Christmas in 1594

The law student of 1594 passed Christmas revelling to The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare. We know this because of the Gesta Grayorum which was printed in 1688 from a much older manuscript. This text has been conveniently reproduced with an introduction on the Mr. Shakespeare blog.

We can also look forward to a 3 volume set, part of the Records of Early English Drama series, to be published in January 2011 by Boydell & Brewer: Inns of Court, edited by Alan H. Nelson and John R. Elliott, Jr. According to the publisher’s blurb:

The Introduction provides a survey of Christmas entertainment supervised by Inns of Court Masters of the Revels and Christmas Princes, including minstrels, a lion-tamer, musicians, disguisings, plays, masques, and even a puppet-show. The illustrations (ground-plans and plates) offer evidence of the original performance conditions for Inns of Court plays and masques.

The appendices will reproduce a number of relevant documents.

A brief account of the Grand Christmases celebrated at the Inns of Court can be found in Anton-Hermann Chroust, in "The Beginning, Flourishing and Decline of the Inns of Court: The Consolidation of the English Legal Profession after 1400" (1956) 10 Vand. L. Rev. 79-123 (Hein), at 102-3:

The fact that the Inns of Court were also schools of manners should explain the original meaning and functions of those periodic entertainments "which are called revels," and which for a long time played an important role in the lives of the Inns. These pastimes apparently were encouraged by the Benchers who believed that such activities would greatly improve the literary tastes and the social manners of the students.²⁸ Revels and masques were usually held at Christmas time or some other feast day, and the King as well as the Queen attended them regularly.²⁹ Some of these revels were given to celebrate [103] an important social or political event, and occasionally a renowned artist or poet lent his genius to these entertainments. Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors was first played at Gray’s Inn in 1594, and his Twelfth Night was acted at the Middle Temple in 1602. These revels, like the Grand Christmas, were meant to be a mimic Court to teach proper manners or courtly demeanor to the nobility and gentry. They were a very serious business, and the holding of the various offices attached to these festivities³⁰ was an important step to being ultimately chosen Reader or a Master of the Bench. During the austere rule of the Commonwealth these entertainments were discontinued, and, although they saw a resurrection during the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution finally put an end to them. The last record of Middle Temple as regards Grand Christmas and revels is an order of November 26, 1669: "No Grand Christmas shall be kept nor gaming suffered in the Hall."
28. Francis Bacon, however, seems to have had some rather serious doubts as to the educational value of the revels.
29. The revels were presided over by a mock King or mock Prince, who at Gray’s Inn was called "Prince of Purpoole" (named after the manor of Portpoole or Purpoole, close to the village of Holborn), at the Middle Temple "Prince d’Amour," at the Inner Temple "Prince of Sophie," and at Lincoln’s Inn "Prince de la Grange."
30. These offices were the Steward for Christmas, Marshal, Butler, Constable of the Tower, and Master of the Revels.


  1. This is fascinating, John, thanks. Slawians may know that the Records of Early English Drama project is located at the University of Toronto (at Victoria College) and managed by faculty there. It is a unique resource for its purpose – drama in English before the closing of the theatres by the Puritans in 1642. Scholars from around the world collaborate with it.

    One can see from this posting that the ‘records’ involved go well beyond fixed-site dedicated theatres, of which there were not many in those days. So travelling groups of players (as in Hamlet) and religious dramas are part of their mandate.

    REED also works closely with the Poculi Ludique Societas, a world pacesetter in the performance of drama of this period, also located at the U of Toronto.

    There is surely a graduate thesis or two to be done on the role of lawyers in early English drama, or the representation of lawyers in same.