Published: 17-03-2010, 14:42

Lord of Misrule

In late medieval and Renaissance ENGLAND, towns, colleges, noble houses, and the royal court often chose a mock king to preside over their Christmas festivities. Temporarily elevated from his ordinary, humble rank to that of “king,” he was known by a variety of names, including the Lord of Misrule, the Abbot of Unreason, the Christmas Lord, and the Master of Merry Disports. These colorful titles reflect the kind of madcap revelry associated with these parties.

The Christmas festivities over which the Lord of Misrule presided might include feasts, dances, MUMMING, musical entertainments, plays, and MASQUES, as well as good deal of general merriment. According to an irate PURITAN of the sixteenth century, Christmas Lords sometimes led their retinue of giddy followers through the streets of the town and into churches while services were being held. Perhaps in imitation of the Feast of Fools, the motley band careened down the aisle, dancing, singing, jingling BELLS, and brandishing their hobbyhorses. Many worshipers laughed at the spectacle and stood on their pews to get a better view. Apparently, the Puritans did not find the interruption at all amusing.
Of course, the noble and wealthy enjoyed the most elaborate Christmas celebrations, and also left the best records of the Lord of Misrule and his activities. One of the earliest records of an English Christmas celebration presided over by a mock king dates back to the time of King Edward III (1312-1377). In 1347 Edward enjoyed a number of extravagant Christmas masques and dances prepared for him by his “Master of Merry Disports.” King Henry VIII (1491-1547) found the Lord of Misrule and his diversions vastly entertaining. His enthusiasm for the custom was such that in a few cases he ordered others to follow suit. For example, when he founded Cambridge University’s Trinity College he mandated that a Lord of Misrule preside at its Christmas festivities.

The duties of the Lord of Misrule varied from place to place, as did the type of entertainment offered and the duration of the Christmas holiday. The Lord of Misrule’s most fundamental duty, however, was to attend the Christmas festivities in the character of a mock king. His temporary elevation of status permitted him to command all present, but he was primarily expected to foster a MERRY atmosphere. One wealthy estate owner has left us a written record of the authority granted to his chosen Lord of Misrule. It states:

I give free leave to Owen Flood, my trumpeter, gentleman, to be Lord of Misrule of all good orders during the twelve days. And also, I give free leave to the said Owen Flood to command all and every person or persons whatsoever, as well as servants as others, to be at his command whensoever he shall sound his trumpet or music, and to do him good service, as though I were present myself, at their perils. ... I give full power and authority to his lordship to break up all locks, bolts, bars, doors, and latches, and to fling up all doors out of hinges, to come at those who presume to disobey his lordship’s commands. God save the king! [Chambers, 1990, 2: 741-42].

In some cases the Lord of Misrule also helped to plan the various CHRISTMAS SEASON entertainments. At this time Christmas celebrations in wealthy households usually lasted throughout the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. In some places, though, Christmas festivities began as early as All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), October 31, with the selection of the Lord of Misrule. Indeed, the period between Halloween and TWELFTH NIGHT coincided with the theater season in London, a period of parties and entertainments of all sorts for the well-to-do. The Lord of Misrule’s tenure might or might not end with Epiphany on January 6, however. In 1607 the Christmas Lord serving St. John’s College at Oxford University began offering Christmas entertainments on November 30, St. Andrew’s Day (see also Advent). Followers enjoyed his program of festivities so much that they extended his term of office until CANDLEMAS, February 2, and, after that, prolonged it until Lent.

The Lord of Misrule was known in England as early as the fourteenth century. The custom reached the height of its popularity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and declined in the seventeenth century. Some writers believe he evolved out of the mock bishops associated with the Feast of Fools. Others guess that the KING OF THE BEAN, already popular in parts of continental Europe, may have inspired the creation of this custom. Whatever his origins, the Lord of Misrule did resemble these and other temporary kings of the Christmas season, including the BOY BISHOP and the mock kings associated with SATURNALIA.