Tudor Lord of Misrule: How Edward VI Resurrected a Raucous Christmas Tradition

Antiquary John Stowe wrote of the popular Medieval tradition of the Lord of Misrule, explaining that:

“In the feast of Christmas, there was in the King’s house, wheresoever he was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Master of merry disports, and the like had ye in the house of every noble man of honour, or good worship, were he spiritual or temporal.”

He went on to explain that the Mayor of London and his sheriff also had their Lords of Misrule and that these lords would begin their ‘rule’ and organise “the rarest pastimes to delight the beholders” on All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en) and end their rule on the day after Candlemas Day, at the beginning of February. The revelry, Stowe explained, consisted of “fine and subtle disguisings, maskes and mummeries, with playing at cards for counters, nails and points in every house, more for pastimes than for gain.”

Oxford and Cambridge universities, and Lincoln’s Inn, would also appoint Lords of Misrule, as would the royal court, although their ‘rule’ tended to be limited to the 12 days of Christmas. Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, continued the Medieval tradition, electing a Lord of Misrule for every Christmas of his reign. His son, Henry VIII, also embraced the tradition, going so far as to appoint a separate Lord of Misrule for the young Princess Mary’s household at Christmas, 1525. However, it was in the reign of Henry VIII’s son, the boy king Edward VI, that the tradition reached its zenith under the patronage of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, who was Lord President of the Privy Council from 1550 to 1553. The tradition had declined in the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign – an ambassador to Edward VI’s court remarked in January 1552 that a Lord of Misrule had not been appointed for “15 or 16 years” – but it was resurrected with great gusto at the royal court in the Christmas seasons of 1551-1552 and 1552-1553, the final Christmases of Edward’s reign.

Portrait miniature of Edward by an unknown artist, c. 1543–46

While the king’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and former Lord Protector, languished in the Tower of London awaiting execution as a traitor to the crown, the Duke of Northumberland sought to distract and divert both king and court with a programme of entertainment and revelry for the 12 days of Christmas. In December 1551, Northumberland appointed George Ferrers, a lawyer, courtier, MP, former servant of Somerset and a poet of some renown, as Lord of Misrule. Sir Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Revels, was informed of the appointment and asked to do all he could to aid Ferrers. Cawarden, who may well have felt slighted by the appointment of Ferrers instead of himself, had to be spurred into action by letters of complaint from both Northumberland and Ferrers regarding his inaction and the quality of items he had provided. In Cawarden’s defence, he was expected to provide a long list of apparel and items at very short notice indeed.

Although the Revels Accounts in the Loseley Manuscript are incomplete, they do show that the revels of these two Christmas seasons took the tradition of Lord of Misrule to new heights. Never before had the Lord of Misrule entered the City of London in a huge and elaborate procession that mimicked the procession of a monarch. Ferrers demanded a large retinue which, in January 1553, included no fewer than six councillors, a ‘dizard’ (talkative fool), jugglers, tumblers, a divine, a philosopher, an astronomer, a poet, a physician, an apothecary, a master of requests, a civilian, friars, two gentleman ushers and “suche other” as he needed. The fools included the “Lord Misrule’s ape”, his “heir apparent” and children.
Both of Edward VI’s final Christmases were spent at Greenwich Palace, the 15th century abode situated on the bank of the River Thames. Ferrers made his entry to the royal court at the palace under a canopy, presumably like a royal canopy of estate, and in one piece of pageantry at court he appeared “out of the moon”.

On 2 January 1552, Ferrers presided over a drunken mask at court for which he was furnished with eight “visars” (perhaps vizards or masks), eight swords and daggers, headpieces decorated with serpents and clubs that were full of “pykes” (spikes). The Christmas festivities also included the “Tryumphe of Horsemen”, in which 18 answerers ran six courses each against the Earl of Warwick, Henry Sidney, Sir Henry Gates and Sir Henry Neville as challengers. “Rich hangings” from the “King’s timber houses” were cut up and used for 12 bards for the challengers’ great horses, and caparisons and trappings for their eight light horses. A mock Midsummer Night festival was held that night and the furnishing of “as many Counterfett harnesses & weapons as ye may spare and hobby horsses” suggests that the entertainment included a mock joust. According to the Revels Accounts, other entertainment over the Christmas period included a mask of “Greek worthyes”, a mask of apes, a mask of bagpipes, a mask of cats and “a mask of medyoxes, being half man, half deathe.”

Two masked revellers by Jacob de Gheyn, circa 1595. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

On the night of 3 January 1552, there was a mock midsummer that required six hobby horses to be supplied, and then on 4 January the Lord of Misrule made his entry into the City of London. WR Streitberger points out that this entry was not only a parody of traditional royal entries into the capital but also “partly a burlesque of the power vested in royalty to dispense justice”. Diarist and merchant Henry Machyn gives a detailed contemporary account of Ferrers’ entry, writing of how Ferrers landed at Tower Wharf with a great number of young knights and gentlemen on horseback, “every man having a baldric of yellow and green about their necks”. They went first to Tower Hill, accompanied by a procession consisting of a standard of yellow and green silk with St George, guns and squibs, trumpet players, bagpipe players, flautists and other musicians, morris dancers, and the Lord of Misrule’s councillors in “gownes of chanabulle lyned with blue taffata and capes of the same”. Then came the Lord of Misrule, apparelled in a fur-trimmed cloth of gold gown, 50 men of the guard dressed in red and white, and a cart carrying a pillory, gibbet and stocks. The procession then made its way to the Cross at Cheapside where a great scaffold had been erected. There, a proclamation was made of Ferrers’ “progeny”, his “great household” and his “dignity”, before a beheading took place. Thankfully, it was a symbolic beheading; the ‘head’ of a hogshead of wine was “smitten out” for everyone to drink. After that, the Lord of Misrule enjoyed a sumptuous feast with the Lord Mayor before visiting the Lord Treasurer at Austin Friars and then taking a barge back from Tower Wharf to Greenwich.

As well as the pillory, gibbet and stocks described by Machyn as being part of the Lord of Misrule’s entry into London, the Revels Accounts list joints for a pair of stocks with hasps and staples, locks for the pillory and stocks, keys, manacles with a hanging locks, a “hedding ax” and “hedding block”. As well as symbolising the power of the monarch – or the Lord of Misrule at Christmas – to dispense justice, these items and the scaffold at Cheapside my well have alluded to the forthcoming execution of the Duke of Somerset.

On Twelfth Night 1552, a tourney was held during the day, and that evening, following a play performed by the King’s Players, there was a contest or feat of arms between Youth and Riches, with them arguing over which of them was better. It is thought to have been devised by Sir Thomas Chaloner, the statesman and poet. Sir Anthony Browne, Lord Fitzwater, Ambrose Dudley, Sir William Cobham and two other men fought on Youth’s side against Lord Fitzwarren, Sir Robert Stafford and four others on the side of Riches. “All these fought two to two at barriers in the hall. Then came in two apparelled like Almains [Germans]. The Earl of Ormonde and Jacques Granado, and two came in like friars, but the Almains would not suffer them to pass till they had fought. The friars were Mr Drury and Thomas Cobham.” It is not clear whether this contest between Germans (Protestants) and Catholic friars was, in fact, devised to ridicule the Catholic Church. This mock combat was followed by a mask of men and a mask of women, and then a banquet of 120 dishes. “This was the end of Christmas”, is how the account ends.

Two masked musicians perform for a noblewoman, by Jacob de Gheyn, circa 1595. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

The allusion to the Duke of Somerset’s scheduled execution was not the only controversial element of the Lord of Misrule’s programme of entertainment that year. Jehan Scheyfve, the imperial ambassador, recorded what he obviously saw as an anti-papist display. According to Scheyfve, a procession of mock priests and bishops “paraded through the Court, and carried, under an infamous tabernacle, a representation of the holy sacrament in its monstrance, which they wetted and perfumed in most strange fashion, with great ridicule of the ecclesiastical estate”. He wasn’t the only one upset about this affront to the Catholic Church; he wrote that “Not a few Englishmen were highly scandalised by this behaviour; and the French and Venetian ambassadors, who were at Court at the time, showed clearly enough that the spectacle was repugnant to them”. One can only assume, however, that the king was happy with this procession and the programme of festivities, for, as historian Jennifer Loach points out, the Revels Accounts show that the king took an active involvement in directing the entertainment and that changes were often made as “declared and commaunded by his highenes or his pryvie counsell” in order “to serve the kinge and his counsells pleasure and determinacion”. The King’s Printer, Richard Grafton, in writing about how well Ferrers was received at court as the Lord of Misrule, commented that he was “very well liked… But best of al by the yong king himselfe, as appered by his princely liberalitie in rewarding that service.” Ferrers was rewarded for his service with a payment of £50 from Northumberland and in September 1552 was appointed as Lord of Misrule for the 1552-1553 Christmas season.

The Christmas season of 1552-1553 began on with Ferrers sending his “solemn ambassador” to court, accompanied by a herald, trumpeter, “an orator speaking in a straunge language” and an interpreter. The ambassador’s mission was to speak to the king and ask for an audience for the Lord of Misrule. This audience was granted and the next day, Ferrers travelled to court along the Thames in the king’s brigantine, which was decorated in blue and white, escorted by other vessels and boys dressed as Turks and playing drums. At Greenwich, he was met by Sir George Howard, the Lord of Misrule’s Master of the Horse, who had come with a horse for Ferrers and who was accompanied by four pages of honour carrying Ferrers’ headpiece, shield, sword and axe. Ferrers writes of how he had taken Hydra, the serpent with seven heads, as his coat of arms, a holly bush as his crest and ‘Semper ferians’ (always keeping the holiday) as his motto.

Entertainments over Christmas and New Year included a pageant in which Ferrers emerged from “vastum vacuum” (a vast airy space), which must have been some kind of pageant car; a feat of arms; a mock midsummer show and joust of hobby horses, presumably like the previous year; a day of hunting and hawking, and masks of “covetus men with longe noses”, “women of Diana hunting”, “babions faces of tinsel black and tawny”, “pollenders”, “matrons” as well as soldiers.

University of Leicester Special Collections. ‘Lord of Misrule’ from: William Sandys, Christmastide: its History, Festivities and Carols, (London, [1852], SCM 12913.
Ferrers ordered five different suits of apparel via Cawarden for the festive season: one to wear on both his entry to court and his entry into London, two for the next “hallowed daies”, another for New Year and a final one for Twelfth Night. He also ordered a fool’s coat and hood for John Smith, who was playing the Lord of Misrule’s “heir apparent”, a hunting costume consisting of a coat of cloth of gold decorated with red and green checkerwork, a cloth of gold hat decorated with green leaves, and six sets of outfits complete with horns for his attendants. Other items included “Irish apparel” for both a man and woman, costumes for members of his retinue, maces for his sergeant-at-arms, and hobby horses, one of which he ordered to be made with three heads.

Henry Machyn records the Lord of Misrule’s entry into London on 4 January 1553, writing that he was met at Tower Wharf by the Sheriff’s Lord of Misrule, who took a sword and bore it before Ferrers, who was dressed in royal purple velvet furred with ermine, his “robe braided with spangulls of selver full”. Ferrers was accompanied by a large retinue dressed in a livery of blue and white. As well as musicians, fools and morris dancers, there were once again gaolers armed with a pillory, stocks, an axe, shackles and bolts, and prisoners, presumably actors, who were “fast by the leges and sum by the nekes”. They processed through Gracechurch Street and Cornhill, and once again made their way to a scaffold. After a proclamation had been made, Ferrers gave the Sheriff’s Lord of Misrule a gown of gold and silver before knighting him. The two Lords of Misrule toasted each other and as they proceeded onwards, Ferrers’ cofferer distributed silver and gold. The day ended with a feast at the Lord Mayor’s home, a visit to the Sheriff’s house and a banquet course at the Lord Treasurer’s house.
Twelfth Night was celebrated with “The Triumph of Cupid, Venus and Mars”, which, according to Cawarden’s correspondence, was a play devised by Sir George Howard, who was also Master of the Henchmen. Enid Welsford believes that this play was an imitation of the Italian ‘trionfi’, a triumphal procession, and it appears that Venus did indeed enter in a triumphal chariot accompanied by a mask of ladies followed by the marshal and his band. Venus rescued Cupid from the marshal with some kind of mock combat, and at some point, Mars also made his triumphal entry. Thus ended the Twelve Days of Christmas. Once again, the King was pleased with his Lord of Misrule and George Ferrers was granted an estate at Flamstead in Hertfordshire.

Although Sydney Anglo makes the point that few records survive detailing the Lord of Misrule’s entertainments in other years, we know from the accounts of Edward VI’s reign that £500 was spent on the revels of Christmas 1551-1552 and £400 on that of 1552-1553, compared to £150 in 1547-1548 and £11 in 1548-1549. The entertainment of George Ferrers’ time as Lord of Misrule was pageantry at its most lavish. Historian Ronald Hutton concludes that the spectacle of Ferrers’ entries into London, for example, “was one of the most elaborate in Tudor history”. It is a shame that the incomplete records only give us a tantalising glimpse into the revelry.

Claire Ridgeway runs theanneboleynfiles.com and is author of numerous books on Tudor England. For more delightful curios from history, subscribe to All About History for as little as £26.


  • S Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry and Early Tudor Policy, Clarendon Press 1997
  • E Welsford, The Court Masque: A Study in the Relationship between Poetry and the Revels, Cambridge University Press 1927
  • W R Streitberger, Court Revels 1485-1559, University of Toronto Press 2012
  • J Loach, Edward VI, Yale University Press 2002
  • A Feuillerat (editor), Documents relating to the revels at court in the time of King Edward VI and Queen Mary (The Loseley Manuscripts), A Uystpruyst 1914