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.)
written by Marilee
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
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
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
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.
Life in Tudor England