HOME Master Article Index/Index by County Links Contact Us
Ancient Britain Castles Churches/Cathedrals Houses/Manors Museums Towns Countryside London History & Folklore Travel Tips

Test daily news

Visit the Stone Pages


Christmas at the Court of King James I

by Elaine Walker

King James I became the first monarch to rule the whole of the British Isles with the death of his cousin, Elizabeth I, in 1603. He had been on the throne for only six months when he hosted his first Christmas and New Year festivities. The celebrations offered an opportunity to display his wealth and largesse, with extensive feasting, dancing and theatrical performances in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace. Among the actors was one William Shakespeare, whose play A Midsummer Night's Dream is thought to have been performed on New Year's Day, under the title A Play of Robin Goodfellow. The whole week would have been full of colour and inventive entertainment, helping to establish King James as a gracious and regal host and setting the pattern for Christmas throughout his reign.


The King's lavish generosity at Hampton Court was part of his belief in the value of traditional customs, and extended to his whole household in a measure considered suitable to their status. He believed that 'certaine dayes in the yeere should be appointed, for delighting the people, for conveening of neighbours, for entertaining friendship and heartlinesse, by honest feasting and merrinesse'. At Christmas, this included the duty of the wealthy to succour the poor, and the King ensured that this continued by writing the custom of hospitality on St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day) into the law.

Shakespeare's King Lear, which was performed for King James on St. Stephen's Day in 1606, is full of references to the care of the homeless on this day. A popular saying reminded people that 'Blessed be St. Stephen/There's no fast upon his even'. Shakespeare recalled another favourite Christmas festival in Twelfth Night, which was performed before King James in 1618 and 1623. The play centres around generosity, love and change in the disguises, mistaken identities and happy outcomes for all but the gloomy Malvolio. Malvolio represents the growing Puritan suspicion of celebratory festivals, especially Christmas, and the riotous Sir Toby Belch addresses the matter when he asks Malvolio, 'Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?'.

PassomezzoAnother popular feature of Christmas festivities was the Feast of Fools from St. Stephen's Day until December 28th. This period reminded the Christmas revellers of the Christian message of hope for the poor and weak, but was rooted in the pagan tradition of the Lord of Misrule. Society turned briefly on its head, so that kings could become fools and fools could become kings. Masques, which King James particularly enjoyed, developed from this festival of drinking, games and disorder. Masques were short dramatic entertainments with music, verse, dancing and elaborate scenic effects and flourished at court in King James' time. Ladies and gentlemen, including members of the royal family, appeared in the masques, along with professional actors. The masques were often written for a specific event at which the king was to be present, and so included declarations of love and loyalty addressed directly to him on behalf of his subjects.

On Twelfth Night in 1607, a masque by Thomas Campion was held at the Palace of Whitehall in the presence of King James and detailed notes of the event give an idea of how elaborate these theatrical performances were. The Great Hall of the palace had seats on either side with scaffolding for two stages, the lower one being for dancing. Twenty musicians were involved with lutes, a bandora, a sackbut, a harpsichord and violins, as well as singers. The scenery included a double veil, painted to look like dark clouds over a green valley with nine golden trees, whose branches were 'very glorious to behold'. At the sides of the stage, the scenery suggested two hills with decorated bowers for the characters Flora and Night and a tree belonging to Diana, the goddess of the Hunt. The set included details such as 'artificialle Battes and Owles on wyer constantly moving'. When the King arrived, the musicians played until he and his entourage were settled, then after a 'little time of expectation', the masque began, with much singing and dancing.

Ben Jonson's Christmas His Masque was written and performed for King James and Queen Anne in 1616. Early in the masque, the characters offer prayers for the royal couple's welfare and pray they will like the performance, for 'If not, old Christmas is undone'. This placing of the future of Christmas in the hands of the monarch was prophetic as Christmas festivities were banned in 1647, after Charles I lost his throne to Parliament, and not reinstated until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The ill-fated future king was a young boy in 1616 and is mentioned in Jonson's masque as 'Your highness small'.

The focus on family, the love of the people for the King and the celebration of traditional customs are at the heart of Jonson's masque. The character of Christmas introduces his children, who include 'Carol', 'Misrule', 'Wassail', 'Gambol' and 'New Year's Gift'. At this time, gifts were given at New Year rather than Christmas and each of Christmas's children remind the King and the audience of the pleasures of the season. What is clear throughout this masque, however, is the concern that these traditions are fading away. In his Survey of London in 1603, John Stoye wrote that 'in the feast of Christmas' there were once 'fine and subtle disguisings, masks and mummeries' and 'every man's house was decked with whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green'. While both festivities and decorating houses with evergreen were still common, Stoye felt that real enthusiasm for Christmas traditions belonged in the past.

Passomezzo King James, however, seems to have worked hard to keep them alive at his court with great feasting and entertainment offered to fend off the gloom of those who saw Christmas as a time of idolatry and impious drunkenness. The King's court enjoyed the generous flow of wine and ale, as well as imported spirits such as brandy and rum, which were becoming popular amongst those who could afford them. Christmas ale and mulled wine were also popular with the people as well as the nobility, to be drunk hot and heavily spiced.

The food enjoyed at Christmas would have included roast turkey, goose, game birds and, at court, peacock gilded and served in its own feathers. Other meats were also popular, with Scotch Collops being a favourite. 'Collops' were thin slices of meat dipped in seasoned flour then fried quickly before being immersed in a richly flavoured casserole with wine, garlic, onions, mushrooms and anchovies. In Scotland venison was popular in collops, while southerners preferred ham or bacon. As in many dishes, local tastes and the available meats decided the precise recipe.

The medieval tradition of the roast Boar's Head was still popular as a centre-piece for Christmas Day, Twelfth Night or both, to be carried aloft into the banqueting hall accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. Spit-roasting was the usual method for cooking meat, with complex arrangements for large gatherings, whereby a number of items could be cooked at once. The spit was turned with a mechanical jack, wound up with a heavy weight on a cord wrapped around a drum. As the weight gradually descended, controlled by a balance wheel, the spit laden with meat or poultry could be kept revolving for almost half an hour. The development of the chimney crane, which could raise and lower the level of pots and cauldrons over the fire, further simplified the life of the kitchen, a place of great activity at the court.

Plum Pottage was well established by the time of King James, and on its way to becoming the Christmas pudding of today. It had begun as a thick soup-like dish of boiled beef or mutton with dried fruit and plenty of spices. During the seventeenth century it became a solid pudding without any meat, which eventually replaced the pottage. Fats, dried fruit and sugars were notable in this sort of heavy steamed pudding, perhaps because the damp British climate needed good energy-producing food to keep out the chill. 'Cambridge' or 'College' pudding, made with suet, breadcrumbs, flour, dried fruit and eggs typified the sort of filling dessert that made a foreign visitor declare, 'Ah what an excellent thing is the English pudding! To come in pudding-time, is to come in the most lucky moment in the world!' Among these robust puddings at Christmas were 'shred' or 'mince' pies, still popular today, which like plum pudding, originally contained both fruit and minced meat.

Lighter sweet dishes were also popular with the refined court diners and would have been presented very beautifully for the King's table. These were rich, based around fruit or sugar, with exotic fruits like pineapples and bananas beginning to make an appearance. White Biscuit Bread, flavoured with almonds, lemon, coriander and aniseed, were very similar to today's meringues, and this sort of crisp delicacy was a court favourite. 'Scillybub', 'raspbery creame', and white-pot, an ancestor of bread-and-butter pudding, all featured on the table, with an emphasis on indulgent ingredients, with plenty of eggs and cream.

All of these dishes and many more made their appearance at Christmas and New Year in the court celebrations of King James I. The generosity of the monarch showed both that he could be lavish with his subjects and that he had the wealth to entertain them so freely. As with many of the Christmas traditions, open-handed giving, charity, welcoming the homeless and offering alms to the poor both broke down and reinforced social boundaries in the same moment.


With so much feasting, the dancing must have provided a welcome activity and Queen Anne was known for her enjoyment of the dance floor. Dancing at court or as part of the Christmas celebrations was not new and while the Queen was criticised by some for her love of such pleasures, she would have understood very well the political importance of these events. Her willingness to take part with grace and enjoyment was part of the welcome offered to foreign ambassadors, as well as a sign of the royal appreciation of the court which supported the role of the monarch. The delicate relationships of the court could be nurtured through the King's largesse during events such as Christmas, so as well as the sentiments of the season, some astute political balancing would undoubtedly be going on too.

While the Jacobean Christmas was poised on the edge of a time of great uncertainty and change, the sense of celebration and the hopes of the new Stuart dynasty were still high during King James' reign. So, despite concerns over the growing religious controversies that would eventually split the kingdom, Christmas still held an important place as a time of celebration, hospitality and community spirit. Some of the medieval traditions were slipping away, but decking the halls with evergreens, sharing fine food and drink, and enjoying music and dancing still offered the opportunity to celebrate an important Christian festival. There was a sense of abandoning cares for a short time which is embraced in the sentiments of a popular song which declared,

Though some churls at our mirth repine,
Round your foreheads garlands twine,
Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,
And let us all be merry

More Information:

To capture the flavour of a Jacobean Christmas today, visit the Geffrye Museum in London to see their Jacobean room, or enjoy a performance of a traditional masque by Passamezzo.

The Geffrye Museum
See Christmas Through the Centuries at the Geffrye Museum
136 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, London E2
Tel. 020 7739 9893

Passamezzo - Historical Music, Dance and Spectacle.
Tel. 020 7722 2263 (Tamsin Lewis, Director)
For Passamezzo's full Christmas programme see

York Early Music Christmas Festival

Dr. Elaine Walker is a freelance writer based in North Wales. She writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction and lectures in Creative Writing and English for the University of Wales. Her first full-length book, Horse, is forthcoming from Reaktion Books in Autumn 2008.

Article © 2005 Elaine Walker
Photos courtesy of Passomezzo.


 Site Copyright © 2018 Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
For information on reprinting articles or photos on this site, please contact Moira Allen, Editor