Henry Rich, 1st earl of Holland, who had taken the plunge and deserted Westminster for royalist Oxford, soon lived to regret it.  There had been devastating defeats on battlefields across the country and the key port of Bristol had been lost.  The Commons was deprived of dynamic leader John Pym when he succumbed to cancer on 8 December.  Meanwhile, his colleagues were riven by bitter division over the past and future conduct of military campaigning, which was evolving into party strife.  To cap it all was the unnerving prospect of a rival Parliament, summoned by Charles to convene at Oxford in January 1644.

Against this backdrop, and with urgent business in hand, Parliament sat on Christmas day.  It had not done so in 1640, when there was a four-day adjournment, or in 1641, at the height of tension following the outbreak of the Irish rebellion and the Grand Remonstrance, when the Houses adjourned for a two-day weekend after Friday’s proceedings.  Earlier that Christmas Eve, an ordinance had been brought in for enforcing legislation against sabbath-breakers.  Appropriately, in 1642, when Christmas day fell on a Sunday, the House did not sit, although there was no surrounding holiday, while in 1643 the sabbath was duly observed on Christmas Eve.  But on Saturday 23rd, as diarist Walter Yonge recorded in the midst of jotting down disquieting communications with military commanders in the field, it was ‘Ordered that the howse sitte Monday, beinge Christmas day’ [British Library, MS Add.18779, f. 35].  Frustratingly, he gives no indication of the preceding debate.

John Taylor, The Vindication of Christmas (1652)

When the Commons duly assembled on Monday ‘25 December Christmas day 1643’, as Yonge noted [f.35v], they gave attention to a range of matters.  Some of the business was indeed pressing.  There were orders that the executive Committee of Safety (at this stage in charge of day-to-day running of the war) should ‘forthwith consider of a speedy Supply of the Garison at Alisbury [Aylesbury], being ready to disband for want of Money’, and that the executive Committee for the Advance of Money should ‘with all convenient speed’ transfer £300 to the treasurer at war, Sir Gilbert Gerard, to pay for the garrison at Southampton.  There was also the question as to whether a French envoy, the Prince d’Harcourt, should be permitted to proceed on his mission to Oxford with promises of aid and mediation (and ‘4 tun of wyne’), together with the suspicious activity of certain individuals associated with his visit.  Lords and Commons disagreed over this, and it needed resolution.  (Permission was given, but the wine was to be ‘searched before hee goe’.)  Urgent, too, was the raising of money for the war effort – to be accomplished in part by an excise tax on meat and salt. Moderately urgent, given the imminence of the Oxford Parliament, were measures to discourage crown officials from repairing there.  Important for raising morale was the reading of (among others) letters relating the capture by Major-general Philip Skippon (a future MP) of Grafton House ‘and a great Booty;’, 160 horses, ‘many colonels’, and 300 ‘common soldiers’ or the resistance of Colonel John Hutchinson, governor of Nottingham, to the blandishments of royalist commander William Cavendish, 1st marquess of Newcastle.  Cavendish’s agent in this attempted bribery, MP Robert Sutton, was excluded from the Commons that day.

Yet some of the other items of business addressed could easily have waited.  It is not clear why this day, more than any other, should be the one on which to settle a very long-running dispute over a by-election in Tewkesbury or to add two further MPs to the committee for the pulling down of superstitious images in churches.  Petitions from Sir John Meldrum requesting ‘continuation of Payment of the Duty formerly paid to the Lights [i.e. lighthouse] for the Goodwyn Sands’, and from William Kendall and Thomas Noel, citizens of London look like make-weights; the Journal notes that ‘nothing was done upon’ the latter. 

An impression that the Christmas sitting owed at least as much to the desire of some to make a moral or religious point as to urgency of business is borne out by the pattern of the following week.  Parliament did not meet on the 26th, the 28th or the 29th and Wednesday 27th was designated a fast day, when Lords and Commons both convened principally to attend sermons and prayers.  That Christmas day’s resolutions included orders that the collections to be taken then should be devoted to the poor (St Margaret’s, Westminster) or maimed soldiers (elsewhere) may serve as an indication of which occasion was deemed the more important.  When Members gathered briefly on the 27th after the morning’s solemnity to register thanks to the preachers and invite others to fill the pulpit on the next occasion, it was also referred to the Committee of Examinations, to investigate  ‘Information given, concerning some Members of the House dining and being in a Tavern, most Part of the Time that the House was solemnizing the Fast, this last Day of Humiliation’.   For some, clearly, Christmas celebrations were not to be missed.


Further reading:

Journal of the House of Commons, vol. iii

The Commons 1640-1660 section is preparing biographies or further biographies of Sir John Evelyn, Sir Gilbert Gerard, John Hutchinson, John Pym, Philip Skippon, Robert Sutton and Walter Yonge, and also articles on the Committee for the Advance of Money, the Committee of Examinations and the Committee of Safety.

Biographies of the 1st earl of Holland and 1st marquess of Newcastle will appear in our forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629.

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