Ghost of Greenwich Christmas Past Part One

I guess Christmas has always been celebrated in some form or other here – or at least since AD 350 when Pope Julius I decided to hijack the old pagan Solstice kneesup and declare Christmas to be December 25th. But there were some years when it was rather more lavish than others – mostly during the times when sundry monarchs decided to hold their parties in one or other of their South East London palaces…

Things really started to hot up in early medieval times, though at this point I have to cheat a little and talk about the borough of Greenwich rather than the town (it’s hardly the first time I’ve done that – and I make no apology – if it’s interesting, I’ll creep it in…)

Eltham Palace was one of Richard II’s favourite pads and he spent a lot of time carousing round the town with his mates. He really pushed the boat out at his Christmas celebrations at Eltham in 1386, mainly to impress the King of Armenia who was visiting. His accountants tried to hold back his spending, but it was no good. Richard spent so much cash on outrageous outfits and second helpings of trifle that the royal coffers started to look very empty indeed. It was only by nefarious means that he managed to refill them, which caused no end of annoyed peasants (who’d already revolted once but were getting mighty grumpy again…)

Henry IV was not Richard’s son, of course. All kinds of jiggery-pokery went on during the 14th century as various people tried to get their paws on the crown, mainly under the guise of wanting to get rid of the current incumbent’s sleaze. Even once Henry had got the crown on his head, he had to look out for sundry nobles who wanted it for themselves. And what better time to assassinate the king than while he was celebrating?
The plan went like this. Sir John Oldcastle, Henry’s old mate and now sworn enemy, would get a bunch of thugs to dress up as mummers and pretend to put on a play for Twelfth Night. During the fun they’d kidnap His Majesty. Someone let the cat out of the bag and Oldcastle was sent to the Tower, but it didn’t stop a few of the guys – who had presumably already made their costumes – from having a pop anyway. The got caught of course, though at least Oldcastle lives on as Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.
Another attempt on Henry’s life, this time by the Duke of York at Eltham, Christmas 1403, was also easily foiled. The Tudors were here to stay.

Jumping forward to 1482, Edward IV and something we can actually see. He had just finished that splendid hammer-beam ceiling in the great hall and wanted to show off. Fitting 2,000 of his closest friends in there must have been a bit of a squeeze, but it conjures quite a vision.

And that’s the great thing about Eltham – we can still see where all this took place. Walking around it, it’s not difficult to imagine the scene – evergreen decked around the walls, a walloping great yule log burning (presumably rather close to several of those 2,000 courtiers…)

Yule logs, by the way, were brought in by the Vikings who, when they weren’t chucking bones at poor old St Alfege, celebrated Yule, their festival of light, by making bonfires.

Christians had nicked the date, they might as well pinch the customs too. A massive great log would be cut on Christmas eve, dragged into the hall, decorated and set on fire. It would burn for the 12 Days of Christmas, during which all kinds of merry making took place. You were supposed to keep a bit of it to kindle next year’s log.

Greenwich Christmas really got cooking during the court of Henry VIII – but that’s for another day.


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