Unbidden guests, moldy pies, and other holiday drama

As we enter the holiday season and look forward to spending time with our families and friends, it is of course always useful to take a moment to reflect upon the antics of other people’s families. Even better if those families are over four hundred years old. And even better if their antics are described in English secretary or italic hand.

The snippets below come from letters in the Folger manuscript collection written between 1551 and 1624 that refer to Christmas and New Year’s plans and activities. Try reading the letters themselves, if you are paleographically-minded. Otherwise, just enjoy the transcriptions, which provide a great window into family celebrations, Renaissance-style.

Expectations run high around this time of year, and the weather is always iffy:

where are you?

Folger MS L.d.599, Letter to Roger Townshend, bart. (1596-1637) from his unidentified kinsman Roger Townshend, 1624 December 23. Click on this image and all other images to see bigger versions.

Sir Wee haue expected yow here euer since the last post, who told vs yow had appointed to sett out the monday following, but I perceaue the weather or something els, hath hindred yow, and now it growes too neare Christmas to expect yow…

Roger closes this letter with a familiar greeting and a dose of bad news in a single breath:

merry xmas earl is dead

Subscription to Folger MS L.d.599, again.

Therefore I will wishe yow a merry Christmas …. The olde Erle of Nottingham is dead some 3 dayes since.

In a letter to his father, Harvey Bagot, a student at Oxford, waited until January 27 to report on where he spent Christmas and New Years. He then asked his father, Walter Bagot, to reimburse his college president for his hospitality:

Xmas letter to dad

Folger MS L.a.51, Letter from Sir Harvey Bagot, Oxford, to Walter Bagot, 1608/9 January 27.

I must let you vnderstand that it pleased Mr President to take me at Christmas with him to his house in Garington where I continued vntell newyears day for the which and all other kindenesses I hope you will be very thankefull and with all kindeness at all times redy to requite him.

Another of Walter Bagot’s son, William, asked his father for a new suit for Christmas, since his olde one was “quite out of fashion”:

xmas with his tutor, please?

Folger MS L.a.176, Letter from William Bagot, Oxford, to Walter Bagot, 1619 November 7.

My Tutor goeth to his fathers to kepe Christmas wherfore I pray you let me cume in to the cuntrie with my cosin Crumpton I haue neede of shute ^a shute^ if it please you to let me haue it a gainst Christmas for my best shute is quite out of fashion, if youer pleasure be that I shalle haue one my tutor may by it and lay out the mony till the quarters ende.

Around the same time, Walter Bagot drafted a letter to an acquaintance in which he bent over backwards to apologize for his last minute request:

unbidden guests

Folger MS L.a.156, Draft of letter from Walter Bagot to an unnamed knight, ca. 1620.

Most worthie knight I am bold to send vnto you some ^vnbidden^ Christmas guestes

For Walter Bagot’s son-in-law and his family, the season was about eating and cards and games and gifts and friends, which didn’t leave them much time to write:

xmas does

Folger MS L.a.258, Letter from Richard Broughton to Richard Bagot, 1590/91 January 1.

sugar and cards

Folger MS L.a.258. Continuation of letter from above, with mention of powdered sugar and cards.

Sir we are to yeld you thankes for your two does the best I think that came to London this Christmas which we with our ffrindes haue aswell spent & are to spend amongest our ffrindes…. My partner for want of better token for newe yeres gift hath sent by this bearer some ordynarie powdred sugar in two barells. (& vj li of pepper which her mother willed by him, should be sent to her mother.    betwixt playeng at tables & cardes we haue not full leasure to write at Large of many thinges.

Eating involved venison, of course, and in this letter the young second Earl of Essex writes to Richard Bagot that he needs more of it, potentially:

more meat please

Folger MS L.a.456, Letter from Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Cambridge, to Richard Bagot, 1580 December 6.

Mr. Bagott. I thanke yow for your good remembraunce in sendinge the veneson, I thinke I shall be in Cambridge this Christmas. Yf yt fall out so I looke for more provision. Yow shall know vpon Mr Broughtons comminge the certainety.

Traveling with food has always been tricky. John Kniveton writes to the Countess of Shrewsbury (a.k.a. Bess of Hardwick) that the Christmas pies she sent to court were a bit of a disaster:

moldy pies

Folger MS X.d.428 (39), Letter from John Kniveton, Shrewsbury Place, to Eliabeth Hardwick Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, 1579 December 23.

I delyuerd the venison accordinge to your Ladyships lettre, to Mr Attorney, Mr Sackeford Mr ffletewod & Mr Solicetor Mr Osbarne and Mr ffowler. Many of the pies that were made longewayes were both so moulded and so litle as thei were not worth the gyvinge, yt were good that better order were taken herafter that suche as shuld be sent hether might be newe baked, and also might be made of some reasonable bignes and well handled./ the rounde pies were not moldye but much better to see to then thothers./ Thei were very thanckefully taken of them all./

Like many children, Elizabeth Somerville experience the pull between spending the holidays with her parents and spending the holidays at home with her own husband and children. She explains to her father, Sir Humphrey Ferrers:

maybe next year

Folger MS L.e.612, Letter from Elizabeth Somerville to Sir Humphrey Ferrers, Walton, 1606 November 24. Photograph by Heather Wolfe.

a doe would be nice

Folger MS L.e.612, Elizabeth Somerville’s postscript to her father, Sir Humphrey Ferrers. Photograph by Heather Wolfe.

Mr. Somervile, and my sellfe doe humbly thanke you, and my mother, that you would haue vs to keepe our Christmas with you, but wee haue all our Children at home, and expect some Companey, and therfore do Craue pardone for our absence.

post script I pray you bestowe a doe of me this Christmas

The first Earl of Essex came up with the best excuse ever for not having to attend the christening of the King of France’s daughter. He got to spend Christmas in Hereford instead, due to a fortuitous shin injury (as recounted in a letter from William Barroll to Richard Bagot):

change of plans

Folger MS L.a.187, Letter from William Barroll, Chartley, to Richard Bagot, 1572 December 18.

 … vppon the shynne with the Calking of … his wound was an Inche depe and more … lyes at durham place, this morning I haue … lettres, and his hope is to be at hereford this Christemas. This chaunce came happylie as I thinck for otherwise he was mosioned to go into fraunce to Cristen the frenche Kinges daughter, and if he had refuced (as I thinck he wold) then shuld he haue had displeasure…

Tracking where the Court was going to be for Christmas was always a favorite pasttime. In this letter, it is mixed with news of a grimmer sort:

kings xmas plans

Folger MS L.a.438, Letter from Richard Edwards, Barton under Needwood, Staffordshire, to Walter Bagot, 1603 December 9.

Ther were small newes at the Courte but of the kinges remove from Wilton, vpon Mondaye next, & the Queenes vpon Wednesdaye last, & so to meete at Oatlandes before Christenmas, and to contynue ther or at Hampton Courte, all the Christenmas tyme. Some speeches ther were of an execucion to be done of ^Sir Walter^ Rawley, and Sir Griffin Markam, & others vpon Tewesday last, but I cannott affirme it to be soe.

Christmas turned into a working holiday for Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Revels. Imagine sitting down to Christmas dinner in 1551 and receiving this order from Northumberland, Pembroke, Cecil, Osborne, and Cobham:

get to work!

Folger MS L.b.277, Letter from Privy Council, Greenwich, to Sir Thomas Cawarden, 1551 December 25.

After hertie commendacions. Thies ar to desire & praye you, fforsomoche as the kinges maiestie hath appoincted a lord of misrule to be in his highnes houshold for the twelve dayes, to se the same furnysshed of suche thinges within your office, as yourself shall thyncke convenient to serue the turne accordingly. Thus hartely fare you well./ ffrom Grenewych this Christmas daye 1551.

 William Baldwin spent his Christmas Eve in 1555 writing a letter to Thomas Cawarden in which he proposed a 3 hour comedy, “Love and Lyve,” populated entirely by characters whose names began with the letter “L,” and ready to be performed in ten days (“it is now in learnyng”). After listing the names of all 62 characters, he closes:

christmas eve letter

Folger L.b.298. Letter from William Baldwin, London, to Sir Thomas Cawarden, 1555 December 24.

At london this tuesday Christmas eve/ Yours to do you pleasure Wylliam Baldwyn

I saved the most exuberant holiday letter for last. Lettice Kynnersley writes a thank you note to her father Richard Bagot, in which she describes the greatest Christmas she had ever seen. In her own words:

best day ever

Folger MS L.a.594, Letter from Lettice Kynnersley, Broughton, to Richard Bagot, ca. 1595? January 18

My good father. The last day I receued a letter from you, and a fore christmas. I receued forti shilinges from you. and ten from my mother: giueing you Both houmble thankes: for the same, my brother is nou at loudlo. Whear theare was the greates christmas, that euer I sau. My ladi made uery much of my sister. and desiered her. to com to her sum times. and she should haue her chamber in the house: and told my sister she should finde her redi to plesure her. or ani freand she had:

If anyone knows anything about this particularly lavish Christmas at Ludlow Castle, we’d love to learn more!

Happy holidays from The Collation.

Author: Heather Wolfe

HEATHER WOLFE is Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and teaches early modern English paleography for the Folger Institute and Rare Book School.

4 Comments

  1. Barton-under-Needwood is not in Lincolnshire but near the Bagots’ estate in Staffordshire.

  2. Thanks! The post has now been updated.

  3. Have so enjoyed this post, opening a window on Christmas as celebrated in Shakespeare’s time, and showing off some of the Folger’s great resources.

  4. Re the Christmas at Ludlow, there is this account noted in Records of Early English Drama: Shropshire, vol. 1, ed. J. Alan B. Somerset, pp. 89–90:

    1596–97
    Sir John Stradling, The Storie of the Lower Borowes
    Merthyr Mawr House
    ff 13v–14* (28 October–27 October)

    . . . Within few weekes after was kept a grand Christmas in the castle of Ludlowe, whither among others of this countrie, resorted the young gentleman Edmond van to do his lord & | master the Earle of Pembroke seruice at that solumne time^ what he spent there ys not to be estemed, being bestowed in ye seruice of his good lorde, at so solemne a season, among such honorable, worshipfull & gentlemanlie companie, where a young man might haue learned as much good behauiour & manners, as should haue stuck by him ever after whiles he lived. And yf I be not deceauved, our young gentleman learned somewhat there that he shall not forgett these vij yeares, though he would. He was at that feast squier of the body [at yat feast] to one of king Arthures knights (Sir Gawen I trowe was his name) from the estimacon of which superficiall aduancement, distilled into his head such a superfluous humor of vaine self weening and ambition, that vnneth xvj. ounces of the purest tobacco receaued in at his nares by artificyall fumigacion might stop the course thereof. Of the aboundance of this humor was engendred a festred ulcer, which sithens hath broken out to so daungerous a sore, that I doubt the curing of yt will cost litle lesse then five hundred powndes. . . .

    Somerset’s endnotes in vol. 2, p.645:
    . . . it seems there was a grand Christmas kept at Ludlow Castle by the earl of Pembroke, lord President of the Council, at which a Christmas court was held with various persons taking the parts of the members of King Arthur’s court. Van apparently took the part of squire of the body to ‘Sir Gawen.’ Beyond this, the facts begin to become encumbered with irony and private allusions. The ‘superfluous humor’ that engendered an ulcer resulting in a dangerous sore costing £500 to cure apparently refers to Edmund Van’s pride, which Stradling implies caused his involvement in a misdemeanour and eventually led to a prosecution in Star Chamber which, Stradling predicts here, will cost the young man a fine of £500. In fact, as Randall indicates in a note to this passage, Van was eventually fined £1000 for his part in the affair.
    . . . . .

    Thus ‘My ladie’ in the letter is most likely Mary Sidney Herbert, the countess of Pembroke.

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