Daisy Dunn

The Lord of Misrule and the lost spirit of Christmas past

  • From Spectator Life
The Lord of Misrule leads the villagers in a festive procession, circa 1600 [Alamy]

The Lord of Misrule is surely the jolliest spirit of Christmas past. He is certainly the best named. He used to gambol through cities and courts, churchyards and dining rooms, telling jokes, performing tricks and spreading good cheer. Society shook itself upside down at his coming, so knaves played at being kings, children became miniature tyrants and noblemen misplaced their manners (an exercise in which some, admittedly, needed little assistance).

His origins can be traced back to ancient Rome, where each December masters and slaves swapped places for the festival of Saturnalia and engaged in various acts of tomfoolery while gorging on food and wine. These traditions survived the advent of Christianity and found their own expression in the Church. The medieval ‘Feast of Fools’ witnessed the lowest ranking members of the clergy usurp the positions of the highest. And ‘Boy Bishops’ donned the cloth, delivered sermons to the adults and took in the collection. Everything was topsy turvy.

Naturally such scenes found a place in art. The caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792–1878) drew one of the Lord of Misrule’s common associates, the Abbot of Unreason, leading a party of revellers into an abbey:

George Cruikshank’s Abbot of Unreason [Alamy]

The collective noun for monks is an ‘abomination’, which is just about the only word you can imagine Cruikshank’s monks spluttering as the obese Abbot of Unreason and his acolytes stream in with their hats, hobby-horses and balls and chain. ‘Lustie guttes’ was the name one disapproving writer attached to the Lord of Misrule’s followers. This lot look positively ravenous.  

They were as popular in royal courts as they were in the inns of court. Henry VII employed a Lord of Misrule and Abbot of Unreason almost every Christmas of his married life, and his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was similarly partial to the custom.

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