Christmas in the Tudor town of Great Dunmow – Part 1

Christmas was a significant event of great importance for the ordinary people of English villages and towns in the early Tudor Catholic period.  The townsfolk of the North Essex town of Great Dunmow were no exception to this and celebrated with much vigour both the religious and social aspect of this, the most Christian of celebrations.  To discover what Christmas events took place in Great Dunmow, we once more have to turn to the exquisitely tooled leather-bound churchwarden accounts of the town.  In this handsome volume, between the years 1526 to 1621, the churchwardens of Great Dunmow meticulously recorded their expenditure and income of their parish church of St Mary the Virgin.

Local history - Tudor Great Dunmow

Front cover of the exquisite churchwardens’ accounts,
Essex Record Office, D/P 11/5/1.

Buried within this book are the financial accounts for various religious and social activities which took place over the Christmas period between the 1520s and 1550s.  Only the bare-bones can be gleaned from the churchwardens’ accounts but there is enough detail to gather a basic knowledge of the events at Christmas in this Tudor English parish.

Local history - Tudor Great Dunmow

So, over the next few days in the lead-up to our 21st Century consumer-driven Christmas, we shall explore together

Christmas in the Tudor town of Great Dunmow

Christmas Day Candle
The expenditure for a special candle, used in the parish church on Christmas Day morning, first appeared in the churchwardens’ accounts in 1544, then again in 1545 and also in 1546 (the final Christmas of Henry VIII’s reign).   It is curious that these Christmas candles do not appear in the early years of the churchwardens’ accounts.  However it is likely that these earlier Christmas candles were bought but not itemised by the churchwardens with such precision as seen in the 1540s folios.

The candles must have been substantial items – probably very large and very long – as the 1544 and 1545 candles weighed two pounds each and cost 3d apiece.  The 1546 candle also weighed two pounds, but cost 4d – had Tudor inflation taken place?  I wonder what our Tudor churchwardens thought of this price increase!  Unfortunately we do not know if they were ornate or a simple candles. It is possible that the Christmas candle was carried in a procession through the church, a procession led by the vicar and priests of Great Dunmow at the Mass held for the entire parish on Christmas morning.

Local history - Tudor Great Dunmow

Payd ffor ijli [2 pounds] off ca[n]dell att crystmas – iijd [3d]  (folio 37v 1544-5)

No further mention is made of Christmas candles in the accounts until the reign of Mary I when there are two entries for Christmas Day candles – one which cost 2d but without the weight recorded, and the other weighing the usual two pounds and costing 5d.  The entries for Mary’s reign are not dated, so these Christmas Day candles relate to Christmases in the period 1553 to 1558.  The churchwardens’ accounts are confusing for the period of Henry VIII’s immediate successor, the devoutly Protestant Edward VI.  Therefore, it cannot be determined if the lack of Christmas Day candles during his reign (1547-1553) was because of his religious inclinations and edicts or simply because the churchwardens did not record the entries with their usual meticulous thoroughness.  The Marian entries show that the Christmas candle was enclosed or surrounded by some form of canopy.

Local history - Tudor Great DunmowItem for Candell on Christmas Day morninge
& for nayeles [nails] for the Canapie – ijd [2d]   (folio 43r 1553-1558)

There are no further entries in the churchwardens’ accounts for a large candle at Christmas.  Below summarises the entries that are in the accounts.

Entry for 1544 Christmas candle – folio 37v
Entry for 1545 Christmas candle – folio 38v
Entry for 1546 Christmas candle – folio 39r
Entry for Christmas candles in Mary I’s reign – folio 43r

Join me tomorrow to discover about
Great Dunmow’s Christmas Lord of Misrule

Notes about Great Dunmow’s churchwarden accounts
Text in square [brackets] are The Narrator’s transcriptions.

The original churchwarden accounts (1526-1621) are in Essex Record Office (E.R.O.), Chelmsford, Essex, D/P 11/5/1.  All digital images within this blog appear by courtesy of Essex Record Office and may not be reproduced.

Examining these records from this Essex parish gives the modern reader a remarkable view  into the lives and times of some of Henry VIII’s subjects and provides an interpretation into the local history of Tudor Great Dunmow.

You may also be interested in the following posts
– Christmas in a Tudor town
– Medieval Christmas Stories
– Transcripts of Great Dunmow’s Churchwardens’ accounts – 1526-1621

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