The Lord of Misrule: The rowdy ringleader of Christmas fun

A drawing of the Abbot of Unreason by George Cruikshank
The Abbot of Unreason by George Cruikshank | Public Domain

Ye Olde Van Wilder – Beginnings

For hundreds of years, certain communities in Britain and the households of the well-heeled had their own Christmas party coordinator. He was a compère, a ringleader, and an organiser of the feasting and dancing, but was also solemnly ‘crowned’ and given temporary leave to lord it over the real lords and nobles before him. From palaces to pubs, country houses to London’s Inns of Court, this Yuletide master of ceremonies got people drunk, put on shows, and incited rowdy behaviour. This was person was the ‘Lord of Misrule’.

The ‘reigns’ of the Lords of Misrule peaked in Britain in the 16th century, but their origins go even further back.

The Romans had mock-kings at their winter festival Saturnalia, and later the medieval French royal court had its Christmas ‘bean kings’ – a bean was put into a cake and whoever ate the slice with the bean in would be the Christmas ‘king’ - a tradition which crossed the channel and featured in a few royal Christmases of the 14th-century English kings Edward II and Edward III.

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This Christmas ‘king’ then fell out of fashion with the royals for a while after that but was picked up by public schools and Oxford and Cambridge colleges, where it was popular in the 15th century. When the Tudors took the throne the tradition of the royal Lord of Misrule was resumed.

Lovers of Misrule – The Tudors

In nearly every Christmas of his reign Henry VII of England employed a ‘Lord of Misrule’ and an ‘Abbot of Unreason’ to lead the court revelry.
Records show that on Christmas Eve 1491 a Lord of Misrule was paid £5 by the king. A lot of money in those days!

An ‘Abbot of Misrule’ impressed one observer at the royal court in Christmas 1489, who recorded that the man ‘made much sport and did right well his office’.

Henry VIII was a big fan of the office of Lord of Misrule. Henry usually held Christmas at Greenwich Palace, and even foreign visitors commented on the scale and grandeur of the Christmas feasts, which on occasion saw hundreds of guests at the table for seven hours at a time. From Christmas Eve there would be twelve days of banquets, pageants, dancing, and carols, compered by the Lord of Misrule. He would be elaborately kitted out in scarves, lace, ribbons, bells, jewels, gold, and silver. Henry loved the booze and grub no doubt but he also enjoyed the ‘role reversal’ aspect of this tradition, laughing heartily when the Lord of Misrule at his first Christmas as king rudely asked Henry for more money!

The last royal Lord of Misrule was George Ferrers, who entertained the young Edward VI at successive Christmases with extravagant and elaborate shows. Ferrers was the leader of a large company that included jugglers, acrobats, a lawyer, a fool, and an ambassador who spoke gibberish, among many others. Ferrers answered to the official Master of the Revels but was a master showman entrusted with the plans himself. Ferrers was paid the huge sum of £50 one year, and when he was not in the royal palaces he was out on the streets of London wowing crowds with his colourful processions, which included bagpipers, Morris dancers, and gaolers.

Mary Tudor became queen in 1553 and the role of organising royal Christmas celebrations went to the Master of Revels and a royal Lord of Misrule was never again appointed in England. The popularity of the custom among civic officers and in noble households waned in the second half of the 16th century, and by the beginning of the Stuart era Lords of Misrule in both the provinces and in London were starting to become unusual.

Though Queen Elizabeth wasn’t terribly keen, some of her lords clearly were. In 1561, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was invited to be a Christmas Lord of Misrule at the Inner Temple. Anointed the ‘Christmas Prince and Master of the Revels’, Dudley entered the Inn in grand pomp and ceremony and his ‘rule’ was from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. The night after Christmas the revelry saw him dressed in white armour and lead the merrymaking and sport, including a hunt in which a fox and a cat were chased by men and hounds through the halls of the Inn.

Party Princes – The 17th Century

In the 17th century, the Lords of Misrule were still going strong in public schools and the elite universities, as well as in the Inns of Court in London.

At St John’s College, Oxford, it was a tradition during the festive period for the students to elect a ‘Christmas Prince’. In 1607 this Christmas party planner at St John’s even had a committee of nine ‘ministers’ to help him organise proceedings.

Many of the Christmas kings at Oxbridge colleges and the Inns of Court had a reputation for inciting wild behaviour and pranks, as well as exuberant drinking and dancing.

In 1628 the Lord of Misrule from the Middle Temple was arrested by the Lord Mayor and a band of armed men for extorting money from local people.

The custom had not disappeared from royal life altogether by this time, though. King Charles I found a ‘Prince d'Amour’, Richard Vyvyan, for his nephew’s Christmas entertainment in 1635, with the festive party costing thousands of pounds and even the Lord of Misrule, Vyvyan, contributing £6,000 of his own money to the kitty.

By the time of James II, they had become a thing of the past, though the ‘revels’ of the Inns of Court survived into the early 18th century.

Bean and Gone – The Demise of the Mock-Kings

In early modern western Europe, the old tradition of the ‘bean king’ lived on, but commonly by this time, it was more of a household ritual than a courtly one. In Germany, a coin was baked into a cake on Twelfth Night and whichever man found the coin in his slice would be crowned the mock-king of Twelfth Night. In France, it was still a bean, and in Elizabethan England, it was a pea and a bean. In Charles II’s time, it was still a popular practice on Twelfth Night to choose a mock ‘royal couple’ through divvying up a Twelfth Night cake. Whoever found the pea would be ‘queen’ and the bean ‘king’.
Deep into the 19th century the tradition had become very much a sort of festive parlour game in private dwellings, with the use of peas and beans in cakes being more common in rural areas, with London and southern England gravitating towards items such as rings and thimbles. The Victorian Christmas was now taking hold and the rowdy Lords of Misrule were long gone.

Twelfth Night cakes were still being eaten well into the 20th century, and today on every Twelfth Night at the Drury Lane Theatre wine and cake is provided in the green room thanks to the bequest of Robert Baddeley, an actor who died in 1794.

Written by:

James Brigden