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Monday 9 December 2013

Christmas at the Court of King John

With the season of Advent underway, many of us will be frantically planning our Christmas celebrations. There’s the food for Christmas lunch (have I bought enough? Do I have enough plates for everyone?), the booze (how sozzled do we plan to get?) and of course, the tricky issue of presents (what on earth do I buy the mother-in-law?). In the thirteenth century, King John and Henry III faced similar problems.

King John had to plan Christmas Day at least a week in advance because of the large quantities of food required for his feast. Once the king had decided where he would spend Christmas Day, a command would be sent to the local sheriff ordering him to rustle-up the necessary supplies. There would be hundreds of mouths to feed, so this was no easy task – in fact King John’s shopping list puts our Christmas-shopping nightmares in the shade. In 1206, an order was dispatched to the sheriff of Hampshire on 13 December to find 1,500 hens, 5,000 eggs, 20 cattle, 100 pigs and 100 sheep for the king’s Christmas festivities at the royal palace of Winchester. Thankfully for the sheriff of Hampshire, the task of ordering the table settings was delegated to his colleague in Wiltshire, who had to procure 500 ells of linen for making tablecloths.

In 1213, the task of organising King John’s Christmas feast at Windsor castle was even more daunting. Reginald de Cornhill, in charge of purchasing luxury goods for the royal household, was presented with an epic shopping list and barely a week to fulfil the order. No Christmas feast would be complete without plenty of booze, so the king would need wine: 20 tuns of good and new ordinary wine, both French and Gascon, and 4 tuns of the best stuff that Reginald could lay his hands on (2 of red, 2 of white) for the king’s table. Then there was the food: 200 pigs’ heads with all the pickled pork, 1,000 hens, 50 pounds of pepper, 2 pounds of saffron, 100 pounds of good fresh almonds and 15,000 herrings, as well as spices for making sauces, two dozen towels and 1,000 ells of linen for making tablecloths. But even this huge order would not suffice for the royal feast and so other officials were tasked with finding another 200-odd pigs’ heads, 15,000 more hens as well as 10,000 salted eels and all the pitchers, cups and dishes that would be needed to serve the diners.

How much did this all cost? It’s hard to say, because no household rolls survive for King John’s reign (we have two misae rolls, listing the king’s diverse expenses, but they hardly include anything in terms of Yuletide procurement). But some household rolls do survive from the reign of John’s son, Henry III, and these reflect a dramatic increase in spending at Christmas time. While the normal daily spend for the royal household in 1225 was £6 or £7, the cost of food, drink and other provisions (wax, firewood etc.) for Christmas Eve and Day at Winchester that year was over £51.

And this is all before one takes into account the king’s spending on gifts for family and servants. King John was famous for his largesse and was generous in providing robes for his men. At Christmas in 1214, he kitted out 7 knights, 6 serjeants, the royal chaplains and 13 other members of the household in robes of green. John was also keen to ensure that all of his men were properly looked after. When one of his crossbowmen, Hugh, fell ill on Christmas Eve 1205 during the Christmas festivities at Oxford, John ordered the local sheriff to find 12 pence per day for Hugh’s convalescence and to provide Hugh with 20 shillings for robes. The presentation of robes was an important demonstration of the king’s largesse and complaints were voiced in 1250 when Henry III, scrimping on gifts in an effort to save up for his planned crusade, failed to distribute any robes or jewels (then as now, even when times were tough people still expected a good show). In 1242, though, Henry had wisely put his best efforts into a suitably splendid gift for his mother in law. Henry had married Eleanor of Provence in 1236 and, when her mother Beatrice visited at Christmas 1242, Henry was clearly eager to impress. He commissioned his tailors to make a robe of the ‘best scarlet cloth that can be found in the city of London’ for Beatrice’s Christmas present. Obviously concerned that this would be deemed insufficient, Henry also gave Beatrice a £400 annual fee for six years and presented her, on New Year’s Day, with a golden figure of an eagle (representing her family’s emblem) inlaid with precious stones, at the cost of some £100.

How did King John spend Christmas Day itself? His father, Henry II, had hosted a famously ribald court, whose annual Christmas entertainment included a display of leaping, whistling and farting by one Roland the Farter. But it is hard to imagine that there was much time for fun and games at John’s Christmas court. There was some sort of joshing display put on by the archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, in which he pretended to outdo the king in largesse when he handed out robes to his men. But otherwise it was business as usual – on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the king continued to receive payment of debts, which must have taken the edge off Christmas cheer. In any case, King John hardly spent enough time in one place to spin out the Christmas fun. His itinerary (a new version of which is underway as part of the Magna Carta Project) shows that he hardly spent more than a day or two at his chosen Christmas residence before he was off again on his endless toing and froing around the kingdom.

How were John’s Yuletide celebrations received? Given the financial pressures John placed on his kingdom, especially after the loss of Normandy in 1204, one might have thought that his extravagant (and no doubt expensive) Christmas festivities might have earned him criticism. Yet displays of royal generosity were a key part of medieval politics and so John’s largesse, unlike other aspects of his rule, was recorded approvingly by chroniclers:
‘he spent lavishly; he gave plenty to eat, and did so generously and willingly. People never found the gate or the doors of John’s hall barred against them, so that all who wanted to eat at his court could do so. At the three great feasts he gave robes aplenty to his knights. This was a good quality of his.’ (Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des rois d’Angleterre, translated by John Gillingham).