Christmas Past: Leaping Lords of Misrule

I’ve been looking at an 1845 edition of the London Journal that has an article on Christmas celebrations, a sizeable stretch of which is spent discussing the Lord of Misrule. Here, the author reproduces a long excerpt from a still earlier text: Philip Stubbs’ 1583 publication The Anatomie of Abuses. Interestingly, Stubs mentions the Lord of Misrule being accompanied by “pipers piping, drummers thundering, girls dancing”; this phrase has an obvious similarity to the song of the 12 Days of Christmas, the earliest known version of which would not be published until nearly two hundred years after Stubs wrote these words.

Could it be that the Lord of Misrule himself is immortalised in the song’s line about ten lords a-leaping? It seems likely to me, although a quick search online turned up no references to a connection. (I did come across theories that the ten lords a-leaping represent either the Ten Commandments or some species of bird, but these strikes me as less plausible).

Incidentally, I believe that he “Stowe” referred to here is John Stow, whose 1603 Survey of London is quoted from earlier in the article.

In former times,—and the custom is not yet extinct,—a master of the festivities was chosen. Who has not heard of the famous LORD OF MISRULE? He is the true “Chief of the Disports,”—the “Master of Merry Revels,” Ye who have hitherto omitted this invaluable agent from your Christmas family, fail not to constitute his authority, by honourable and fair election, this year. We charge ye to do this; and if he be a clever, jovial, merry fellow , —as every Lord of Misrule should be, —he will add to your mirth, we promise ye.

In Scotland he is called the Abbot of Unreason;–but no matter what his title be, he is the King of the Festivities, and his office leads to much excellent fun. “There was,” says Stowe, “in the feast of Christmas, in the king’s house, wheresoever he lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Master of Merry Disports; and the like had ye for the house of every nobleman of honour, or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal. Among the which the Mayor of London, and either of the sheriffs, had their several Lords of Misrule, ever contending withut quarrel or offence, which should make the rarest pastimes, to delight the beholders.”

A certain Philip Stubs [sic], who wrote a work entitled The Anatomie of Abuses, which was published in 1583, gives a curious account of the Lord of Misrule and his retainers; considered, hwoever, through the mirror of popular prejudices. This passage we shall give, changing the old spelling to the modern method:–

“First, all the wild heads of the parish concerning together, choose them a great captain (of mischief,) whom they ennoble with the title of My Lord of Misrule; and him they crown with great solemnity, and adopt for their king. The king thus anointed chooses twenty, forty, three score, or a hundred lusty fellows like to himself, to wait upon his lordly majesty, and to guard his noble person. Then every one of these his men he invests with his liveries of green, yellow, or some other light wanton colour.

And as though that were not gaudy enough, I should say, they bedeck themselves with scarfs, ribands, and laces, hanged all over with gold rings, precious stones, and other jewels, This done, they tie about either leg twenty or forty bells, with rich handkerchiefs in their hands, and sometimes laid across over their shoulders and necks, borrowed, for the most part, of their pretty Marys and loving Bessys for bussing them.

Thus, things at in order, they have their hobby horses, dragons, and other antiques, together with their gaudy pipers, and thundering drums to strike up the Devil’s dance withal. Then marches this heathen company towards the church and church-yard, their pipers piping ,drummers thundering, girls dancing, bells jingling, handkerchiefs swinging about their heads like madmen; their hobby-horses and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng; and in this sort they go to the church, (though the ministers be at prayer or preaching), dancing and swinging their handkerchiefs over their heads, in the church like devils incarnate, with such a confused noise that no man can hear his own voice. Then the popish people look, stare, laugh, and mount upon forms and pews, to see these goodly pageantries solemnized in this sort.”

We, of course, do not for a moment support the idea of the Lord of Misrule and his host entering a sacred edifice; but, in other respects, we can only smile at the virtuous indignation which Mr. Philip Stubs levels against the harmless revelries of the Christmas pageantry. We have before said, that it is good to laugh in season; and we have also recommended those of mature years, and the hold likewise, to become children once again at Christmas. Yes—at Christmas time let us have all those innocent frolics and harmless mummeries which enliven the heart.

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