As part of this Christmas season blog hop by members of the Historical Writers Forum, I’ve chosen to revisit a Christmas scene with a difference.
A persistent, though occasional, medieval Christmas tradition was the election by lot of a ‘Lord of Misrule’ to organise the seasonal festivities. This would usually be a peasant or household servant whose temporary role would represent a brief turning of society upside down. This was practised neither universally nor regularly but occurred in some of the noble households. The ‘lord’ would preside over mummers’ plays, singing, dancing and general revelry. Ale and wine flowed pretty freely by all accounts but it was of course only a short term role reversal.
The Slaughter of the Innocents is known to be one of many mystery plays performed during the latter half of the fifteenth century. It represents the biblical massacre of children by King Herod at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the following extract from Kingdom of Rebels, Book 3 of the Rebels and Brothers series, I have put these two Christmas traditions together and, of course, it turns out to be a recipe for trouble…
Lady Eleanor Elder and others of her brother, Ned’s affinity have ended up at the castle of their enemy, Sir Thomas Gate – though he does not yet know it. By Christmas they have still not been discovered but they are all desperate to protect Ned’s young son, John Elder. The only resident of the castle who knows their true identities is the priest, Father Baston. Since Sir Thomas is away celebrating Christmas elsewhere, Eleanor hopes for some respite from the fear of discovery.
A constant thorn in her side is a certain Master Weaver – rather an over-mighty servant at the best of times and a nasty piece of work as well.
Here we find Eleanor and her comrades at the Christmas feast overseen by the Lord of Misrule…
When evening came there was a mood of good-humoured anticipation as the feast began. Torches burned brightly around the Great Hall and the Lord of Misrule held court at the high table. Eleanor had heard of the custom where one of the servants was briefly ennobled for part of the Christmas season, turning the natural order upside down.
“Shouldn’t we have a say in who the Lord of Misrule is?” she whispered to Bess.
Bess shrugged. “Aye, well, it’s Weaver – do you want to argue about it? I know I don’t.”
“I suppose Weaver appointed Weaver,” said Eleanor, “yet… I don’t see him as one to dream up festivities to cheer us all.”
Though all was undoubtedly cheerful and festive, Eleanor knew how much sweated effort had gone into the preparation of the feast. No-one – not even Weaver – normally went out of their way to annoy the cooks. But Weaver’s call for a feast had thrown the kitchens into turmoil. Food was already scarce from the overcrowding and she imagined that the cooks had taken their lord and lady’s absence to mean that no extravagant feasts would be required. But they had reckoned without Weaver, who was revelling in his new position of authority.
At the high table he dispensed freely the contents of Thomas Gate’s wine cellar and elsewhere in the hall the ale flowed in large quantities.
Eleanor sat far from the high table with some of the other members of the household. She drank little ale and took only a small share of the squat, oblong pies of shredded beef. Some of her comrades, however, were indulging themselves fully and she could not begrudge them. But she knew that if she drank too much ale, she would either become loud or morose – possibly both – and, in any case, she could see nothing here to celebrate.
She was tired even before the mummers’ play began and their theme, the massacre of the innocents, did little to lighten her mood. It was appropriate for the day, she recognised, but the solemn play changed the atmosphere in the hall. Typical of Weaver, she thought, to end a merry feast with a tale of murdered children. The only blessing was that the play was not very long and afterwards the players, sympathetic to their audience, did their best to lift the gloom with a few bawdy songs.
Then Weaver stood up and Eleanor assumed he was going to toast the mummers but he did not.
“Our friends, the mummers,” said Weaver, “have given us our story for this eve – the deaths of those poor innocent children at the hands of the bloody tyrant King Herod. I was speaking about this to our own priest, Father Baston, only this afternoon.”
Eleanor felt a prick of alarm at the mention of the priest. She could not quite imagine Weaver discussing King Herod with Father Baston – or anyone else for that matter.
“It’s long been a tradition to choose one child to represent the suffering of all those poor children.”
What was Weaver gibbering about? It was a tradition she had never heard of and these drunken sots didn’t want to hear about suffering, they were trying to escape from it.
“Margaret,” called Weaver, “fetch the boy.”
Eleanor edged further into the hall as Margaret – one of Weaver’s intimates – lifted John from a corner of the floor where he had been sleeping. He groaned and Bess screamed: “Leave the boy alone!”
“Calm yourself, lass,” said Weaver smiling, “it’s only make believe – like the mummers. The boy will come to no harm.”
Others chorused their approval and told Bess to sit down. John was wide awake now and went with Margaret to the dais.
Eleanor scanned the hall for Hal and found him leaning against the end wall not far from the high table. He looked on, smiling, but he was a poor actor and one look at his tense shoulders told her enough. His hand, she noticed, rested on his knife hilt. Looking around the hall more carefully, she saw that there were several armed men two of whom were by the door, close by her. Closing her eyes, she felt for her knife in the garter around her upper thigh, but it would not be easy to retrieve if she needed it in a hurry.
Weaver had his hand on John’s shoulder now. “What are you called, lad?” he asked.
John, undaunted by his rude awakening and the noisy crowd, answered with his customary confidence. “I’m called John.”
“… my lord,” Weaver added, through gritted teeth.
“Do you call me lord?” asked John, in confusion, since he had so far slept through the whole of the Lord of Misrule’s reign.
Weaver gave him a sharp slap around the head. Eleanor saw Hal flinch and take half a pace forward. She too moved a little closer.
“You address me as ‘my lord’,” explained Weaver.
“Do I?” asked John. “Why?”
Eleanor held her breath. She doubted Weaver had met many four year old boys but she knew for certain that he had never come across one like John Elder. If he was not careful, John would have him running round in circles. But that would not be good either…
“Enough, boy. Hold your tongue!” snapped Weaver.
A knife appeared in his hand and he brandished it theatrically for the audience. Eleanor suspected that even Weaver would not hurt a child so publicly so she doubted John was in any genuine danger; she just wished that Weaver would get the show over with. It all seemed so pointless and not at all what Weaver was about. And then suddenly it struck her and she knew that all this was not about any ceremony, or entertainment, at all. Somehow Weaver must have found out who had met with Father Baston and now, one by one, he was seeking to flush them all out.
Raising his knife, Weaver played once more to the crowd until John kicked him in the shin. Weaver yelped for, knowing John, he would have kicked as hard as he could. Though Weaver made a wild grab for him, John slipped from his grasp. Many of those watching laughed but Weaver was stung by the insult. He lunged again to catch the boy but John was too quick and made for Hal, who was already heading towards him.
“Grab the little turd!” shouted Weaver. “I’ll skin him!”
John hugged Hal around the knees and, as several men closed on them, Hal held out his knife.
“I have him, my lord,” said Hal, “but surely this has gone far enough. He’s just a boy.”
“I’ll judge whether I’ve finished or not!” bellowed Weaver.
Chaos had erupted in the hall. Women were screaming and men were shouting. Some called for calm, others for arms. Eleanor, watching Weaver make his way towards Hal, feared that unless she did something, it would end badly for them all.
“Oh, Good Christ, keep me safe,” she muttered, as she pushed forward towards the dais. She elbowed her way to Hal and punched his arm to get his attention.
“Don’t try to help me,” she whispered, as she drew level with him. “Just take the boy out.”
“What are you going to do,” he asked.
“Go!” hissed Eleanor as she passed on towards Weaver. A glance back told her that Hal had lifted up John and was pushing his way towards the door. With a little relief, she took a deep breath and focused on Weaver.
“You!” she screamed at him. “Pisspot! I’ll have words with you!”
Silence fell upon the hall like a hammer blow. When Margaret moved to intercept her, Eleanor gave her a brief smile before slapping her as hard as she could across the cheek. Staggering back a pace, Margaret wiped a smear of blood from her lip.
“You’ll regret that, you bitch!” she snarled.
Sweeping past her, Eleanor made straight for Weaver. She raised her hand to strike him next but he was swift – too swift for her. Seizing her arm, he forced her down onto her knees. She glanced towards the door and was pleased to see that Hal and John had disappeared.
Weaver pulled her head down until her lips brushed the cloth covering his groin. Almost overpowered by the smell of stale urine, she swayed back onto her haunches.
“Now that I’m down here,” she cried, “you’re such a disappointment.”
The audience in the hall loved that but their laughter goaded Weaver into a response.
“Look again!” he roared, grasping Eleanor around the neck to pull her face into his groin.
It was the moment to concede… to do what he asked… to abase herself… and survive. For an instant Eleanor considered such a course, but only for an instant, for it was not her way. Instead, she thrust her hand between his legs and pulled hard on what she found there. Weaver screamed and cracked her head down against the dais.
When she shook her head, a drop of blood dripped onto the wooden boards. The bastard had cut her. Cursing her wilful spirit, she thought about reaching for the knife – but she might need it later; perhaps it was better left hidden for now. All the same, Weaver needed to know that she could give as good as she got.
Lifting her head, she smiled to discover that he was still bent almost double. Too late, she saw Margaret swing the jug of wine at her . . . .
Ah well, with Lady Eleanor you always get trouble…
I hope you will visit the other posts in this festive blog hop from a group of fabulous writers.
Here are the other contributors:
6th Dec Jen Black https://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com/
9th Dec Jen Wilson Jennifercwilsonwriter.wordpress.com
11th Dec Janet Wertman https://janetwertman.com/
12 Dec Margaret Skea https://margaretskea.com/blog/
13th Dec Sue Barnard http://broad-thoughts-from-a-home.blogspot.com/
14th Dec Cathie Dunn https://cathiedunn.blogspot.com/
15th Dec Lynn Bryant http://www.lynnbryant.co.uk/blog/
16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson https://samanthawilcoxson.blogspot.com/
17th Dec Nicky Moxey https://nickymoxey.com/2019/12/17/christmas-gifting-in-1181
18th Dec Nancy Jardine https://nancyjardine.blogspot.com
19th Dec Wendy J Dunn http://www.wendyjdunn.com/christmas-at-the-tudor-court-a…/
20th Dec Judith Arnopp https://juditharnoppnovelist.blogspot.com/atudorchristmas
21st Dec Tim Hodkinson http://timhodkinson.blogspot.com/
22nd Dec Vanessa Couchman https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com/blog/
23rd Dec Christine Hancock https://byrhtnoth.com/
24th Dec Paula Lofting https://paulaloftinghistoricalnovel.worpress.com