Lord of Misrule: Medieval Chaos at Christmas

We all know one, that person who takes Christmas to the next level.  They wear Santa hats, they have several Christmas trees decorated according to a theme. Their house is usually covered in Christmas lights, they throw the best Christmas parties and they run the whole of Christmas with military precision.  This Hyper-Christmas Spirit is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, up until the 17th century that job was outsourced to someone known as the Lord of Misrule.

The Lord of Misrule was appointed to organise events and ensure that everyone was partaking in the festivities. He was deliberately chosen from the lower classes meaning that for a few weeks out of the year, the positions of Lord and servant would be swapped. He even had his own attendants, livery and was treated with due respect, all in good fun, of course!

The Lord of Misrule would invite travelling actors to perform Mummer’s plays, he would host elaborate masques, hold large feasts and arrange the procession of the annual Yule Log.  Games that were usually illegal the rest of the year were allowed during the Christmas season and The Lord of Misrule was in charge of organising them.

Lord of Misrule, Christmas, Boy Bishop, Tudor, Medieval
Laughing Fool

During the early days of this position, he was simply appointed to preside over the Feast of Fools.  This occasion took place on January 1st in which a mock Bishop or pope was elected from the lower classes to parody ecclesiastical rituals. Soon, this tradition grew to include the courts of Kings, noblemen’s houses and universities.  His period of reign grew as well, The Lord of Misrule could be in charge anywhere from 12 days to 3 months.

This tradition has its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Held at the same time of year, the Romans would appoint a slave to be a representation of the god Saturn, the King of Saturnalia.  His job was very similar as the Lord of Misrule except at the end of his reign instead of going back to his life as a Roman slave he was sacrificed on the altar of Saturn.

Scotland had its own version of the Lord of Misrule, called the Abbot of Unreason.  His job was more or less the same as their neighbours to the South.  In cathedrals around the country, a Boy Bishop was appointed from a selection of choir boys.  His rule began on the Feast of St Nicholas (the patron saint of children), December 6th and ended on the Feast of the Innocents, December 28th.  He was set with the task of performing all of the official rituals of the church apart from mass.

Boy Bishop, Lord of Misrule, Christmas, Tudor, Medieval
Boy Bishop

Henry VIII banned the practice of the Lord of Misrule after the Reformation but it was soon taken up again when his son, Edward VI took the throne. During the reign of Elizabeth I The Lord of Misrule fell out of favour due to disorderly behaviour. It was finally abolished altogether when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan Order took power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *