Cancelling Christmas? William Prynne, kill-joy and martyr, and the onslaught on ‘pagan Saturnalia’

With the government currently recommending scaled-back Christmas celebrations, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-60 project, considers a man who advocated scrapping Yuletide festivities for a quite different reason…

The idea that ‘the puritans cancelled Christmas’ has widespread acceptance. Indeed it surfaced in the House of Commons recently in debate over what kind of celebration might be prudent or possible in this extraordinary year. But, as has appeared in previous blogs, in the mid-seventeenth century measures forbidding traditional seasonal festivities were more contested and less effective than often supposed. Contrary to what is often asserted, Oliver Cromwell was neither the originator nor even, particularly, the encourager of repression. Legislation dates from the mid-1640s, before he attained political power.

So if Cromwell was not Scrooge, who was? Step forward one candidate for the role – lawyer, controversialist and martyr William Prynne. A man whose substantial contribution to the House of Commons belied the brevity of his time as an MP, and whose voluminous publications were second to none in the period, he was the epitome of persecuted turned persecutor, and a thorn in the side of royal and parliamentarian governments alike. He too did not invent the cancellation script. From long before the civil wars a body of opinion had wished to strip away the vestiges of pagan rituals and put Christ back into Christmas, but Prynne collated others’ arguments and then put his own inimitable stamp on the material.

William Prynne (Wenceslaus Hollar, mid-17th century)

It was in his Histriomastix (1632) – a repetitive thousand-page diatribe primarily directed against public theatres and female actors – that Prynne warmed to the subject. In its preface he told his readers that he would address many interconnected vices:

effeminate mixt Dancing, Dicing, Stage-playes, lascivious Pictures, wanton Fashions, Face-painting, Health-drinking, Long haire, Love-lockes, Periwigs, womens curling, pouldring and cutting of their haire, Bone-fires, New-yeares-gifts, May-games, amorous Pastoralls, lascivious effeminate Musicke, excessive laughter, luxurious disorderly Christmas-keeping [and] Mummeries.

These were ‘meere sinfull, wicked unchristian pastimes, vanities, cultures and disguises’, practices that ‘the primitive Church and Christians, together with the very best of Pagans’ had ‘quite abandoned, condemned’. To ‘decke up … Houses with Laurell, Yuie [yew] and green boughes’ was forbidden [p. 21] while ‘flocking’ to the theatres ‘especially in the Christmas time’ was (among other sins) ‘a voluptuous and base servilitie to our filthie carnal lusts’ [p. 48]. Should people of other faiths observe ‘our Bacchanalian Christmas extravagancies’ they would be scandalised, and ‘thinke our Saviour to be a glutton, an Epicure, a wine-bibber … a God of all dissolutenesse, drunkennesse and disorder’ [p. 747]. In the Bible there was nothing about feasting, carousing, gambling or ‘heathenish Christmas pastimes’; rather, ‘Glory be to God on high, on earth peace, good will towards men … is the Angels’, the Shepherds’ only Christmas Caroll’, which the Virgin Mary ‘hath prefaced with this celestiall hymne of prayse, My soule doth magnifie the Lord…’ [i.e. the Magnificat, p. 768]. Prynne’s readers were exhorted to abandon their ‘riotous grand-Christmasses’ and instead to ‘cordially meditate’ on the Scriptures and on the meaning of ‘our Saviour’s blessed incarnation’ and to praise God ‘in Psalmes, hymnes and spirituall songs’ [p. 751].

Histriomastix struck at the culture of the royal court and Prynne paid a savage penalty. Tried in the prerogative court of Star Chamber, he was fined £5,000 (a huge sum), expelled from Lincoln’s Inn (his professional home), deprived of his Oxford degree and sentenced to life imprisonment. In May 1634 he was made to stand in the pillory at Westminster and in Cheapside, where he was branded and had his ears cropped. From the Tower of London, he continued to write and to provide legal counsel for puritans in trouble, working with fellow-sufferers John Bastwick and Henry Burton, and supported by friends like once and future MPs Sir Robert Harley and Somerset clothier John Ashe. Following further Star Chamber proceedings in 1637, he was branded again on both cheeks, this time with SL for ‘seditious libeller’ (or as Prynne proclaimed, ‘stigmata Laudis’, the mark of his chief persecutor, Archbishop William Laud). A botched attempt to remove the remainder of his ears nearly severed his jugular vein. Crowds flocked to support him en route for prison in Caernarvon, so he was soon removed further from public sight to St Orgueil in Jersey.

Archbishop Laud dining on Prynne’s ears (a satirical image from ‘Canterbury his change of diot’, 1641)

The advent of the Long Parliament in late 1640 saw Prynne’s sentence reversed. Released from prison, he and Bastwick rode to London in triumph, greeted by hundreds of people and the ringing of church bells, although financial reimbursement was not resolved until December 1645. In the meantime, Prynne was at the vanguard of political pamphleering, chaired (as an external commissioner) the Commons Committee of Accounts, and pursued his enemies. Notably, in 1643 he hounded Nathaniel Fiennes for his surrender of Bristol to the royalists through the press and at the court martial, and was both a prosecutor and a key witness at Archbishop Laud’s trial in 1645. With the rise of faction at Westminster, Prynne poured out propaganda for the Presbyterians and defended the Eleven Members expelled from Parliament for their part in the coup of 1647.

In early 1648 Prynne was involved in the organisation of a Presbyterian system of worship in his native Somerset. On 7 November, with Presbyterian backers, he was finally elected to Parliament, only to be a victim of Pride’s Purge on 6 December. His protests were characteristically vocal and provide a partisan account of what transpired. He was to the fore in word and action again when in May 1659 some purged Members sought re-entry to the Commons, then sitting as a reassembled Rump Parliament, and he was there when the Long Parliament returned in February 1660. But by this time the scourge of players and Christmas and the puritan martyr was prepared to help usher in the Restoration. He abased himself as ‘a poor worm’ before Charles II and, incongruously, went on to sit in the Cavalier Parliament.


Further reading

Jason Peacey, Politicians and Pamphleteers: Propaganda in the Civil Wars and Interregnum (2004)

Jason Peacey, Print and Public Politics in the English Revolution (2013)

William M. Lamont, Marginal Prynne (1600-1669) (1963)

Biographies or further biographies of John Ashe, Oliver Cromwell, Nathaniel Fiennes, Sir Robert Harley and William Prynne, and a study of the Committee of Accounts are being prepared for publication by members of the House of Commons 1640-1660 project.

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