Christmas in London Under Cromwell

The Gunpowder Plot, the Civil Wars, Charles I’s execution, the Plague, the Great Fire, the Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution: the seventeenth century was one of the most momentous times in the history of Britain.

In London and the Seventeenth Century, Margarette Lincoln charts the impact of national events on an ever-growing citizenry with its love of pageantry, spectacle, and enterprise. Lincoln looks at how religious, political, and financial tensions were fomented by commercial ambition, expansion, and hardship.

In this extract Lincoln depicts how the Puritan moral reforms under Cromwell’s rule lead to festive celebrations being suppressed.

Puritans had long pushed for moral reform. Already, in 1644, parliament had banned maypoles and fairs, the remnants of folk culture associated with immorality. It advised citizens to spend Christmas in contemplation not feasting. It banned theatres in 1647, because plays inflamed the emotions and could sway public opinion. In 1650 the Rump enacted a law against cursing and swearing, a law enforcing strict observance of the Sabbath, and a Toleration Act repealing compulsory attendance at a national church, so Dissenters could worship freely. It also approved a Blasphemy Act, aimed at suppressing radical sects, and the infamous Adultery Act, which punished an adulterous woman and her lover with death. But contemporary double standards meant that a married man who committed adultery with a single woman faced just three months’ imprisonment, the offence being equated with fornication. In practice, the death penalty was rarely carried out and the Act was mostly used to coerce reform. Inevitably, it proved a tool for disgruntled spouses and suspicious neighbours. If some thought the Act would help to clean up their neighbourhood, many more resented it as a snooping, repressive measure used to terrorise people.

London: Westminster – Oliver Cromwell Statue by Lewis Clarke, CC BY-SA 2.0

Cromwell sincerely believed that he was an instrument of God, called to establish a ‘godly reformation’ in England that would bring the full benefits of God’s mercy. His thinking was influenced by the Old Testament story of the Israelites who, by taking God as their guide and purging their sins, escaped Egyptian bondage and emerged from the wilderness into the promised land. Once made Protector, Cromwell banned crowd events such as cockfighting and bear-baiting, and re-enforced laws against drunkenness. Whenever there were national setbacks and military defeats, he blamed them on England’s sinfulness and immorality, offensive to God. At such times the number of alehouses in London was more rigorously controlled, while gaming houses and brothels were suppressed with renewed rigour. Cromwell genuinely wanted moral reform but restrictions on public assembly were also useful security measures.

Cromwell’s rule became more authoritarian after January 1655, when he dismissed his second parliament, which had also proved intolerant and averse to the army. Now Cromwell ruled alone, although he still took advice. He strengthened measures against Christmas celebrations, adamant that excess prompted immorality. From 1656 people were told to work on 25 December; shops and markets were to stay open and soldiers patrolled the City streets, seizing any festive food being prepared. Churches were ordered to close, so people had to observe the day at home. These measures were deeply unpopular: the Venetian ambassador reported in 1657 that Londoners closed their shops as usual. Clerics conducted services according to the Book of Common Prayer in private houses. On Christmas Day 1658, John Evelyn and his wife attended a service in the chapel of Exeter House on the north side of the Strand. Members of the royalist elite met there regularly in a form of dignified political protest, so it was an obvious place for soldiers to check out. As the vicar began to administer the Holy Sacrament, troops surrounded the chapel and arrested the congregation. That afternoon, high-ranking army officers came from Whitehall to interrogate individuals, but after making threats, they allowed the communion to proceed and released the worshippers, unwilling perhaps to ignite popular protest. Although anxiety clouded Christmas celebrations, New Year’s Day and Candlemas Day on 2 February were resoundingly kept as festive seasons.

About the author:

Margarette Lincoln is a visiting fellow at the University of Portsmouth and was Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum. She is the author of Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson.

About the book:

London and the Seventeenth Century is the first comprehensive history of seventeenth-century London, told through the lives of those who experienced it.

“Lively and arresting. . . . [Lincoln] is as confident in handling the royal ceremonials of political transition . . . as she is with London’s thriving coffee-house culture, and its turbulent maritime community.”—Ian W. Archer, Times Literary Supplement

Read more blog posts from Margarette Lincoln:

Share this

You must be logged in to post a comment