Welcome to the final post of the Historical Writers’ Forum Spectacular December Blog Hop – on Christmas Day itself, which should be the crowning glory…
In one sense, perhaps, it could be seen as that, as at least the blog involves a crowned head … or a person who ultimately does wear a crown. But when we first meet him, the man concerned would not have dreamed that he would ever ascend a throne himself. For his elder brother was then King, in December of 1482 – Edward IV of England, the Yorkist king who had reigned for more than two decades, and who had two sons to follow him on the throne.
Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, who would only six months later himself become King through a tortuous series of events, spent the Christmas of 1482 at the court of his brother Edward. It is a Yuletide period that is described in my novel about Richard III (for younger readers), The Order of the White Boar.
Gathered together that year were all of King Edward’s family, including young Edward, his eldest son and Prince of Wales, who had spent most of his young life with his mother’s brother, Earl Rivers in Ludlow, learning how to rule. Also there were Elizabeth and Cecily, the King and Queen’s eldest daughters, and Richard, their younger son. The various younger sisters were rarely seen during the festivities.
The Duke is welcomed to Westminster several days before Christmas itself with a sumptuous feast at which Matthew, the young hero of my book (a page in Richard’s household at Middleham Castle), joins the many guests.
‘A banquet had been prepared to celebrate the Duke’s arrival and his victories at Edinburgh and Berwick. As a liveried page welcomed to its lower tables, I enjoyed the best that the royal kitchens had to offer.
We dined on swan, heron and egret, which were rarely seen at Middleham, and never even at the costliest feasts my father attended for the wealthy merchants and aldermen of York. Whole suckling pigs and sturgeon steamed as they were brought to the tables. The gilded crusts of venison pies shone gold in the flare of the sunset, while sweet pastries, marchpane and sugared fruits were silvered by torchlight that came later. Many of the foodstuffs must have been brought in on foreign ships, like those tied up at the London wharves. My first taste of the rich red juice of pomegranates was one I would always remember.’
Later Matthew moves to the palace at Westminster to stay there as part of the Duke’s company, over Christmastide itself:
‘At the palace, I wandered its labyrinthine passages as far as my livery allowed.
I was a regular visitor in the cavernous kitchens with their heady aromas of fresh-baked bread and pastries, pig or deer roasting slowly on a spit. The kitchen boys were ever eager to tempt Murrey with morsels of whatever they had to hand. I also found the music room. The tutor, deserted for the holidays by his pupils in the royal family, delighted in teaching me new songs and tunes for my lute. And in the stables I lingered for hours, breathing in the scent of fresh sweet hay and horse sweat. But I never summoned up the courage to ask for a quiet pony suitable for me, Bess not having been brought from London with the lords’ horses.
While I lurked there, sometimes Duke Richard would set out for the pleasure of a gallop in the countryside around Westminster. Often he rode with Sir Francis – now made a lord as a reward from the King – or a company of courtiers, only once or twice with the King. I watched them until the last rider was out of sight, and hours later I would watch them ride back again, laughing and calling to each other. Once dismounted, they tossed their reins to stable boys – boys like me.
I was an outsider still – not quite servant, nor one of the palace household. But I was always included with the rest of the guests, no matter how lowly, in the sumptuous Christmas festivities. In the whirl of that time – those days and nights of elaborate feasting, of courtly dancing, of minstrels, of jewelled gowns for the ladies, jewel-coloured velvets for the gentlemen, of gorgeously decorated chambers, draped with swags of greenery and berries, of laughter and jesting and masques – I saw a great deal of the royal family and their courtiers…
In the evenings I was caught up in all the entertainments, even in the dancing. I silently thanked the dancing master at Middleham for teaching me enough that I didn’t embarrass myself. I even clasped hands with the younger princesses and their ladies as we wove our way through the elaborate steps.
The Duke and his brother often watched from the edges of the dance, seldom taking part themselves. Once, his eyes on me, the Duke leant to speak close in the King’s ear. The King roared with laughter – it reached my ears even above the music – then nodded to me when next I circled round before them. There was nothing unkind about the laugh, warmth even in the King’s blue eyes, so like those of his brother. But I did wonder what had passed between them….’
A year later, Richard had become King – via a chain of events related at the beginning of The King’s Man, sequel to The Order. By December of 1483 he had faced a rebellion – by rival Lancastrians presumably seeing the upheaval as a chance to try again for the throne – but it was relatively easily quashed and King Richard returned to his capital in triumph, just in time for Advent. The scene was set for a magnificent Christmas at the new court.
There is some evidence that Richard’s finances were precarious in the early part of his reign, owing to difficulties in securing his brother’s treasury during the Protectorate, and then the expenses of gathering and equipping the army to put down the rebellion. But his relations with the wealthy merchants of London and elsewhere were always amicable, especially after the various favourable laws he enacted in his only Parliament, and they were happy to advance money on various royal treasures, such as a gold and jewel-encrusted salt cellar and a helmet embellished with gold, gems and pearls, in order to fund the festivities. A bill to the enormous sum of £1,200 was run up with a mercer, no doubt to supply sumptuous gowns, outfits and gifts for the king, queen and courtiers, and Richard likely treated his wife, Anne, to the finest jewels, having earlier in the month licensed a Genoese merchant to import precious gems, so long as he himself was given first option to buy.
Matthew has moved on from Richard’s household by this time, and instead of Christmas at court, he experiences the custom of topsy-turvy in the household of his new master:
‘I had heard tell of it when I was at the York Minster song school, but, living always at home and not as a boarder at the school, I had never been a part of it, or seen the Dean serve the choristers and canons at table, or any other of the customs involved. So to witness Master Ashley don rough clothes and place an apprentice cap upon his head, and Mistress Ashley tie a housewife’s apron about her oldest gown, and both carry trays of meat and drink to tables, and bow to us boys and journeymen as they served us and poured our ale – and even sing for us during the meal, poke the huge Yule log in the hearth and clear away the empty dishes – it was all remarkable to me. It was a tradition in such households across the city and beyond – although it never reached as far as my father’s house in York’s Stonegate.’
He writes of it to his good friend Alys, who remains with the royal household, with such enthusiasm that she decides to suggest the same idea to Queen Anne and King Richard the following Christmastide…
By Yuletide 1484, tragedy has struck the royal couple, with the death of their young son Edward in the spring. But in December as the twelve days of Christmas began, it was again time for the conspicuous consumption that was required of a King. The court must impress with lavish feasting, gifts, entertainments, largesse, charitable donations, a display that would show all was well in the kingdom – whatever personal tragedy might befall its premier family, or whatever threat might be lurking abroad. For it is said that King Richard was brought news of Henry Tudor’s planned invasion during the Twelfth Night festivities.
It was also a time when a chronicler castigated the King for the opulence of the festivities, and in particular the ‘vain changes of dress – similar in colour and design’ of Queen Anne and her niece, Elizabeth of York, illegitimate daughter of the old king, saying ‘At this people began to talk, and the lords and prelates were horrified.’ This chronicler (based at Crowland abbey) held an unfavourable view of King Richard, and his aim appears to be to link this occurrence with the later rumour that surfaced the following spring, that Richard was considering marrying his niece. Yet, in truth it had long been a tradition in medieval courts, both in England and elsewhere, that the entire household would dress in the same colour on certain feast days: during the lengthy Christmas revelries, they might alternate colours on different days, with the ladies wearing colours to complement the men’s outfits (which may have led to the enormous mercer’s bill mentioned above). And Richard had pledged to ensure Elizabeth married well, despite her illegitimacy, and by the spring was in negotiations for her to wed Duke Manuel of Beja, later King Manuel I of Portugal.
Matthew is kept abreast of events at court by letters from his good friend, Alys, which are ‘full of the colour and finery of the royal festivities’. And, far from the chronicler’s view of the event, her words about the King and Queen fill him ‘with the good cheer suitable to the Christmas season’:
‘During Christmas they have looked happier than I had seen them for months, at least since that terrible time in the spring [when Edward died]. The Queen and Elizabeth and all the ladies have been wearing the most sumptuous gowns of cream and gold, while the gentlemen have dressed mostly in blues and greys. But on Twelfth Night – what a spectacle! We were all clad in red or gold, like flames in the great fireplaces of the palace. The Queen had made a gift to Elizabeth of a gown exactly like her own, and the King had presented them both with the most beautiful jewels. He then led both of them out to dance while everyone cheered and clapped.’
This was King Richard’s last Christmastime as anyone who knows the events of August 1485 will be aware (and as Matthew learns the hard way, at first hand, as his life again entwines with that of King Richard in The King’s Man), and further tragedy occurred in the intervening months. But I like to think that the Yuletide festivities offered a brief glimmer of light, of hope even, to the royal couple and their friends in an otherwise grim year. And I hope that everyone reading this also enjoys their own festive season as much as King Richard appears to have done!
Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK).
Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:
If you’ve enjoyed this visit to a Christmas past (or three!), why not explore the posts in the rest of the blog hop ‘Advent calendar’? The full schedule is as follows:
6th Dec Jen Black a Viking Christmas
13th Dec Sue Barnard: A Light in the Darkness
20th Dec Judith Arnopp: A Tudor Christmas
21st Dec Tim Hodkinson: A Viking Christmas
25th Alex Marchant https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com