Christmas in the Tudor town of Great Dunmow – Part 2

My post Christmas in the Tudor town of Great Dunmow – Part 1 told the story of Great Dunmow’s Christmas Day candles (each weighing two pounds) which were bought by the churchwardens in the 1540s and placed in the parish church on Christmas Day morning.  Having analysed some of the religious elements of Christmas in a Tudor Catholic town, it is now time to turn to the social pleasures of Christmas.

Today’s post on Christmas in a Tudor town is about the ‘Lord of Misrule’ and his activities.  A regular occurrence in Great Dunmow’s Tudor churchwardens’ accounts is that of the money collected (or ‘gathered’) each year by these Lords.   During the Medieval and early Tudor period, Lords were appointed yearly by their parish to be the master of ceremonies and thus supervise parish entertainments, revelry and general chaos.   It is difficult to find any clear understanding on what the Lords got up to – some historians say that it was for one day only and others say that it was for the 12 Days of Christmas, starting on Christmas Day.  Moreover, some internet websites mix the ‘Lord of Misrule’ with the medieval practice of the boy-bishops of St Nicholas.  As Great Dunmow’s churchwardens accounts have separate financial entries for money collected for a ‘boy-bishop’, it is therefore unlikely that Great Dunmow’s Lords of Misrule were also ‘boy bishops’.

Unfortunately, the churchwardens’ accounts of Great Dunmow only provide the plainest of descriptions (see below).  So we don’t know what actually took place during the Lord of Misrule’s ‘reign’.  However, whatever happened, we do know that it raised a considerable amount of money for the parish church – so possibly took place over the 12 Days of Christmas, as opposed to just one day.  All the money gathered from the townsfolk by the Lord of Misrule was handed over to the churchwardens to provide funds for the parish church and thus recorded in their accounts.  We can also determine from other information in the churchwardens’ accounts coupled with the Lay Subsidies of 1523-4, that whenever Lord of Misrule was personally named in the records, he was normally of the ‘middling sort’ or a churchwarden.

The majority of Great Dunmow’s accounts specify ‘at Christmas’ alongside the entry for the ‘Lord of Misrule’ and only two entries don’t specify ‘Christmas’  (see below).   Without this extra description, it is impossible to determine if Great Dunmow’s ‘Lords of Misrule’ were all at Christmas-time or were for other times in the year.  The historian Ronald Hutton documents that many English pre-Reformation villages and towns celebrated May-day with a ‘Lord of Misrule (Ronald Hutton, The Rise of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1994), p116-7).  In fact, Hutton states that Great Dunmow chose a Lord of Misrule to preside over its May ales (p33) but, as shown below, there is nothing in the original primary source to confirm this assertion.  The entries, as shown below, document that all but two were at Christmas, and none explicitly document that the Lord was at May.  Moreover, the receipts for Great Dunmow’s yearly May festivities are documented separately to the Lord of Misrule.  One of the two entries that doesn’t mention ‘Christmas’ does, instead, mention the Plough Feast (1538-9) and the Plough Feast was celebrated in January, shortly after the activites of the Lord of Misrule.  It seems that there is overwhelming evidence that all Great Dunmow’s Lord of Misrules, as recorded in their Tudor churchwarden accounts, took place during the Christmas period.

The churchwardens weren’t precise or consistent with the dating of their financial records.  See Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts.   Therefore, the dates below show the most likely period in which the events recorded by the entries ‘Lord of Misrule’ took place.  The Lord of Misrule appears for every period recorded by the churchwardens between 1527 and 1542.  The entry for 1541-42 is the last entry in Great Dunmow’s churchwardens’ accounts for the Lord of Misrule.  It is not known why the custom died out in Great Dunmow before the end of Henry VIII’s reign as it is well documented that the king had a Lord of Misrule in his court, and his son, Edward VI, carried on the tradition.

1527-1529Item recd of John Foster ytch [which] was gathered whan he was lorde – liijs iiijd [53s 4d]’ (folio 7r).  John Foster was a churchwarden of Great Dunmow from 1530 for two years.  In the Lay Subsidies of 1523-4, he was assessed as having goods to the value of 25s and paid 4d in taxes to Henry VIII’s commissioners.  He paid 12d towards the parish collection for the church steeple.  John Foster was clearly of the ‘middling sort’.

1529-1530Item rec of the lord of mysrowle [misrule] which was gadred [gathered] at Crystmas – ljs viijd [51s 8d]’ (folio 11r).

1530-1532ffyrste of the lorde of mysse rule – xxxviijs iiijd [38s 4d]’ (folio 15r).

1532-1533 ‘Itm rd of ye lord of mony at Crystmas – 10l s [£10]’ (folio 17v).  It is interesting that the word ‘of’ is crossed through in this entry.  Was our Tudor scribe about to write ‘Lord of Misrule’ but thought better of it and so wrote just ‘Lord’s Money at Christmas’?

1533-1534 ‘Resayved at Crystmas of ye lorde of mysrewle declard xxxiiijs 10d ob [34s 10½d – the ‘ob’ is the abbreviated form of ‘obolus’]’  (folio 20r)

1537-1538 ‘In primo recayvyd of Wylliam Stuard lord of mysserewle whych he gathered att Crystmas – xl is [£10 1s]’ (folio 24v). William Stuard (possibly ‘Steward’) paid 8d towards the 1530-32 collection for the church’s organ. In the Lay Subsidies of 1523-4, a William Steward was assessed as having goods to the value of 20s and paid 4d in taxes to Henry VIII’s commissioners.

1538-1539In primo receyvyd of the lord of mysserowell & for the plowgh ffest – xl s [£10 0s]’ (folio 29r). The medieval English tradition of the Plough Feast is discussed in this post Transcript fo. 4r: The Catholic Ritual Year – Plough-feast, May Day, Dancing Money, Corpus Christi

1539-1541Item reseyvyd of the lorde of mysrowle at thys Crystmas last wt [with] the plowfest mony at the town declard to the chyrche & all thyngs dyschargyd – xxxviijs jd [38s 1d]’ (folio 30v).

1541-1542 ‘Receyvyd of Skyngle the lord of myserule that he gatheryd at Crystmas there to ye cherche – lijs id [52s 1d]’ (folio 32r).  It’s very difficult to determine the social status of this ‘Skyngle’.  There was a Thomas Skyngell  who gave 1d towards the 1537-1538 collection for the Great Bell Clapper and 1d for the 1537-1538 collection for the Great Latten Candlestick – but he doesn’t appear anywhere else in the churchwardens’ accounts and doesn’t appear in Great Dunmow’s Lay Subsidy of 1523-4.

Join me next time to discover about
Great Dunmow’s St Nicholas and the boy bishop

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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