Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: christmas

The Christmas Cutpurse

On Christmas Day in 1611, a man wearing a black velvet-lined cloak slipped into the Chapel Royal at Whitehall while James I was taking communion. He tried to pick the pocket of Leonard Barry, a servant to Lord Harrington of Exton, but was caught red-handed. In one pocket was found a knife, and in other other Barry’s purse containing 40 shillings.

The man was John Selman, and he became something of a celebrity as a result. He appeared in Ben Jonson’s Twelfth Night masque Love Restored as the character of ‘the Christmas Cutpurse’. Meanwhile the real Selman confessed his crime and was sent to the Marshalsea prison. At this trial, he pleaded to be allowed a Christian burial and that his property should not be taken from his wife. The judges, who included Francis Bacon, agreed to this on condition that he turned king’s evidence, naming:

Those of your faculty and fraternity, who are still… ready to enter into the presence Chamber of the king.

Selman agreed to this, and his execution was set for 7 January 1612: the day after the Christmas period had ended. He was hanged near Charing Cross, not far from the scene of the crime.

Just as Jonson had rushed to include Selman in his masque, so London’s stationers hurried to produce accounts of his trial and death. The bookseller Thomas Hall registered the title of The araignment of Iohn Selman (London, 1612), printed by W. Hall, on the day after the execution. This was a standard pamphlet account of a crime, trial and execution, including a version of Selman’s gallows speech. The printer George Eld produced for the bookseller and ballad specialist John Wright a broadside titled The Captaine Cut-purse, also sold under an alternate, less catchy title of The arrainement, condemnation, and excution of the grand [–] Iohn Selman (both London, 1612). Two other ballads about Selman, which do not survive, were also registered with the Stationers’ Company.

My image is a woodcut from the title page of The araignment of Iohn Selman, imagining what Selman looked like. The same woodcut was also used for The Captaine Cut-purse and for  a ballad telling Selman’s story. Given that the pamphlet and ballads had different printers and undertakers, this suggests either a degree of commercial cooperation or a printmaker shopping his block around a number of stationers.

Happy Christmas to everyone who has read this blog during 2011, and may your 2012 be free of cutpurses and cony-catchers.


At the end of last year, there was the usual rash of inaccurate “Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas” stories in the press. Some of them were linked to equally inaccurate stories about “Winterval“, comparing Birmingham City Council to Cromwell. Something which got picked up on in particular this year was the old canard about Cromwell banning mince pies. Here is the Daily Mail:

It is illegal to eat mince pies anywhere in England on Christmas Day. Oliver Cromwell considered pies a forbidden pagan pleasure and on December 22, 1657, his Puritan Council banned consumption of mince pies on Christmas Day.

And here is the Financial Times:

But while the Stiltons we tasted were legit, every single mince pie was illicit, criminal even. That’s because in 1644 Oliver Cromwell and his holy cronies banned the consumption of these confections on the grounds they smacked of Catholic idolatry. Apparently the law was never repealed, so pull the blinds before you break out the pies this Christmas.

And here is the Scotsman:

Fans of mince pies, though, should count their blessings that they don’t live south of the Border, as eating the sweet treats on Christmas Day is still banned in England under a law brought in by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century.

I would love to be proved wrong, but I think every aspect of this story is incorrect.

First of all, Cromwell alone was not responsible for legislation relating to Christmas: Parliament was. It’s true that the Long Parliament did forbid the celebration of Christmas as a feast day. This was first done in 1644, when the Westminster Assembly spotted that Christmas would coincide with one of Parliament’s regular fast days:

A Message was brought from the Assembly, by Doctor Burges, &c. humbly to present to their Lordships Consideration, “That Wednesday next, Christmas Day, being appointed for the keeping of the Fast by both Houses, they finding in the City of London some People inclined not to keep that Day so solemnly as it should be, and they fearing some Inconveniencies may ensue thereupon; therefore they humbly offer to the Wisdom of this House, whether it will not be needful, that a Declaration be drawn up, and agreed by both Houses, that it may be published the next Lordsday in the Churches within the Line of Communication, that that Day may be kept as it ought to be. Lords Journal, 19 December 1644.

As a result the Lords and Commons issued an ordinance reminding the population to keep the fast:

The Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled doe order and ordaine that publique notice be given that the Fast appointed to be kept on the last Wednesday in every moneth ought to be observed untill it be otherwise ordered by both Houses of Parliament: And that this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights.

In June 1647, this was underlined by the issue of another ordinance cracking down on the celebration of feast days in general:

Forasmuch as the Feasts of the Nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and other Festivals commonly called Holy-Dayes, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feast of the Nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival dayes, commonly called Holy-dayes, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holy-dayes within this Kingdome of England and Dominion of Wales, any Law, Statute, Custome, Constitution, or Cannon to the contrary in any wise notwithstanding.

On 24 December 1652, Barebone’s Parliament made much the same point:

Resolved, That the Markets be kept To-morrow, being the 25th Day of December: And that the Lord Mayor, and Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, and the Justices of Peace for the City of Westminster, and Liberties thereof, do take care, that all such Persons as shall open their Shops on that Day, be protected from Wrong or Violence, and the Offenders punished.

Resolved, That no Observation shall be had on the 25th Day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, nor any Solemnity used or exercised in Churches, upon that Day, in respect thereof.

Ordered, That the Lord Mayor in the City of London, and Sheriffs of London and Middlesex and the Justices of Peace of Middlesex, respectively, be authorized and required to see this Order duly observed within the late Lines of Communication, and weekly Bills of Mortality.

Ordered, That the Committee of Whitehall do see, that the Shops in Westminster-Hall be kept open To-morrow: And that Mr. Garland do take care hereof.

On Christmas Day in 1656, the second Protectorate Parliament had the first reading of a bill to abolish holy days, but which did not get any further:

A Bill for the abolishing, and taking away, of Festival Days, commonly called Holy Days, was this Day read the First Time; and, upon the Question, ordered to be read the Second time To-morrow Morning.

And then on 22 December 1657, the Council reminded the authorities in London of the existing legislation:

The festivals of Easter, Christmas, and other holy days having been taken away, the Lord Mayor and justices of London and Westminster are to see that the Ordinance for taking away festivals is observed, and to prevent the solemnities and to prevent the solemnities heretofore used in the celebration.

These various ordinances or proclamations of 1644, 1647, 1652 and 1657 seem to be what’s being referenced when the banning of mince pies comes up. But I can’t find any reference to mince pies in any of them, or even in any of the acts and ordinances passed during the 1640s and 1650s.

In any case, although it’s true that mince pies were associated with Christmas, they were probably eaten at other times of the year as well. Reference is made to them in contemporary literature without any connection to Christmas, as in Thomas Heywood’s How a man may choose a good wife from a bad (1602):

Gloria deo , sirs proface,
Attend me now whilst I say grace.
For bread and salt, for grapes and malt,
For flesh and fish, and euery dish:
Mutton and beefe, of all meates cheefe:
For Cow-heels, chitterlings, tripes and sowse,
And other meate thats in the house:
For racks, for brests, for legges, for loines,
For pies with raisons, and with proines:
For fritters, pancakes, and for frayes,
For venison pasties and minct pies.

And contemporary recipes give no impression, either, that they were meant to be reserved for Christmas. The manuscript recipe at the top of this post, found in amongst the state papers of Charles I kept by his secretary of state, Charles Conway, makes it seem simply like a good way of feeding one’s family:

For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent bignesse.

Take halfe a peck of the finest Flower, 2 li[bra]s of Suger, 2 li[bra]s of Butter, a Loyne of fatt Mutton, w[i]th a little of a Legg of Veale to mince w[i]th it, 2 li[bra]s of Reasons of the Sunn, as many Currons , of Cloves, Mace, and Nuttmeggs one ownce.

For the Paist mingle 1 pound and a halfe of Suger w[i]th the Flower and breake in the Yolkes of six Eggs, then worke it together w[i]th 3 parts of the two pounde of Butt[e]r. Set of a little water, and let it Seethe, then scym it and put in the 4th Parte of the Butt[e]r, and when it is melted, Scym it cleane from the Water, and work it w[i]th the Paist.

For the Meate. Let it be seasoned w[i]th Pepper, and mingled with halfe a pound of Suger, the other Frute and Spyce, the Raisons must be stoned, & some of them minced amongst the meate, the others put in hole, put in the Joyce of two Orringes and one Leamond, and the Ryne of them smale minced.

When the Pyes are filled slice Dates and stick in the top, and when you sett them into the oven Wassh them over w[i]th the yolkes of Eggs, and pynn them upp in Papers.

In 1662, for example, Samuel Pepys ate mince pies in celebration of a friend’s wedding anniversary rather than to celebrate Christmas:

6 January 1662. This morning I sent my lute to the Paynter’s, and there I staid with him all the morning to see him paint the neck of my lute in my picture, which I was not pleased with after it was done. Thence to dinner to Sir W. Pen’s, it being a solemn feast day with him, his wedding day, and we had, besides a good chine of beef and other good cheer, eighteen mince pies in a dish, the number of the years that he hath been married.

And even if Parliament had banned mince pies during the civil wars or the Commonwealth, the ban wouldn’t still be in existence. At the Restoration, the ordinances and acts passed during the 1640s and 1650s were overturned.

The story seems to be particularly enduring, though. So where did it originate? There are various references in eighteenth-century texts that link refusal to eat mince pies with Puritanism, most famously one by Samuel Johson in The Lives of the Poets (1781):

We have never been witnesses of animosities excited hy the use of mince pies and plumb porridge; nor seen with what abhorrence those who could eat them at: all other times of the year would shrink from them in December.  An old Puritan, who was alive in my childhood, being at one of the feasts of the church invited by a neighbour to partake his cheer, told him, that if he would treat him at an ale-house with beer, brewed for all times and seasons, he should accept his kindness, but would have none of his superstitious meats and drinks.

What first seems to have set the ball rolling is a 1782 History of Connecticut by Samuel Peters. This sets out a colourful, and probably completely apocryphal, account of ‘blue laws’ regulating behaviour in the colony. It includes this paragraph:

No one shall read Common Prayer, keep Christmas or Saint days, make minced pies, dance, play cards, or play on any instrument of music except the drum trumpet and jewsharp.

Peters was a Tory who had returned to England from Connecticut, and who as a loyalist had an interest in presenting Connecticut as backward and puritanical. Although he didn’t specifically mention  mince pies being banned in mid-seventeenth century England, I wonder if it had an influence on Washington Irving, who did make this claim in The sketch book of Geoffrey Crayon, gentn (1850):

Nearly two centuries had elapsed since the fiery persecution of poor mince pie throughout the land when plum porridge was denounced as mere popery and roast beef as anti christian and that Christmas had been brought in again triumphantly with the merry court of King Charles at the Restoration.

The earliest reference I can find to mince pies actually being made illegal, rather than just disapproved of, is in Thomas Garrard’s Edward Colston, the philanthropist, his life and times (1852). The first link to Cromwell I can find is this wonderful sentence in a book called The Festival, etc (1937) by Mary MacCarthy:

Oliver Cromwell, spoiler of everything for the children, did his best to put an end to the festival for ever. It was denounced as a heathen practice to eat a mince-pie in 1644.

The first point at which I can find the story in its modern form is in a 1957 copy of Punch. This claims all manner of penalties existed for eating not just mince pies, but Christmas pudding too. In turn, this story seems to have been reproduced in more or less identical terms in Country Life in 1990, and the New Yorker in 1991. It’s around this point that a phrase either Cromwell or legislation he enacted is said to have used about mince pies comes into circulation:

Abominable and idolatrous confection.

Various US and British books, and now dozens of websites, repeat this phrase but again I cannot find a source for it.

Even in the mid-seventeenth century, though, real concern about the mince pie may have been restricted to the fringes of society. The royalist poet John Taylor, never one to put accuracy above comedic impact, lampooned a certain type of godly zealot with reference to mince pies in his Christmas In and Out (1652):

There were lately some over-curious, hot zealous Brethren, who with a superbian predominance did doe what they could to keep Christmas day out of England; they did in divers places Preach Me for dead in Funerall Sermons, and labour’d tooth and nail to bury me alive in the grave of oblivion; they were of opinions, that from the 24. of December at night, till the 7. of January following, that Plumb-Pottage was meer Popery, that a Coller of Brawn was an obhomination, that Roast Beef was Antichristian, that Mince-Pies were Reliques of the Whore of Babylon, and a Goose, aTurkey, or a Capon, were marks of the Beast.

Whether this represents anything more than satire is hard to say, but the continuity of language between contemporary satires and the story in its current form is certainly striking.

Illustration courtesy of the National Archives, SP 14/189 f7: Conway papers, circa 1624. Title courtesy of Private Eye.

A Christmassy post

Happy Christmas to everyone who has dropped in on this blog – whether regular or occasional reader – in the last twelve months. It’s been great having such a clever and interesting bunch of people to share my obsession with the early modern period with. Have a great 2010!

My image is from a collection of Christmas carols printed at the end of the first year of the English civil war: Good and true, fresh and new Christmas carols (London, 1642). Printed by E.P. for Francis Coles at the Old Bailey.

A Christmassy post

This is the title page to The Vindication of Christmas, or His twelve yeares observations upon the times (London, 1652). It’s George Thomason’s copy, so despite the poor quality of the image you can see where he’s methodically crossed out the New Style 1653 and replaced it with an Old Style 1652.

In the woodcut you can see Father Christmas in the middle saying “O Sir I bring good cheere”. On the left, a soldier says, “Keep out, you come not here” whilst putting one hand to his sword. On the right, a countryman (with a basket on a stick) says, “Old Christmas welcome; Do not fear”. The sub-title explains more about the politicised content underlying the woodcut:

The Vindication of Christmas, or His twelve yeares observations upon the times, concerning the lamentable game called sweepstake; acted by general plunder, and major general tax; with his exhortation to the people; a description of that oppressing ringworm called excise; and the manner how our high and might Christmas ale that formerly would knock down Hercules, & trip up the heels of a giant, strook deep consumption with a blow from Westminster.

In the text, Father Christmas laments that “some over-curious hot zealous Brethren” tried to proclaim him to be dead by preaching funeral sermons. The zealots have gone on to assume and abuse their power, but Father Christmas comforts himself that many still believe in Christ and Christmas alike.

Father Christmas then tours London, where he meets wonderful Scrooge-like characters such as Sir Achitophel Pinchgut and M. Miser: plus a spendthrift son, Mr Pound-Foolish.

He then goes to Devonshire, to spend Christmas with some farmers. There he has dinner, roasts apples on the fire, plays cards, dances with “plow-boys” and “maidservants”, and sings the following carol:

Let’s dance and sing, and make good chear,
For Christmas comes but once a year:
Draw hogsheads dry, let flagons fly,
For now the bells shall ring;
Whilst we endeavor to make good
The title ‘gainst a King.

This is supposed to be sung to “the tune of hey”. There are a few songs this might be, but I think it might be “Hey boys up go we” (although I’m happy to be corrected by any ballad experts out there!).

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading this blog during the last twelve months. For more early modern Christmas posts check out: