In the festive episode of Loughborough University’s School of Poetry Podcast, I was invited to chat about festive verse with presenter Dr Oliver Tearle and Dr Barbara Cooke. For the ‘So bad it’s good’ segment, I picked a history in verse written during the English Civil Wars era. The poem is not primarily about Christmas but does contain some interesting stanzas on the topic.
It was written by Marchmont Needham (1620-1678), a journalist and a pioneer of newspapers. He later changed occupations to become a physician (as you do!). His news sheets reflected his politics at any given time, and they tended to change when the political winds changed, so from the time of the outbreaks of the wars in 1642 he published a periodical called Mercurius Britannicus which was on the side of parliament. Later he changed his mind and got a pardon from the king and changed his paper to Mercurius Pragmaticus which mocked the Presbyterians and advocated for the King. This change wasn’t to last though and by 1649 he was publishing Mercurius Politicus which ran right through until April 1660, when it was banned by those negotiating with Charles II to return to England as monarch.
As the 1812 the General Dictionary of Biography dryly noted, ‘A man whose political opinions are of so pliable a nature is rarely at a loss’ and once again managed to obtain a royal pardon and came home to London where he lived until his death in 1678. He, therefore, had the distinction of having received pardons from both Charles I and Charles II.
Because Needham wanted to keep in with the restored monarch, he reprinted some of his pro-Royalist works from the 1640s in the 1660s, including A Short History of the English Rebellion compiled in verse by Marchamont Nedham. This 37 page poem satirises the Presbyterians and their religious practises.
The poem begins:
When as we liv’d in peace (GOD wot)
A King would not content us;
But we, forsooth, must hire the Scot,
To all-be-Parliament us.
[nifty rhyming of ‘content us’ with ‘all-be Parliament-us’ there Marchmont!]
The King dethron’d! the Subjects bleed!
The Church hath no abode;
Let us conclude they’re all agreed,
That sure there is no GOD.
Our States men (though no Lunaticks,
No Wizards, nor Buffons)
Have shewn a hundred Changeling-Tricks,
In less than three New Moons.
[Any correlations between the politicians of the 1640s and now, I’ll leave the reader to infer, but Wizards or Buffoons is highly tempting …]
The Devils foot is cleft (men speak)
And so (GOD knows) are they:
The Factions rule by fits, then take
Their turnes, and run away.
They vote, vnvote, and vote with noise
What they cry’d down before,
As ready as if LONDON-Boys
Were knocking at the dore.
[no comment needed!]
The hypocrisy of those in power is referred to in the following stanzas:
The Houses may a Christmas keep,
The Countrymen a Lent,
The Citizens (like silly sheep)
Must fast, and be content.
All Plums the Prophets Sons desie,
And Spice-broths are too hot;
Treason’s in a December-Pye,
And Death within the Pot.
Christmas, farewel; thy day (I fear)
And merry-days are done:
So they may keep Feasts all the year,
Our Saviour shall have none.
This refers to an Ordinance passed by Parliament in 1644 which banned the celebration of Christmas as a special day and encouraged shops to open as normal – obviously just because it was issued by the parliament there isn’t much suggestion many obeyed it. Often popular myth extrapolates from this that Oliver Cromwell personally banned mince pies, the treasonous December pyes Needham mentions, but this myth is exploded in this article on the Earls of Manchester site. But the poem is suggesting that citizens which is the merchant classes were obliged to fast and prey while those making the laws carried on keeping their Christmas. The ‘pot’ is plum pottage which is made from breadcrumbs and fruit and is the precursor to our Christmas pudding.
If you’d like to have a go at making some mince pies to a 17th century recipe have a look at Dr Jennifer Evans and I making some at the 1620s house in Leicester in the film below.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, Sara