How an attempt to cancel Christmas and a game of football led to an English revolution



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In 1647, the new puritan government tried to cancel Christmas.n 1647, the new puritan government tried to cancel Christmas.

People in Canterbury protested in a peculiarly English way with a destructive game of football.

The city’s Plum Pudding Riots led to a royalist revolt and the second round of the Civil War.

 

A second descent into hell

On 21 May 1648, 10,000 royalists gathered on moorland outside Maidstone in Kent.

They were just 35 miles or a day’s hard march from a largely undefended London.

A new phase of the English Civil War was about to begin.

The English Civil War is a misleading term for this turbulent period in the middle of the seventeenth century.

With fierce fighting in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the war was not confined to England.

It was neither a civil nor singular conflict. Instead, a series of savage, internecine campaigns marauded across the British Isles for over a decade.

Kent had escaped the worst of the slaughter and spoil. So why were its people inviting ruin by sparking a rebellion against Parliament?

There were, of course, a whole range of grievances.

But the revolt started with an attempt to cancel Christmas in Canterbury.

I saw some shops on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day

It was Christmas Day.

Not that you could tell by looking around. There were none of the garlands, wreaths and boughs that usually marked the season. The Lord Mayor of London had been insulted and jostled when he had ordered the holly and ivy pulled from that city’s conduits and passages. Canterbury’s citizens had been unenthusiastically compliant.

The Mayor looked around the market square and saw that only a dozen shopkeepers and stallholders had heeded his demand to open.

Jesus had turned the merchants from the temple. Now, his true believers wanted them to open for business. It was the only way to dispel the superstition that hung around this pagan day.

It was a shame that many in Canterbury didn’t see it that way. Many still clung to the old ways, to the liberty of carnal and sensual delights that was clearly a sinful indulgence.

There had been grumbles when May Day celebrations were cancelled. The young had missed the unruly and anarchic fun of Shrove Tuesday, although others welcomed the peace.

And it was fair to say that the new celebrations offered in the Directory of Worship had not been universally welcomed. The Puritans had offered a day of fasting on the last Wednesday of each month as a replacement for holy days. It was surly a godlier choice, but trying to promote penance over pancakes was not the quickest way to endear Parliament to the people.

Christmas had been a tougher tradition to tackle. And now, a growing swell of townsfolk braved the cold streets to demonstrate their displeasure at the opening of shops.

Faced with the hostile crowd, the Mayor’s party of civic notables and a guard of pikemen no longer seemed quite as reassuring as when they had set off.

Still, they had work to do.

A trickle of reports had reached Westminster from more rebellious parts. He had seen snippets warning of ‘sundry seditious sermons’ and ‘dangerous speeches that darkly implied threats against the Parliament and a course to be taken with the Roundheads about Christmas’.

So, Parliament had adopted a hardline approach and, as a result, he was now standing in the freezing cold in front of one of the largest crowds he’d ever seen in the city.

The Mayor’s party moved along the street, encouraging shopkeepers to open.

The crowd surged forwards, shouts growing louder and curses flying at the traders and the city officials.

The mayor kept his men back, leaving the stalls and shops to bear the brunt of the crowd’s anger. Goods started to fly over the heads, smashing on to the ground and scattering around.

The crowd had become a mob. People didn’t even bother to pick up valuable spices and textiles. They were trod into the muck, broken, ripped and ruined.

One of the merchants was standing near to his shuttered premises. The Mayor asked him to open up, threatening him with the stocks if he stayed closed.

The crowd surged forwards, shouting support for the shopkeeper and heading straight for the Mayor.

He tried to shout, to order the crowd to move back. As they pressed against him, he lashed out. He was immediately pushed violently to the ground.

He tried to get up, but was trodden down into the muck and dragged by his feet in the gutter. He gasped for air, suffocating in the press of legs. As he flailed about, his robes were ripped.

Somehow, he managed to get to his feet and find his voice. He ordered the crowd to disperse.

It seemed to work. The spell was broken. The crowd receded, rage replaced by dumb insolence. There was quiet again in the broken wreck of the market square.

He felt his back straighten, tilted his face upwards. He was the authority and he would be respected. His tattered, mud splattered robes fluttered in the wind. But he was the Mayor of Canterbury and he would be obeyed.

Just as his confidence was surging back, he saw something out of the corner of his eye.

No.

It couldn’t be.

His heart sank.

From out of a growing crowd, someone had produced two inflated pigs bladders.

It was time for a game of football.

The Plum Pudding Riots

And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day in 1647 in Canterbury, that the people rebelled in the most English way possible – with a game of football followed by a riot.

These were the days when football was unconstrained by pitches and rules. A game could wend its riotous way across a whole town. It usually involved most of the population, whether they wanted to take part of not.

Crowds charged around Canterbury shouting ‘Conquest’. The City’s aldermen were jeered and then, more seriously, chased, beaten and forced back into their houses.

The sporting action was interspersed with nods to a traditional Christmas. Holly bushes were set up in doorways and entertainment offered. The records are silent about what this entertainment was, but it was guaranteed to upset the Puritans.

Not that the crowd cared very much about what the Puritans thought. One of the more uncompromising ministers, Richard Culmer, was pelted with mud.

And that could have been the end of this unruly Canterbury Christmas. The sheriff, mayor and aldermen had been knocked about but suffered no lasting physical damage. Only their pride had been badly bruised.

But that wasn’t enough for the county’s Puritan and Parliamentary leaders.

They were determined to make an example of the ringleaders.

From riot to revolution

They sent their leader, Sir Anthony Welden, an aged and particularly officious Parliamentary commissioner to ‘punish merrymakers who had played football in Canterbury the previous Christmas’.

Sir Anthony had been in favour of dealing with them quickly and violently under martial law. He was overruled and so, in May 1648, he found himself in Maidstone for the Kent Assizes.

Before they could be tried, the rioters had to be indicted by the county’s grand jury. The authorities took no chances, carefully selecting a reliable panel. Even so, the grand jury refused to indict.

Once again, there were rowdy celebrations in the streets of Canterbury. This time, however, the protests developed into something far more worrying for parliament.

Within days, thousands signed a petition calling for king and parliament to reconcile.

Things started to look serious when one of the Queen’s favourites, the Earl of Norwich, landed to lead the rebellion. Sailors aboard Parliamentary ships around the Kent coast mutinied and took the towns of Deal, Walmer and Sandwich. Dover, the key to the kingdom, was besieged.

With Cromwell and the bulk of the New Model Army fighting in Wales, it was left to Thomas Fairfax to cobble together a force to put down the revolt. In the end, the angry farmers and tradesmen that made up the Kent rebels were no match for professional soldiers.

A sharp summer thunderstorm marked the end of the Battle of Maidstone. Rainwater ran down the narrow streets, washing away pools of blood and hopes of a royalist revival.

Sir Anthony was shocked by the rebellion, writing that:

“Never was the fair face of such a faithful county burned of a sudden to so much deformity and ugliness”.

He should have paid more attention to history. Kent was a crucible of rebellion, the home of Wat Tyler, Jack Cade and Thomas Wyatt.

A year later, parliament asserted its authority by executing King Charles. There was no repeat of Kentish rebellion. You can kill a king, it seems. Just don’t cancel Christmas.

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