December 2017: Christmas Revels & Masques

The Christmas Revels are an ancient tradition at the Middle Temple, dating back to the early centuries of the Inn's history, and live on - in slightly better-behaved form - today. These festivities brought much pleasure and merriment to Middle Templars gone by, but also drew censure - from within and without the Inn. The seventeenth-century popularity of 'masques' - courtly entertainment involving music, song and dance in elaborate costumes - was reflected at the Inn, where members often contributed to the expense of staging them to celebrate major occasions. This month we look at these two festive traditions and the archival record they have left behind.

Christmas Revels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were staged on a rather grander scale than the Inn's modern day equivalent, excellent fun though the latter may be: a contemporary record states that these Christmas pastimes spanned over three months, from All Saints' Eve to Candlemas Day. Much of what we know of the early days comes from external sources. Samuel Pepys records meeting a Madam Turner, who had 'been at the play to-day at the Temple, it being a revelling time with them', and earlier Henry Machyn describes 'grett revels as ever was for the gentyllmen of the Tempull evere day [with] playhyng and synghyng'. The diarist John Evelyn, a Middle Templar himself, took a rather dimmer view of events, describing how in January 1668 he 'went to see the revels at the Middle Temple, which is... an old riotous custom, and has relation neither to virtue nor policy'.

Engraving of John Evelyn (MT.19)

One early account survives of a joint revels of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn, in 1598. Benjamin Rudyerd writes that the ‘Linconians… invited the Templarians to theyr solemnities entertained them with variety of Musique and ended theyr friendly Revels with a sumptuous banquet’. These revels, lasting for days on end, saw a ‘Sir Martino’ (in fact Richard Martin, a future Bencher of the Middle Temple and Recorder of London, who had been briefly expelled from the Inn some years earlier due to such festive ‘misdemeanours and abuses’) set up as the ‘Prince of Love’. The festivities involved banquets, comedies, dancing, processions of heralds, disagreements and reconciliations between the two Inns, and the ‘sacrifice of love’. In 1998 Master Arlidge celebrated the quatercentenary of this event with a reconstruction of the revels in Hall, entitled ‘The Prince of Love’, which featured a range of characters including Richard Martin and Sir Walter Raleigh, and starred such legal luminaries as Master Arlidge as the Lord Admiral and Master Eleanor Sharpston as Benjamin Rudyerd himself.

Scenes from ‘The Prince of Love’, Middle Temple Hall, 1998 (MT.7/GDE/190)

Plays often featured as part of the entertainments at this time of year, as Madam Turner had reported to Pepys, and receipts in the archive name a number of these. One receipt dated 4th December 1657 records a payment of £5 for music and the performance of ‘The Countryman’, and in 1660 ‘Wit Without Money’ by John Fletcher was put on. It has been suggested that the performance of plays by musicians may have been a way of getting around Parliament’s banning of stage plays and actors in the 1640s.