The most festive time of the year was the twelve days of Christmas. Of course, the greatest celebration was at the Tudor court, but homes across England – rich and poor – celebrated as best they could. The King, as well as wealthy noblemen, had a Lord of Misrule. (Also, villages and cities had an appointed Lord of Misrule as well.) This man was in charge of the ‘merry disports’ of the season, arranging games (like Blindman’s Bluff) and jests (like mumming and costume parties.)
Mumming, in particular, was a favorite pastime of Tudor England, especially during the major holidays (namely, Christmas and May Day.) This form of entertainment was centuries old and included giants, minstrels, morris dancers, and various musicians. In medieval times, they had mostly done morality plays and dressed as the virtues. But in Tudor England, their role had evolved to include various games and song dances (like ‘London Bridge is Broken Down’, known to us as the rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down.’) They also performed the ever-popular St George and the Dragon story, particularly at Christmas. May Day was less religious, having its antecedents in a pagan tradition; then, various people were anointed Lord and Lady of the May as well as the popular folk heroes, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. These figures would lead revelers in dances around the maypole.
These festivities, however, were celebrated at fixed points of the year. Gambling, on the other hand, was popular throughout the year. In fact, it was too popular. Late in Henry VII’s reign, parliament passed a law prohibiting servants and apprentices from gambling (namely dicing and playing cards.) It was believed that gambling led to idleness and crime, though only in the lower classes. Of course, many noblemen wagered – and lost – large sums, including the Tudor kings. Henry VII was well-known for his love of gambling, a pastime at odds with his image as a miserly king. Today, we can look at the carefully-maintained Privy Purse Accounts to see the amounts Tudor royalty lost at cards. Though even royalty was not supposed to gamble during certain religious holidays, neither Henry VII or his son obeyed that rule. Henry VIII was particularly bad at the game primero.
It was possible to cheat at cards and dicing. The most obvious trick was to load the dice. Most dice were made of ivory, wood, or bone; the most expensive ones were made of silver and gold. Cheaters would make the dice heavier on one side; or they could do a ‘high cut’, which meant there was no 4 on the dice. Many games were played with dice, including an old form of backgammon called ‘tables.’ But the most popular was called Hazard. It was played long before – and after – the 16th century. It wwas addictive and difficult, largely because there were no set rules. There is a reference to the game in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Other dice games were: Iryshe (also like backgammon), Treygobet (its name indicating the path to success – the player had to role higher than a 3), and Quenes (where two dice were used and you won by having the same number appear on both dice.)
Card games were also popular. Of course, playing cards had only recently been invented. Compared to dicing, cards were quite new. England began to play in the 1400s (we believe this because no 14th century works mention playing cards); by Tudor times, various games had been invented. All classes played card games, the most popular were: Primero, Prime (related to Primero), Gresco, Gleke or ‘Cleke, Loadum, Noddy (played mostly by gamblers), New Cut, Putt, All Fours, Post and Pair, Ruff, and Trump. The cards themselves were full-length but the artwork was more sinister than our own (the faces of the kings and naves, particularly on French cards, are quire frightening.)
Of course, not all pastimes involved gambling! Tudor people played many innocent indoor games and many more outdoor games. There was a Prisoners’ Base, corrupted from the French Jeu aux barres. In his journal, Henry VIII’s son, King Edward VI, mentions that he won the game once. There was also an early form of tennis, played mostly by the nobility. Henry VIII played it more than his father, particularly at Windsor. Henry VII’s favorite pastimes were chess, cards and dicing, and shooting the butts. (When he did play tennis, Henry VII usually lost – at that time, tennis was called ‘tenes.’) Tennis was not played as it is today – in Tudor times, it was on a covered court. These courts were very expensive to build and maintain, which meant that only the rich could play. Henry VIII spent a lot of money building courts at Hampton Court and Whitehall.
Poorer people played Balloon Ball, Hand Ball, Ring Ball, and Bandy Ball. Essentially, these were games where balls were hit with bats or hands. Also, they would compete to drive the ball through rings set in the ground.
And one would be happy to know that football was also played in the 16th century. Of course, it was not as regulated as today. It was played by tradesmen on fields outside their cities. Eventually, they would make their way onto city streets, a raucous and lively crowd. One commentator, Thomas Elyot, called it ‘nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence.’ But it was not as violent as cudgel-play. This was played by two opponents who held long sticks. The object was to draw first blood from your opponent’s head. People also wrestled, though rules varied from town to town. Some people liked to kick their opponents in the shins while others only allowed holds above the waist.
More ‘graceful’ pursuits were running at the quintain and tilting. At royal courts and rich homes, these games of sword-play were splendidly done; at poorer homes, they were more simple – but equally entertaining. Essentially, quintain was played thus – a wooden figure was placed on a pivot and, if not properly struck, it would spin around and hit the rider on the backside. However, most poorer quintains used a cross-bar on a pivot. On one end hung a bag of sand, on the other was a piece of wood. If you didn’t hit the cross-bar properly, you could be hit by the bag – a painful injury! These games were played during the summer and winter months.
There were also popular throwing games, resembling the modern horseshoes. Of course, back then heavy weights injured unwary spectators at an alarming rate. Under Henry VIII, archery became increasingly popular. The young king was known as the best archer in England. (Of course, his ill-fated young brother, Prince Arthur, was also called the best archer – and experts were called ‘Arthurs’ after the prince.) Henry VIII wanted to share his love of archery with all his countrymen – so he decreed that every male subject must keep a longbow in his home. Fathers were also required to teach their sons to shoot properly. In this respect, Henry followed his own advice – Edward VI was a good archer as well.
Most noblemen used the longbow when hunting, that great pastime of the rich. (This was not confined to men – Mary queen of Scots and Elizabeth I were well-known for their love of hunting, and also good at it.) The shooters would not let the dogs attack the prey – rather, they tried to shoot their quarry. It was still considered an awful crime to hunt in royal forests; heavy fines and imprisonment resulted. Noblemen and church officials were allowed to kill one or two deer – but they had to blow a horn (if there were no foresters around) to prove they were not going to steal the deer. To hunt, of course, one needed horses. (I should point out that deer were not the only quarry – Tudor Englanders hunted everything, rabbits, foxes, wolves, wild boars, and even squirrels.) They used the following dogs – bull-dogs, mastiffs, spaniels, and greyhounds.
Hawking was also popular, with men and women. The King’s Falconer occupied a prestigious position in the household, as he did at noblemen’s homes. The hawk was difficult to train but, when properly used, could pursue everything. The most popular pursuit was that of the heron. The goose-hawk was the most popular bird, followed by the merlin and tiercel. These birds, if looked after, would last for twenty years!
Some other pastimes remain popular today – such as cock-fighting (another favorite with Henry VIII.), leaping and vaulting (now Olympic sports), and – of course – tournaments and jousts. These latter events are recreated at popular ‘Renaissance festivals’ around the world.
Of course, the above list of pastimes does not indicate a ‘creative’ or imaginative temperament. In truth, there were few intellectual pursuits, beyond the occasional playwright and poet (these traditionally were the nobleman’s province.) Theatres were not built until well into Elizabeth I’s reign but, as mentioned before, certain plays were popular before then – and performed by mummers. There were mysteries, morality tales, and miracle plays. (The terms are self-explanatory.) There were also plays which relied on crude comedy to explore such themes as abusive wives and profligate children.
As for books…. well, there weren’t many books printed and, when printing became more popular, there were few people who could read. The first English printing press was brought to England by William Caxton in 1476, from Bruges in France. Of course, printing became incredibly popular in a brief space of time (much like the internet!) Old texts were translated into English throughout the century – and new ones were written. In Elizabeth’s time, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was an enduring best-seller and Shakespeare, Marlowe and Spenser produced their eternal works. Also, after the Henrician reformation, the Bible was translated into English and Welsh. Soon enough, printing became the primary way to spread new ideas (eventually, it spread revolutionary ones.)
Music was popular as well, particularly among the wealthier class. It was a mark of good breeding to be able to play instruments and compose. Henry VIII and his children were all extremely talented in this respect. Also, Henry and Elizabeth wrote poetry (which you can read at the primary sources section.) The lute was the most popular instrument and even taverns kept some for customers to play. There was also the hurdy-gurdy, various flutes, an early form of the trombone, organs, harpsichords and bagpipes! People loved to sing and dance – rich and poor alike. Church music was always popular. Non-religious music became increasingly elaborate as the years passed – there were ballads and narrative songs. As for dancing, it became more elaborate as the dancers moved up the social scale. A simple dance around the maypole in the countryside was nothing compared to the Tudor court – there were many dances, the favorite being la volta. There was also the coranto, galliard, and pavan. Under the notoriously extravagant Henry VIII, these dances were incorporated into masques. Essentially, a masque was a grand feast which featured dancing, singing, and play-acting. There was usually a central theme.
Of course, there were a few ‘serious’ entertainments which were not religious, most notably among them history plays. We know, in fact, that Henry VIII commissioned a Life of Henry V, the hero of Agincourt. Of course, this art form reached its apogee under William Shakespeare in Elizabeth’s reign. But his plays remained steadfastly pro-Tudor, since it was dangerous to be otherwise. Today we have the ‘other side of the coin,’ with such works as Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.