The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble

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.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00060]   In the following, somewhat truncated, extract from Kingdom of Rebels, Book 3 of the Rebels and Brothers series, I have put these two Christmas traditions together.

    Lady Eleanor Elder and some others of Ned Elder’s affinity have found their way into the castle of their enemy, Sir Thomas Gate. By Christmas their true identities have still not been revealed and since Sir Thomas is away celebrating Christmas elsewhere, Eleanor is hoping for some respite from the fear of discovery…

  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 reveling in his new position of authority.

Sir Walter Grave, by contrast, looked abject. He brooded at the far end of the high table as far from Weaver as possible. It was no secret they detested each other and he looked on disapprovingly as the contents of Thomas Gate’s wine cellar were served up. 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 the others from Crag Tower, Wulf and his comrades, were indulging themselves fully. She did not begrudge them but she knew that if she drank too much ale, she would either become loud or morose – possibly even both – and 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? These drunken sots didn’t want to hear about suffering, they were trying to escape from it.

“Margaret,” Weaver continued, “fetch the boy.”

Eleanor moved further into the Hall as Margaret lifted John from a corner of the floor where he had been sleeping. He groaned and Bess screamed: “No, leave my lad!”

“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. Bess looked at Wulf and he nodded. 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 rested on his knife hilt. She looked around the Hall more carefully: there were several armed men around the room and two more near her by the door. She closed her eyes, feeling the knife in the garter around her upper leg but it would not be easy to retrieve if she needed it in a hurry.

Weaver had his hand on John’s shoulder. “What are you called, lad?” he asked him.

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 move 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. 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 danger and just wished 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 a 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 connections to flush them all out.

Weaver raised his knife, playing to the crowd and John kicked him in the shin. Knowing John, he would have kicked as hard as he could and Weaver yelped. John slipped from his grasp and Weaver made a wild grab for him. Many of those watching laughed and 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.

“Catch the little turd!” shouted Weaver. “I’ll skin him!”

John hugged Hal around the knees as several men closed on them. Hal held out his knife.

“I have him, my lord,” cried Hal, “but surely this has gone far enough. He’s just a boy.”

“Let me judge whether I’ve finished or not!” bellowed Weaver.

Eleanor watched as he made his way towards Hal, followed by others of his men. Chaos had erupted in the Hall. Women were screaming and men were shouting. Some called for calm, others for arms. She feared that unless she did something, it would end badly for them all.

“Oh, Good Christ, keep me safe,” muttered Eleanor and 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,” asked Hal.

“Go!” hissed Eleanor and passed on towards Weaver. A glance back told her that Hal had lifted up John and was pushing his way towards the door. She concentrated then on Weaver.

“You!” she screamed at him. “Pisspot! I’ll have words with you!”

Silence fell upon the Hall like a hammer blow. Margaret moved to intercept her. Eleanor gave her a brief smile then slapped her as hard as she could across the cheek. Margaret staggered back a pace and wiped a smear of blood from her lip.

“You’ll regret that, you bitch!” said Margaret.

Eleanor swept past her and made for Weaver. She raised her hand to strike him but he was swift – too swift for her. He seized her arm and forced her down onto her knees. She glanced towards the door: Hal and John had disappeared.

Weaver pulled her head down until her lips brushed the cloth covering his groin. The smell of stale urine almost overpowered her and she swayed back onto her haunches.

“Now that I’m down here,” she shouted at him, “you’re such a disappointment.”

The audience in the Hall loved that and their laughter goaded Weaver into a response. He grasped her around the neck to pull her face into his groin.

“Well, look again!” he roared.

It was the moment to concede, to do what he asked, to abase herself… to survive. For an instant Eleanor considered that course, but only for an instant. Then she thrust her hand between his legs and grabbed at what she found there. Weaver screamed and cracked her head down against the dais.

She shook her head and a drop of blood dripped onto the wooden boards. He’d cut her. She cursed her wilful spirit. She could not reach the knife – and besides she might need it later  – better to leave it hidden for now. Weaver needed to know that she could give as good as she got. She lifted her head and smiled to see him bent almost double. Too late, she saw Margaret swing the jug of wine at her . . . . . .

Ah well, with Lady Eleanor you always get trouble…

My thanks to Helen Hollick for taking the time to organise this blog hop. Why not join Helen and my fellow writers on their own “leg” of this Christmas hop?

Thank you for joining our party

now follow on to the next enjoyable entertainment…

  1. Helen Hollick : “You are Cordially Invited to a Ball”(plus a giveaway prize) –
  2. Alison Morton :“Saturnalia surprise – a winter party tale” (plus a giveaway prize) –
  3. Andrea Zuvich : No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell –
  4. Ann Swinfen : Christmas 1586 – Burbage’s Company of Players Celebrates –
  5. Anna Belfrage : All I want for Christmas (plus a giveaway prize) –
  6. Carol Cooper : How To Be A Party Animal –
  7. Clare Flynn : A German American Christmas –
  8. Debbie Young : Good Christmas Housekeeping –
  9. Edward James : An Accidental Virgin and An Uninvited Guest – and – 
  10. Fenella J. Miller : Christmas on the Home front(plus a giveaway prize) –
  11. J. L. Oakley : Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907(plus a giveaway prize) –
  12. Jude Knight : Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804 –
  13. Julian Stockwin: Join the Party –
  14. Juliet Greenwood : Christmas 1914 on the Home Front (plus a giveaway) –
  15. Lauren Johnson :  Farewell Advent, Christmas is come – Early Tudor Festive Feasts –
  16. Lucienne Boyce : A Victory Celebration –
  17. Nancy Bilyeau : Christmas After the Priory (plus a giveaway prize) –
  18. Nicola Moxey : The Feast of the Epiphany, 1182 –
  19. Peter St John : Dummy’s Birthday –
  20. Regina Jeffers : Celebrating a Regency Christmas (plus a giveaway prize) –
  21. Richard Abbott : The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit –
  22. Saralee Etter : Christmas Pudding — Part of the Christmas Feast –
  23. Stephen Oram : Living in your dystopia: you need a festival of enhancement…(plus a giveaway prize) –
  24. Suzanne Adair : The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780 (plus a giveaway prize)
  25. Lindsay Downs : O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree –

Thank you for joining us 

This entry was posted in Blog hop, Historical Fiction, Medieval History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble

  1. judeknight1807 says:

    Oh no; what a place to stop! My TBR list is becoming gargantuan!

  2. Looks like you’ve got a splendid villain in Weaver! Fascinating read, thanks.

  3. Feud_writer says:

    Indeed, Weaver gets worse…

  4. …and this book is on my Christmas read list.l Seems I have plenty to look forward to!

  5. Jo Barton says:

    Another book for the wishlist…!!
    Happy Christmas 🙂

  6. kritsayvonne says:

    Ah, I particularly like a fiesty heroine, now I’ve another to add to the must read pile. X

  7. Pingback: Christmas 1914 on the Home Front | Juliet Greenwood

  8. moxeyns says:

    Noo! What happens now! I accuse you of cliff-hanging 😀

  9. Pingback: Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804 |

  10. Pingback: Celebrating a Regency Era Christmas on the Christmas Party Blog Hop + a Giveaway of “Christmas at Pemberley” | ReginaJeffers's Blog

  11. The Lord of Misrule is an excellent plot device.

  12. Feud_writer says:

    Guilty as charged…

  13. …and of course we are all wondering what happens next! Thanks Derek for posting the extract

  14. Debbie Young says:

    I wonder who would be the Lord of Misrule in the 21st century court? Or in the Houses of Parliament?! Food for thought there!

  15. annswinfen says:

    What a place to stop!

  16. I’m having a very pleasant afternoon re-visiting all the authors who took part in the Blog Hop – thanks for joining in and Happy New Year!

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