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Epiphany – medieval and now….

The Adoration of the Magi
Tapestry executed by William Morris, after Sir Edward Burne-Jones

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the following two definitions refer to the use of the word epiphany:-

  • The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12). Definition (1)
  • A moment of sudden and great revelation/realisation. Definition (2)

Epiphany has been a recognised feast of the Western Church since the 5th century, but these days we generally associate the Magi/ Three Wise Men with our modern Christmas Eve/Day. They appear on our Christmas cards. Yet there are—and always were—Twelve Days of Christmas, with Twelfth Night marked as Epiphany Eve or sometimes Epiphany itself, depending upon which precise moment you begin to calculate the commencement of the season. For an explanation, this is a good place to start.

Souvenir of Shakespeare’s “King Richard II.” Produced by Mr Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre September 10th, 1903. By Charles Buchel (Karl August Büchel) National Portrait Gallery.

If ever there was a King of England who revered Epiphany (1), and all that went with it, that king was Richard II, who reigned 1377-1399. He was still a small boy, but when the Yule logs were brought in for the first Christmas of his reign, they must have been kindled with hope and excitement that he would bring healthy, wealth, happiness and prosperity to his new realm. If this was indeed the hope, there would eventually be some very unhappy people, because he was plagued by rebellions and resentful lords. And his habit of turning to a coterie of close friends, twinned with his own questionable decision-making, did not really create the best circumstances. But, initially, there was hope, and those first Yule logs of 1377 will have burned brightly. The flames would have danced and roared.

That fanciful thought aside, it is my opinion that in June 1381, when as a boy of only fourteen Richard faced a thousands-strong army of peasants at Smithfield, he underwent an epiphany (2). He rode out at the head of his retinue to face a ragtaggle peasant army led, among others, by Wat Tyler. We all know the famous scene. Tyler was cut down in front of everyone by Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London, and out of nowhere the moment became electrifyingly dangerous. Pitched battle was on the very lip of breaking out, but then Richard rode his horse forward calmly and promised to do all he could to grant the peasants’ their demands (which we today think were more than justified).  It worked and the peasant army broke up to return to their homes.

Richard later went back on his word (something he was prone to do throughout his reign) but at that precise moment he’d displayed astonishing courage, and split-second decision-making. No one else in his entourage had done anything but freeze. Many things about the adult Richard II were to be criticized, but never again would his courage be questioned. Did he have an epiphany, as described in (2) above?

From Richard’s portrait in Westminster Abbey – believed to be the first true likeness of a King of England.

Certainly he was always to honour Epiphany above all other Church festivals. To begin with, he was born on that day in 1367. Another King of England who was buried on that day in 1066 was to become Richard’s favourite and most cherished saint. That king was St Edward the Confessor, whose feast day is 6th January/Epiphany, and whose great tomb in Westminster Abbey can still be seen. It’s now a shadow of its former glory because all the jewels and other decorations that once adorned it have been gradually stolen over the centuries by all forms of souvenir-seeker. But it must once have been a glorious sight, as was St Thomas à Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, which has been similarly denuded.

The Confessor’s Shrine, Westminster Abbey – source of illustration unknown.

The Confessor had been England’s national saint until 1350, when he was supplanted by St George, and on Epiphany every year, Richard II went to worship there, usually leaving a costly gift. Such occasions must have been very impressive and colourful. Richard also had a separate little chapel built nearby, where he would worship. It is still called the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew, and contains a niche in the wall where it is said the wonderful Wilton Diptych was placed for Richard’s prayers.

The Wilton Diptych

The diptych shows Richard as a child king, with St John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund standing behind him as he kneels before the Virgin and Child. At the entrance of the chapel are two carved headstops of angels, one holding Richard’s royal arms, the other those of the Confesser. (Pingback https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/the-little-chapel-in-westminster-abbey-beloved-of-richard-ii/)

The one on the left, with the royal arms, has always looked very like Richard himself to me. Source of photographs not known.

According to  https://www.britainexpress.com/History/medieval/christmas.htm , another link between Richard II and Epiphany occurred on Twelfth Night, 1392. The citizens of London, who were not on good terms with him at the time, attempted to bury the hatchet by bestowing upon the king and queen “a one-humped camel and a pelican, novelties for the royal menagerie at the Tower of London”. Another source adds that there was a boy on the dromedary.

Richard and his much loved queen Anne of Bohemia would eventually be laid to rest together close to the Confessor. In the latter part of his reign, Richard had even had his own coat-of-arms impaled with the supposed arms of the Confessor, so there is no doubt at all that Richard II truly esteemed Epiphany and the Confessor, with whom he felt a close connection.

To the less religiously minded people of today, Epiphany is Twelfth Night, a time to party and take the Christmas decorations down – if they haven’t been removed already! The more devout will still associate it with the Magi and the Confessor.

Of course, the calendar has changed from Julian to Gregorian, and dates have moved with it. Old Twelfth Night was celebrated on 17th January. Many wassail traditions, such as the wassail cup and wassailing the cider apple trees, are associated with Twelfth Night. The Yule Log, so bright with flames in the image above, needs to burn from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night. Charcoal from it was kept to kindle the following year’s log, and also to protect the house from thunder and lightning. There were also many delicious foods that were associated with that night, including a special cake.

Mary Berry’s Twelfth Night Cake from https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/twelfth_night_cake_53367

In many places across the land older customs have been resumed in recent years. I don’t know when in the past they began to wassail the cider apple trees, in the hope of ensuring a supply of cider for the next harvest. Does it go back to the medieval period? Yes, according to this article

“….There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed….”

“….The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs….”

Wassailing the Cider Apple Trees, from https://chawtonhouse.org/whats-on/evening-orchard-wassail-2/

Singing from house-to-house eventually became the carol-singing of today, but at the end of the season, not the beginning. As happens now with the Three Wise Men, who appear of Christmas cards, but are actually associated with Epiphany.

Now, to go back to the very beginning of this article, and the epiphany (2) that I feel certain happened to the young Richard II in June 1381. Until that day in Smithfield he had been confined and controlled by his uncles and government, but when Tyler was cut down in front of everyone and things turned very nasty indeed, Richard stepped into the breach by calmly taking charge.

From where did that sudden steely resolve come? He hadn’t displayed any such thing before, but….did he think of Epiphany? His day? When the Magi took gifts to the Christ Child? Did he suddenly see himself as a Christ Child too? Born to reign over all? Did he begin to understand that it was his God-given right by blood to cast aside the oppressive rule of his uncles and their government? Might such a heartstopping moment of insight been the reason for the Wilton Diptych, which shows him as a boy (when he was adult by then) anointed and royal, reaching out to accept something from the Christ Child. The reins of his kingdom, perhaps? Was this his epiphany (2)? Albeit in June.

Afterwards, in quiet moments, did he sit alone and pensive, considering who he was and how he should face the future?

It was to be another eight years before he was finally able to strike free of those who sought to keep him under their control, but I believe his first realisation of his true destiny was born that day in Smithfield.

from an unknown painting from the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster: illustrator unknown: the engraver is S.Sly

Epiphany had one more vital role to play in Richard’s life, and that was in 1400, just after his cousin, Henry of Lancaster, had usurped the throne and consigned Richard to captivity in Pontefract. Epiphany was the date chosen by Richard’s desperate supporters to fight against the new regime and restore him to his throne.

Richard II’s Funeral Procession, from https://picryl.com/media/funeral-of-richard-ii-from-bl-royal-18-e-ii-f-416v-33b74d British Library.

Known as the Epiphany Rising, this revolt was doomed to defeat because of treachery within its ranks. And the eventual result was Richard’s probable murder at Pontefract, to prevent any more attempts to restore him. At least he didn’t die on Epiphany as well, but he was laid to rest on the 6th…of March, 1400.

His Twelfth Night was at an end. The bright Yule log had finally run its course, flickered and faded.

Christmas under Henry VII, complete with “foot sheets”. . .!

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Henry VII in royal robes

 I was browsing, and came upon the following interesting details about how Henry VII celebrated Christmas and Twelfth Night. It is from Christmas: Its Origin and Associations by William Francis Dawson, which I found in Google Books.

The following extract has been tweaked a little by me, to create more paragraphs and thus make it more legible. Huge paragraphs can become a strain to follow. In my opinion, anyway. The illustrations are my additions. Here goes. . .with my comments at the end:-

. . . Christmases . . . “were kept by Henry VII. at Westminster Hall with great hospitality, the King wearing his crown, and feasting numerous guests, loading the banquet-table with peacocks, swans, herons, conger, sturgeon, brawn, and all the delicacies of the period.

medieval-recipes-ancient-recipes

At his ninth Christmas festival the Mayor and Aldermen of London were feasted with great splendour in the great hall, the King showing them various sports on the night following in the great hall, which was richly hung with tapestry: ‘which sports being ended in the morning, the king, queen, and court sat down at a table of stone, to 120 dishes, placed by as many knights and esquires, while the Mayor was served with twenty-four dishes and abundance of wine.

medieval feast

And finally the King and Queen being conveyed with great lights into the palace, the Mayor, with his company in barges, returned to London by break of the next day.

mayor's barge leaving Whitehall

“From the ancient records of the Royal Household it appears that on the morning of New Year’s Day, the King ‘sitting in his foot-sheet’, received according to prescribed ceremony a new year’s gift from the queen, duly rewarding the various officers and messengers, according to their rank. The Queen also ‘sat in her foot-sheet’, and received gifts in the same manner, paying a less reward.

King Henry VII Christmas feast

Were Henry and Elizabeth employing their “foot sheets”…?

“And on this day, as well as on Christmas Day, the King wore his kirtle, his surcoat and his pane of arms; and he walked, having his hat of estate on his head, his sword borne before him, with the chamberlain, steward, treasurer, comptroller, preceding the sword and the ushers; before whom must walk all the other lords except those who wore robes, who must follow the king. The highest nobleman in rank, or the King’s brother, if present, to lead the Queen; another of the King’s brothers, or else the Prince, to walk with the King’s train-bearer.

Henry VII at coronation

The coronation, yes, but it’s an illustration of Henry VII in procession in his royal robes.

“On Twelfth Day the King was to go ‘crowned, in his royal robes, kirtle, and surcoat, his furred hood about his neck, and his ermines upon his arms, of gold set full of rich stones with balasses, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls’. This ornament was considered so sacred , that ‘no temporal man’ (none of the laity) but the King was to presume to touch it; an esquire of the body was to bring it in a fair handkerchief, and the King was to put it on with his own hands; he must also have his sceptre in his right hand, the ball with cross in his left hand, and must offer at the altar gold, silver, and incense, which offering the Dean of the Chapel was to send to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and this was to entitle the Dean to the next vacant benefice. The King was to change his mantle when going to mean, ansd to take off his hood and lay it about his neck, ‘clasping it before with a rich owche [brooch].’

Henry VII with sceptre

“The King and queen on Twelfth Night were to take the void (evening repast) in the hall; as for the wassail, the steward and treasurer were to go for it, bearing their staves; the chapel choir to stand on the side of the hall, and when the steward entered at the hall door, he was to cry three times, ‘Wassail! Wassail! Wassail!’ and the chapel to answer with a good song; and when all was done the King and queen retired to their chamber.

Wassail

Wassail!

“Among the special features of the banquets of this period with the devices for the table called subtleties, made of paste, jelly or blanc-mange, placed in the middle of the board, with labels describing them; various shapes of animals were frequent; and on a saint’s day, angels, prophets, and patriarchs were set upon the table in plenty.

“Certain dishes were also directed as proper for different degrees of persons; as ‘conies parboiled, or else rabbits, for they are better for a lord’; and ‘for a great lord take squirrels, for they are better than conies’; a whole chicken for a lord; and ‘seven mackerel in a dish, with a dragge of fine sugar’, was also a dish for a lord.

“But the most famous dish was ‘the peacock enkakyll, which is foremost in the procession to the king’s table’. Here is the recipe for this royal dish: Take and flay off the skin with the feathers, tail, and the neck and head thereon; then take the skin, and all the feathers, and lay it on the table abroad, and strew thereon ground cinnamon; then take the peacock and roast him, and baste him with raw yolks of eggs; and when he is roasted, take him off, and let him cool awhile, and take him and sew him in his skin, and gild his comb, and so serve him with the last course.”

roast peacock for medieval banquet

Me: It all sounds very grand. . .and incredibly stilted. Can they really have enjoyed the occasion? All those rules of precedence, etc. I can only suppose that Richard III must have endured the same?

And speaking of Richard, what, exactly, were the ermines that adorned Henry’s arms? They had to be basically fur, I suppose, and laden with so many jewels they must have felt heavy. Were they made especially for Henry? Or were they among the “crown jewels”, and therefore had been worn by Richard before him, and Edward IV, etc. I have never heard of ermine being donned separately on the arm. Maybe it was a Tudor innovation, to emphasise Henry’s right to the throne. Well, the right he usurped. My lack of knowledge does not mean much, for I am constantly faced with new things of which I have never heard before.

The same applies to “foot sheets”. What were they? In modern parlance they appear to be akin to plasters that are applied to the bottom of the feet. Hmm. I cannot imagine that if Henry and Elizabeth wore such items, it would warrant such particular mention. So, what were foot sheets? It was winter, so were they something to ensure the royal feet did not get too cold?

Prince-Philip-snuggled-under-blanket-Queen-Elizabeth-II

Were foot sheets something like this?

If anyone knows more, pray enlighten me! To learn a little more about medieval Christmases, go to:- https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/medieval-christmas-how-was-it-celebrated/

And finally, I wish you all the compliments of the season!

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Gloucestershire Wassail Carol

gloucestershire_wassailAs we take down our Christmas trees and put away our recordings of “Santa Baby,” perhaps some of the readers of the Murrey and Blue are preparing to stroll forth on Twelfth Night to sing the  charming “Gloucestershire Wassail” song for friends and neighbors this January 5th of the new year 2017.  This is the traditional day in which folks raise the wassail bowl and wish good health and happiness to all of mankind.  And it is followed the next day by the Epiphany when the son of God, Jesus Christ, is proclaimed to all the world.

I had never heard this particular carol until I purchased a cd several years ago called “An English Country Christmas” which included choral groups from The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford to The Choir of Queens College Cambridge to The Oxford Girls’ Choir.  It also featured two soloists:  the folk singer Ian Giles and the sweet-voiced English soprano, Sara Stowe.  Her lilting rendition of the “Gloucestershire Wassail” – a carol of medieval origin but taken up by the Victorians – is sung acapella while punctuated by bells and Mathew Spring’s zitherlike hurdy-gurdy.  It  is so strikingly ethereal that I soon floated away on a magic carpet of music to the medieval court of Richard the Third on that last Christmas of 1484 before tragic circumstances brutally ended his reign and swept in the harsh, modern age of wolfish Tudors.  Surely, it was such a splendid Christmas of costume and dancing and thrilling music that scandalized the pious priests who either witnessed it or cattily reported upon it.

From what little research on the carol that I could find, the composition is a traditional one that was collected by the great composer Vaughan Williams in 1912.  Its lyrics were a delightful mystery to me but this stanza provided a clue:

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye

Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie

And a good Christmas pie that we may all see

with the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.

Even a urbanite like me could surmise that Dobbin refers to a working horse and that perhaps all the other living creatures named are horses as well.  But then I came across the beautiful illumination above which clearly shows that the carol mixes horses with cattle.  Each of the animals’ body parts are wittily toasted – Colly and her long tail, Fillpail and her left ear and Broad May and her horns – which shows, even in medieval times, the English love and reverence towards all the beasts of the field.  And the song also pays tribute to the lord of the castle who receives gifts of beef, pie, corn and beer from his devoted people.

Returning once more to our favorite King, I’d like to think of him during a very different time – at home on a snowy evening in Middleham during the Christmas season, surrounded by family and friends like Francis Lovell, when he was still the beloved Duke of Gloucester and before the death of an errant brother would send his life into a tailspin.   A muffled knock comes to the door and he turns from his pretty wife and calls to his young servant to answer it:

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock

Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock

Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin

For to let these jolly wassailers in

For those who would like to hear Miss Stowe’s version, I include a You Tube link.  I hope it works but sometimes  copyright laws intrude on our enjoyment.  If it doesn’t work, I encourage everyone to go to You Tube and simply type in “Gloucestershire Wassail”.  It should come up like this:

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