Henry VIII always spent the festive season at one of his standing palaces, most frequently Greenwich, though in the first part of his reign he occasionally kept it at Windsor Castle and at Richmond and Eltham, places connected with his youth. In his last few years he celebrated the season at Hampton Court, though his final Christmas was spent at Whitehall.
A major element of Tudor Christmas was the liturgical feast days. On 24 December Henry attended the mass of the vigil and on Christmas Day in the morning the choristers of the Chapel Royal greeted the king singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo and he, dressed in a gown of purple velvet, ‘took his rights’ (received Communion) at the celebration of High Mass in his Closet, a private devotional area in the chapel overlooking proceedings to which he processed from his private apartments. During the following four days, amidst the revelry, Henry observed consecutively the feasts of St Stephen, St John, Holy Innocents and St Thomas of Canterbury.
Unlike the modern celebration of Christmas, there was no gift-giving until New Year, at which all those connected with the royal household were accorded a sumptuous gift (such as a gilt cup) while dedicated servants, from minstrels, physicians, hunters and cooks to gardeners and clock-keepers, were rewarded with a Christmas bonus. The king’s harper, ‘Blind More’ was especially singled out in 1530, but Queen Katherine was noticeably blanked from the royal Christmas list in 1532. Henry himself was showered with presents from courtiers and household servants alike, though not only from those who knew him personally: numerous poor men, women and children came to the gates of the palace with ‘capons, hens, oranges, apples, books of wax, and other trifles’ for his majesty at New Year.
Traditionally a time for indulging in eating and drinking, naturally Henry’s court was no exception as revealed by the menu for a three-course dinner served for the king and guests on 30 December 1528 at Greenwich. The banquet comprised around 43 dishes in all and featured delicacies such as swan, venison, pheasant, rabbit, heron and lark as well as more elaborate dishes such as ‘great birds with gravy’ (a three-bird roast?), sweet wine flavoured red jelly garnished with minced almonds and a variety of pies, tarts and fritters.
The king’s largesse at this season of goodwill was legendary and the chroniclers imply it was an open house, with ‘right sumptuous’ banquets reportedly of as many as 260 dishes with 60 plates of spices and ‘where was such abundance of viandes [meats] served, to all comers of any honest behaviour, as hath been few times seen’.
Music was an integral part of feasting with dancing and carols combining sacred and secular themes. In addition to traditions of ‘Wassailing’, the Twelfth Day of Christmas (the feast of the eve of Epiphany) brought yuletide revels in the form of masques and pageants, lavish entertainments on Classical and Biblical themes. Until his death in 1523, the task of supplying scripts and composing music was entrusted to the indefatigable William Cornish, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, who engaged his choristers and other gentlemen of the Chapel to sing and act, accompanied by the king’s minstrels.
Courtiers were often game enough to participate, too, and even the king and queen were sometimes revealed to universal surprise when ‘visors’ (masks) were finally removed. It was in the spirit of such maskings that Henry stole away to his new palace at Rochester Priory on New Year’s Day 1540 to observe, while in disguise, his new bride-to-be, Anne of Cleves, before their marriage which took place a few days later at Greenwich on Epiphany.
Wintry weather prompted unscripted, makeshift entertainment. On 25 January 1519 (technically within the liturgical ambit of Christmas, which lasted until Candlemas on 2 February), the king, ever the competitor, is recorded as engaging in a snowball fight with his noble friends, including his royal cousin, Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon. This must have been an unusual spectacle in itself and certainly watched by members of the public, who may well have joined in, as a young lad was thanked for lending Courtenay his cap.
How frequently Henry enjoyed a white Christmas is not recorded, though during at least two winters of his reign (1517 and 1536) it was so cold that the River Thames froze and thick ice prevented travel to Greenwich by water. Luckily Henry was not planning on going anywhere.