Ghost of Greenwich Christmas Past Part Three

We’re leaving the true glory days of Greenwich Christmas now. Henry had loved the bracing air of Greenwich, and to some extent his kids liked it too, but it somehow it wasn’t ever quite the same. Sickly young Edward VI wasn’t a patch on his hearty old dad, though he made a fist of Christmas when he was up to it. He lived in Duke Humphrey’s Tower, up the hill, where the Royal Observatory is now, and had his Christmas there in 1552.

His half-sister, ‘Bloody’ Mary, was right-royal party-pooper. She spent most of her time rampaging round the country, murdering protestants, but she did draw breath occasionally to raise a smirk. She liked bear baiting (continuing with the ‘bloody’ theme, presumably) and watching troops trooping. One historian, Strype, remembers that she liked acrobats too. One year, “After her Majesty had reviewed the royal pensioners in Greenwich Park, there came a tumbler, and played many pretty feats, the Queen and Cardinal Pole looking on; whereat she was observed to laugh heartily.”
Queen Elizabeth I’s Christmases rivalled – perhaps even bettered – those of her father’s, but they weren’t always at Greenwich. Admittedly, most of the time she was here – she had ties – not least that wagging tongues whispered she’d been conceived during the Christmas revelries in 1532, but she also raved it up at Hampton Court, Whitehall and Nonesuch Palace (in south west London, near The Phantom Webmaster – quite a pile, apparently, now totally dead.)

Elizabeth loved celebrating everything going, and she wanted everyone to have a good time. She included the tenants and villagers in her monster festivities, as well as the entire court. Of course she had no intention of actually paying for any of it, and her enormous retinue progressed around the country like a plague of locusts, in turn bestowing the honour of stripping each local toff of his cash.

Dancing, plays, music and gambling were all popular and gift-giving – mainly to the Queen – took place on New Year’s Day, not Christmas. She expected Lavish. It was unlikely that they’d manage to outdo Robert Dudley who gave her the world’s first wristwatch one year, but she wasn’t too bothered as long as the gifts were expensive.

It was important not to get caught out like the Earl of Ormonde, whose Christmas present was noted down as being A Bit Rubbish: “three feyer diamonds and two smaller; in the top a branche garneshed with six small diamonds, thre small rubyes, and 3 very meane perle” or Sir Edward Horsey who had the effrontery to send “a cheyne of pomaunder with a verey small ragged perle.” I assume the wind blew just that little bit chillier around those particular courtly necks during the next few months…

Acceptable gifts included:
  • Gold coins
  • Perfume
  • Pomanders
  • Sweeties
  • Jewelled fans
  • Mirrors
  • Embroidery
  • Gloves
  • Anything including precious jewels
  • Ruffs
  • Hats
  • Anything in Satin or Silk
But it’s the thought that counts and she didn’t mind if her more lowly subjects made things for her. http://www.elizabethan.org/ tells me that her Master Cook made her a nice chessboard and men out of marzipan, and her doctor put together a pot of green ginger. The Cutler gave her a fancy knife and the Sergeant of the Pastry (what a title…) made her a gilded quince pie.

So what could you expect from her? Well, for many, just seeing the look of joy on the Queen’s face was presumed enough, but if you were lucky, you got the Tudor equivalent of the book token – a voucher which would allow you a silver cup – its weight depending on how important to the Queen you were, though never quite as sumptuous as the pressie you gave her. She was also an awful present-recycler – giving courtiers things other courtiers had given her that she didn’t like.

Presumably she did exactly that with the Duke of Anjou’s jewelled anchor brooch, but in some respects you can’t blame her. He had arrived some time earlier to woo her; she wasn’t interested but he just wouldn’t go home. She’d even tried to imply that she wouldn’t expect an expensive present if he went home before Christmas, but he just didn’t get the hint. She finally got rid of him in February.

Not that she didn’t like male company. She expected all her male courtiers to hang on her every whim for the whole festive period. Their wives had to sit at home and twiddle their thumbs.

But Mary wasn’t the only person who could persecute people of other religions and Elizabeth burnt her fair share of Catholics at the stake. Shades of her bloody sister hung over festivities at Greenwich in 1586 when Elizabeth finally got around to sending her cousin the kind of Christmas card nobody wants – a death warrant…

After the queen’s death, things really went downhill for Royal Greenwich. King James was a feeble, miserable, sickly type and he didn’t like the draughts that howled around the now decidedly-tatty Placentia. He was much happier in the warmth of Whitehall. And it got worse – in the 1680s Oliver Cromwell actually banned Christmas altogether. Even on the Restoration, Charles II might have been fond of Greenwich, but he was far too busy having a riotous time in town to brave what was by now a royal building site. William and Mary had spent a fortune doing up Hampton Court, so they decamped over there.

There was one final Royal Christmas – next door in Deptford, when Peter the Great of Russia ate poor old John Evelyn out of house, home and hedge at Christmas 1697. After that it all went totally pear-shaped. The Georges weren’t interested – Brighton appealed to the Prince Regent more than London. Victoria sat around being miserable in Osborne House and Windsor Castle.

Greenwich was finally for the people.


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