From swords to muskets, buff coats to pistols: in preparation for the museum’s ‘Christmas is Cancelled’ event we take a look at some of the most significant objects from the British Civil Wars in the Royal Armouries collection and unearth why festivities were outlawed between 1647-1660.
Christmas is Cancelled
Some of us grumble every year about the increasing commercialisation of Christmas, but would you seriously suggest closing the shops altogether?
360 years ago, in the middle of the British Civil Wars, Christmas insurgents did exactly that.
In 1647, King Charles I was a prisoner and the war was apparently over. The Puritans who now dominated parliament had long lobbied for a curb to what they saw as the excesses of Christmas. The festival, they said, appeared nowhere in scripture. It was idolatrous, positively pagan, and encouraged sin. So in the summer of that year, Parliament banned it.
Come midwinter, the ban met opposition. In East Anglia, London and Kent, apprentices gathered to decorate the streets, sing and dance. They played football and forced shops to shut out of respect for the holiness of the season. They were put down by government troops. The riots escalated and in the spring civil war broke out again.
The Puritans won in the short term. King Charles was executed and his royalist supporters were defeated. Christmas was officially suppressed. But when the monarchy was restored in 1660 ‘old Christmas Day’ was reinstated and the Christmas season was allowed to be freely celebrated. And it has been celebrated – and commercialised – ever since.
Objects from the Time
The Royal Armouries houses the Littlecote Collection, the most important surviving armoury of the British Civil Wars. Many private armouries furnished with relics of the Civil Wars existed in Britain, but one-by-one they were dispersed until the only major example left intact was the Popham armoury at Littlecote House. Here we take a look at some of the most significant objects from this period of political and religious turmoil.
1. Mortuary Sword, reputed to have belonged to Oliver Cromwell
This Mortuary Sword is reputed to have been used by Oliver Cromwell during the siege of Drogheda in 1649, in which he led the storming party to the final assault. There are two marks on one side of the blade that were thought to have been made by musket balls, although this is now considered unlikely. The hilt has been lacquered in a technique known as ‘Japanning’, which was developed in Europe in imitation of Asian lacquer-work. In the 17th-century, European Oriental artwork was becoming very fashionable. The Mortuary Sword is not currently on display but is in the Royal Armouries Study Collection and available to view by appointment.
2. The Buff Coat of John Gell
This impressive Buff Coat was worn by Sir John Gell, 1st Baronet (1593-1671). Gell was a parliamentary Colonel and raised a regiment of foot soldiers in service of Parliament in October 1642. Buff coats were worn by some cavalrymen both on their own as an alternative to plate armour, or beneath a back and breastplate. Though they would have offered good protection against edged weapons, they were unlikely to have stopped a pistol or musket ball at close range. The Buff Coat can be seen displayed in the War Gallery at the museum in Leeds.
3. Portrait of Colonel Alexander Popham
Colonel Alexander Popham (1605-1669) was a notable English Politician who served on the Council of State during the Commonwealth. Popham was born at Littlecote House in Wiltshire, the armoury at Littlecote is the most important surviving armoury of the British Civil Wars and was acquired by the Royal Armouries in the 1980s.
4. English/Italian Rapier
This rapier dates from the second quarter of the 17th-century and is currently on display in the Royal Armouries War Gallery. The hilt of the rapier is English and the blade is Italian, it is a very fine example and would have been carried by someone of rank. The heads on the hilt are traditionally thought to represent Charles I and Henrietta Maria, yet there is no firm evidence that this is actually the case. Rapiers such as this were swords of fashion, and it’s debatable how effective a sword like this would have been on the battlefield.
5. Pair of Flintlock Pistols by Robert Murdon
These impressive flintlock pistols date from 1645 and form part of the Littlecote Collection. Their maker, Robert Murdon, was based in London and first appears in the documentary sources in 1645 as supplying pistols to Parliament’s New Model Army, in 1658 Murdon was made gunmaker to Oliver Cromwell. Cavalry of the period were frequently armed with a pair of pistols which were held in holsters slung either side of the saddle. They were not particularly accurate, and military writers of the period recommended they should only be fired as close to the enemy as possible – possibly even with the end of the barrel touching the opponent.
The museum’s ‘Christmas is Cancelled’ event takes place from the 27-30 December.