Ghost of Greenwich Christmas Past Part Two

Here we come a-wassailing ‘mong Greenwich leaves so green…

A bit of a marathon today – both to write, and, I suspect, to read. Maybe I should have broken this one up. Such is Henry – a mountain of a man in pretty much every respect.

Greenwich really came into her own – and has never really shone quite as brightly since – in the days of Good King Henry (VIII – or, if you’re Benedict, we’ll call him Good King Keith for clarity’s sake.)

He might have been brought up in Eltham – but as a seafaring King, Henry wanted to be by the water and Placentia, (pretty much underneath the Old Royal Naval College) was ideal. He spent 17 Christmases in Greenwich and inordinate amounts of cash on masques, balls, jousting – and food. Spiced boar, roast swan, marchpane and ‘subtleties’ (enormous sugar centrepieces, often quite rude) were the kind of thing he would have consumed in large quantities, downed with copious amounts of Wassail (a sort of mulled ale.)

Curiously, Christmas Day wasn’t the biggest time in the Tudor festival – it was twelve days long and the real day of celebration was actually January 6th – Twelfth Night. On that day everyone ate cake and if your slice contained a dried bean, you would be made King or Queen of the Bean and be in charge of the fun and games. Of course it wasn’t usually a totally random thing, and courtiers must have been swapping plates of cake like nobody’s business, trying to keep up with Henry’s latest favourites. “Now let me see. The plate with the dried pea has the pellet with the poison…” They still have the custom in France – you can buy Galette du Rois in every baker’s shop, complete with a little gold paper crown, around this time of year.

We’re lucky in that there’s documentation about these events – Hall’s Chronicle, which is so quaint that I make no aoplogy for quoting large chunks of it today.
On the daie of the Epiphanie, at night, the King with XI others, wer disguised after the maner of Italie, called a maske, a thing not seen afore in England; thei were appareled in garments long and brode, wrought all with gold, with visers and cappes of gold; and after the banket doen, these maskers came in with six gentlemen disguised in silke, bearing staffe torches, and desired the ladies to daunce: some were content, and some that new the fashion of it refused, because it was a thing not commonly seen. And after thei daunced and communed together, as the fashion of the maske is, thei tooke their leave and departed, and so did the quene and all the ladies.

What I love about Henry is his complete confidence in himself as the Renaissance Man. He could do everything – dance, sing, play (and of course, rule with a rod of iron) and in his younger days he does seem to have been quite the chevalier. He’s widely credited with writing that scourge of the call centre, Greensleeves, often presented as What Child is This? at Christmas time, but he was not beyond enjoying a huge dollop of flattery from time to time. At his Christmas celebrations, he would insist that everyone wore masks for the dancing, and then ‘astonish’ everyone present when the best dancer of all turned out to be the King himself. Oh, how we laughed…

The kneesup in 1516 where Henry “kept the feast of Christmas at Greenwich where was such abundance of viands served, to all corners of any honest behaviours, as hath been few times seen” is described in detail.

…And against New Year’s night was made, in the hall, a castle, gates, towers and dungeon, garnished with artillery and weapons, after the most warlike fashion. And on the front of the castle was written, Le Fortresse dangerus, and within the castle were six ladies clothed in russet satin laid all over with leafs of gold, and every hood knit with laces of blue silk and gold.

The king himself took the best part in the show, of course, leading the assault on the castle. I love the bit of the account where the ladies, who “seeing them so lusty and courageous, were content to solace with them.” And wouldn’t you?

In 1517 he held a splendid joust, “with great and plentiful cheer” and he continued to keep Christmas at Greenwich in 1521, 25, 26 and 27 (when he entertained the French Embassy which consisted, perplexingly, of “eight persons of high quality” and “six hundred horse.” Hmm.)

In 1528, Anne Bolyen was secreted in fancy apartments near the celebrations so that Henry could slip away amidst the celebrations. By 1529, poor old Catherine of Aragon, who had clearly seen the writing on the wall, was sent off to Richmond out of the King’s way, but there was such a public outcry that she was brought back to Greenwich for the festival, being carted back off to Richmond immediately afterwards. 1530, she was wheeled out just for Christmas (I can only imagine the atmosphere at the Christmas dinner table – Anne holding one end of the cracker, Catherine the other, ahem…) but by 1531 Henry not only wouldn’t invite her, he didn’t even send her a pressie. A classic dysfunctional family Christmas. As usual.

1533 saw Baby’s First Christmas – Elizabeth had been born in September, a lull in Henry’s extraordinarily complicated love life. But he never let much get him down, especially at Christmas. In 1537, things should have been a bit strained – Henry had cut off Anne Boleyn’s head a few months before – but somehow he dragged up the strength to cross the frozen Thames to Greenwich with his new bird Jane Seymour and have the Scots nobles he’d taken prisoner at Salom Moss join him round the Christmas pud where he “gave them their liberty without ransom.”

More awkwardness in 1540 when Henry married mail-order bride Anne of Cleves on Twelfth Night and realised that the description of her beauty may have been exaggerated. And so on. Whatever History makes of Henry VIII, he certainly loved Greenwich, for which I can forgive him much.

I don’t know about you, but although this must be the most regal, sumptuous and glorious time that Greenwich has ever known, I find it almost impossible to visualise the scene. Perhaps it’s because virtually nothing remains of this time in today’s town – the odd bit of crypt or a tiny bit of wall at best. There was the tiled floor of the chapel they discovered last year, but they covered it up so fast that we didn’t even get a peek (forcing me to climb a fence in the dark in order to see it. I felt like a criminal. Ok, so I was…) It is now, one of the only bits remaining of Good King Keith’s time, a car park. Go figure.


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