The Christmas Riots

20 Dec|Ronald Hutton

When the Puritans banned Christmas, rioting was the result

Under the reign of Oliver Cromwell, which began in 1645, Parliament banned the old-fashioned holiday and feast of Christmas. This led to violent protests from the people, as this excerpt from The Rise and Fall of Merry England by Ronald Hutton shows

THE GREATEST RALLYING-POINT for disaffection [with Cromwell’s regime] was Christmas. In the first post-war December, of 1646, a group of apprentices ensured that all shops stayed closed on the day in Bury St Edmunds. When constables tried to disperse them, there was a fight. A year later, when popular disgust with the regime had increased, there was a much more widespread disobedience. The lads of Bury were out again, armed with clubs stuck through with nails. The local JPs managed to provide a guard to keep one shop open, but succeeded only after a brawl. Parliament ordered that the militia of London, Westminster and Southwark be raised to prevent similar “affronts, abuses and prejudices” there. It faced an “affront” on its very doorstep, at St Margaret’s, where the wardens decked the church with winter greens and a clergyman, one Bernard, prepared to preach on the Incarnation. The Commons had all three arrested and imprisoned. Over in the City some people had decorated the conduits with holly and ivy, and the Lord Mayor was running around “very zealous” to pull it down and receiving “divers affronts” in the process. A few ministers tried to preach, and most were stopped by “some from Parliament”. There were even fewer shops open than in the previous three years.

In other parts of the country “the church doors were kept with swords and other weapons defensive and offensive while the minister was in the pulpit”. At Norwich the day was preceded by a war of words between preachers petitioning the mayor for “a more speedy and thorough reformation” and apprentices clamouring for festivities. He seems to have kept aloof from both. At Ipswich the defenders of Christmas held a “great mutiny”, and one of them was killed attempting to rescue their leaders from the watch. But the most celebrated disturbances were at Canterbury, where a crowd “threw up and down” the wares of twelve shopkeepers who obeyed the mayor’s direction to open for business. It then swelled in number and took over the streets, some setting up holly bushes at their door and giving free drinks. Others pelted a presbyterian minister and opened the city gaol. These successes led to a royalist revolt, and the seizure of the local magazine, that weekend. All these episodes were manifestations of that upswelling of resentment which led to the rebellions forming part of the Second Civil War in the following summer. The crushing of them resulted in a much quieter Christmas in 1648, the main disturbance being at London where some actors were imprisoned as soon as they tried to perform.

Parliament’s reaction to these displays of feeling was generally to send in soldiers…

The hostility of the London apprentices to shops opened at Christmas was shared by those of Bristol, where in 1654 the corporation ordered them to work on the day of the feast and not to terrorize shopkeepers who obeyed the law and attempted to do business. In 1652 diarist John Taylor suggested that if the jollity of the Twelve Days was under attack in the capital it was still the rule in Devon and Cornwall, where country people played cards, sang carols, “went nimble dancing”, consumed roast apples in ale, and enjoyed “Hotcockles, Shoeing the Wild Mare and the like harmless sports”.


Thank you to Professor Ronald Hutton for kindly giving us permission to publish this excerpt from his masterly book, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (OUP)