Christmas at Gray's Inn in the late Elizabethan period

Murder by Misrule, the first book in my Francis Bacon mystery series, is set at Gray’s Inn just before Christmas in 1586. The grand finale, when the murderer is revealed, takes place at the Christmas Eve feast in the Queen’s Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, before the queen and her court. For them, in fact, Bacon’s unmasking of the villain is part of the festivities.

The setting

Gray’s Inn griffin

Most of my characters are lawyers or students in residence at Gray’s Inn. In the Elizabethan period, Gray’s was the largest and most prestigious of the four Inns of Court, the legal societies where barristers and judges lived when the courts were in session and young men came to learn the law. The other three are the Inner Temple, the Middle Temple, and Lincoln’s Inn.

In 1586, Gray’s Inn had some 350 members. Only about 200 resided at the Inn year-round; chambers were at a premium during this booming era. Everyone who was anyone wanted his son to spend at least a few years at an Inn of Court. Sir Walter Ralegh was a member of the Middle Temple. Lord Burghley, the Lord Treasurer, was a member of Gray’s, as was the 3rd Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. (These men did not spend time huddled in gloomy chambers poring over Littleton’s Tenures, but they did show up for the fun during the Christmas season.)

Christmas was a time of great revelry at the Inns of Court, with gambling, dancing, masques and plays, written and performed by the lawyers as well as by professional actors. Courtiers and their ladies might attend these events, and sometimes the gentlemen of the Inns were invited to present entertainments at court.

The legal term ended in early December; on Saturday, the 3rd in 1586. Most barristers packed up their bags and rode home for the holidays. Inner barristers, however, were obliged to remain in residence. These were mix of prospective lawyers and young gentlemen, who had come to learn the manners and customs of the English ruling class. The Christmas festivities were part of that training. Yes, you read that correctly: drinking and gambling formed part of the official curriculum. In fact, you could be fined for insisting on going home to your family.

Let the revels begin!

Gray’s Inn hall

The Christmas fortnight was observed as ‘grand weeks.’ Beginning on Christmas Eve, the period of constant entertainment ran through Twelfth Night, January 6th. The treasure chest was opened to hire musicians and actors. The two upper butlers were allowed to keep gaming tables for their profit. I’ll bet they made a pretty penny.

You have to imagine the grand hall shown here in glorious Technicolor. That oak paneling has been polished to a fine gleam. Dinner was at noon, with revels beginning soon after, but evening comes early in England — the sun sets at about 16:00 GMT. Then the hall is filled with candles — expensive, fragrant beeswax during this special season. Warm candlelight reflects from the glossy oak and illuminates the stained glass in the high windows. Each panel holds the coat of arms of a notable member, like Francis Bacon’s father Sir Nicholas, the late Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Tables are scattered about the hall on gaming nights. Masques and plays are performed on the dais at the top of the hall, with musicians in the gallery over the screen that sheltered the front entrance. We’re standing just inside the screen in the illustration above.

On nights without visitors, the gentlemen of the Inn would dance with one another after the tables were removed. A large brazier in the center of the hall provided both heat and something to dance around. The Cinque Pas (five steps), the Galliard, the Pavan: dancing was an essential skill for gentlemen, especially the young. It was a social form of martial arts training, demanding many of the same skills: grace, balance, stamina, agility, and rhythm.

Out in the villages and humbler precincts of London, mummers roamed the streets at Christmastide. On Christmas eve and morning, carolers would come out to sing. The Inns of Court were fairly isolated outside the western fringe of London, but I’ll bet the young men of the Inns caroled one another.

Our lawyers, young and old, attended their chapel first thing every morning. I don’t find any mentions of extra church attendance for Christmas. Puritans, of course, shuttered their windows and barred their doors. They loathed Christmas as a pagan ritual and disdained to participate in any of popish nonsense like mumming or caroling or trying to divine who you would marry. There were plenty of Calvinists at Gray’s Inn, but they undoubtedly went home when the courts adjourned. Bacon’s mother was a very strict Calvinist. I’ll bet he welcomed the excuse of court attendance to stay at Gray’s and join in the fun.

The clothes

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

The grand hall would be plainly decorated, apart from green wreaths of holly, ivy, and yew with red berries and ribbons. The principal decorations on a festive night would be the wide silk dresses of the ladies and the silk melon hose (puffy pants) of the men. Both sexes wore hats with feathers and absolutely dripped with jewelry. The lawyers, of course, wore their black legal gowns, but left them open at the front to let their own bright costumes shine through.

Here’s the Earl of Essex, Bacon’s patron in the 1590s. He would certainly have come for gaming and plays. So would his sister Penelope, Lady Rich. Her skirts would get wider as the years went by, until she occupied better than a yard in diameter. I can’t imagine very many ladies fitting into that hall in such costumes, but what barrister in his right mind would complain?

Penelope, Lady Rich, by Nicholas Hilliard





The food

Christmastide also meant endless feasts, with plenty for all. They ate better at the Inns of Court than at the universities, but they undoubtedly still relied upon cheap, yet wholesome, dishes like pottage and mutton during the regular term.

Not at Christmas, however, especially not with the Lord Treasurer sharing the top table!  Brawn (roast pork) with mustard was a great favorite, along with roast beef or perhaps even venison sent from home. Mince pies, frumenty, plum porridge, and Christmas pie would grace the tables as well.

Many barrels of drink would be consumed: wine, beer, and ale. Wine could be red or white and would have been pressed within the past year. They couldn’t preserve it for long. The Elizabethans liked their wine spiced and watered, with a dose of sugar.

In fact, they liked everything well-spiced. We would probably find their feasts overly seasoned and terribly rich. They did eat vegetables, although there wouldn’t be much available in this season. They might have leeks and cabbages. Carrots were a novelty; they might have those to show how au courant and gastronomically sophisticated they were. They would eat them with spoons, because forks were still only an Italian affectation.

The play’s the thing

The first known performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night took place at the Middle Temple in 1602. The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray’s Inn in 1594. He must have been there; no ambitious young man would miss a chance to make a good impression at an Inn of Court. And Francis Bacon must have been there too.

Gentleman portraying a fanciful knight

Furthermore, they must have met and spoken to one another, because Bacon usually helped write the masques performed during the Christmas season. Masques were the elaborately costumed presentations of some allegory designed to flatter — and in Bacon’s case — gently instruct a monarch or other important patron. Dumb shows were also often devised to precede a play; Bacon might have had a hand in those occasionally as well. They preferred to coordinate these various forms thematically. So two of the most brilliant — no, the two most brilliant writers of this period probably worked together, at least a little bit, for that Christmas entertainment in 1594.

Lords of Misrule

Electing a Lord of Misrule (aka Abbot of Unreason) was another tradition carried forward from Roman times and almost at its end. Residential societies like university colleges and the Inns of Court would elect a Lord and his council, giving them absurdly pompous titles. At Gray’s, they chose a Prince of Purpoole from among the inner barristers. He and his entourage would travel to the Inner Temple (about a quarter of mile) in a grand retinue with pennants and drummers on an ambassadorial mission loaded with silly ceremonials. If you’re longing to read some of their nonsense, scroll down to the bottom of this post

What about the presents?

We don’t exchange gifts at Christmas in this period. We do that at New Year’s. Wise courtiers offered presents to the queen, such as a bag of silver coins (polished, one supposes) or any sort of jewelry. In 1601, Francis Bacon gave Elizabeth a white satin petticoat, richly embroidered “with feathers and billets, snakes and fruitages.” This was nothing whatsoever like giving lingerie to your boss! The queen’s wardrobe was part of the state treasury. That petticoat must have cost Bacon several pounds. I imagine his mother and aunts advised him on its purchase.

According to the Elizabethan Compendium, ordinary people might give each other oranges, marzipan, or wine — all luxuries from Spain. Gentlemen and their wives would send each other dainties from their estates, like a peacock or a brace of coneys. I think Bacon would have exchanged books with close friends on this annual occasion, perhaps from their own libraries. My character Tom would have given every woman who was ever nice to him, especially the whores and laundresses, a pretty silk ribbon.


Dare the gods: Marlowe's Tamburlaine

avery brooks
Avery Brooks as Tamburlaine at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. in 2007

Somehow in between studying for his master’s of arts degree and travelling abroad as a secret intelligencer, Christopher Marlowe found the time to turn centuries of European drama on its head. He wrote Tamburlaine the Great sometime during 1587, probably before he left Cambridge. It was first performed on the London stage in November, 1587. (The Wikipedia page gets this wrong.) We know the date because a fellow named Phillip Gaudy wrote about the performance in his diary. He considered it noteworthy because a child and a pregnant woman were killed and another man injured. The guns fired during the play were loaded with live shot, as was customary in the day. (And to think I got upset when they lit an actual fire on the stage in Stratford for a production of Much Ado about Nothing. “Fire codes, fire codes!” I cried to myself. But they have so much water in England, maybe they just don’t worry about fire the way we do in Texas.)

(Photo from NPR, copied 05/04/2015. Oh, how I wish I could have seen that production!)

Marlowe’s impact

A. L. Rowse described the poet thus: “Marlowe was a bookish, intellectual dramatist whose mind was fired by ideas rather than by his immediate contacts with life or by any close observation of his fellow human beings.” He was the opposite of Shakespeare, in other words. We don’t imagine Kit wandering past a blacksmith shop and leaning in the doorway to ask appreciative questions. We do see him burning the midnight oil in his squalid chambers at Corpus Christi College, poring over Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (World Map; the first true atlas.)

The Wikipedia article about Tamburlaine says, “The influence of Tamburlaine on the drama of the 1590s cannot be overstated. The play exemplified, and in some cases created, many of the typical features of high Elizabethan drama: grandiloquent and often beautiful imagery, hyperbolic expression, and strong characters consumed by overwhelming passions.”

Marlowe might not have cared a fig about the common man — much less the common woman — but he was the first English dramatist to create real individuals rather than embodiments of abstract types. Tamburlaine is Timur the Great, an historical figure, not the personification of Greed or Ambition. He grew up seeing medieval mystery plays still being performed in the streets of Canterbury, but as Rowse notes, he was interested in power, ambition, men who reached beyond the limits of their birth. Hm; Kit was the son of a shoemaker who became a Master of Arts and then blew the roofs off the theaters in London. (That’s a joke, darlin’s; theaters had no roofs.)

The play’s the thing

You can get Marlowe’s works in any e-format you like for free at the Gutenberg Project. His plays are mostly horribly boring, with occasional flashes of breathtaking poetry and insight. He coined the phrase ‘aspiring minds’ which so aptly describes the temper of the late Elizabethan period — the age of outsized dreams. The full quote is in this previous post.

Tamburlaine is about the rise of a mighty conqueror. He began as a lowly shepherd on the hills of Anatolia and went forth, driven by his vast ambition, to conquer the world; all the world you could reach on horseback, anyway. There’s plenty of blood and gore, betrayals, pleadings of women, but of course, all verbal. They didn’t do sets in those days or have much in the way of props. They had glorious costumes and actors who could pitch their voices to the uppermost galleries, even over the rumbling commentary from the groundlings standing right at their feet.

Scenes were set with words, and remember that Elizabethans loved new words and exotic imagery. Tamburlaine is studded with the names of legendary places: Scythia, Zanzibar, Persepolis. Characters are connected to the ancient gods: Phoebus, Jupiter, Saturn.

Here’s “contributory king” Techelles describing his lord:

     “As princely lions, when they rouse themselves,
     Stretching their paws, and threatening herds of beasts,
     So in his armour looketh Tamburlaine.
     Methinks I see kings kneeling at his feet,
     And he with frowning brows and fiery looks
     Spurning their crowns from off their captive heads.”

And nobody writes menace like Christopher Marlowe. Here’s Tamburlaine pointing his sword at a bunch of quivering virgins:

     “Your fearful minds are thick and misty, then,

     For there sits Death, there sits imperious Death,

     Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge.”

I love to think of Kit writing this glorious stuff while sitting at his worn desk in his shabby academic garb, ignoring his chamber mates and his tutors alike. This was a man who lived in his head.

Performance history

Oddly, no movie has ever been made of this vivid, exciting play. The excuse seems to be that it would require a big cast and lots of expensive sets and that it’s hard to find an actor who could play so grand a character as Tamburlaine. To which I say, “Phooey!” What’s wrong with Avery Brooks? (I adore Professor Brooks, who played my favorite Star Trek captain, Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko of Deep Space Nine: the Sub-plot Laboratory.) As for the cast of thousands and the elaborate sets, have we already forgotten Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor?

Part of the reason the play was so successful in its own time — a big part — was that the title role was performed by the incomparable Edward Alleyn of the Admiral’s Men. In this portrait, he looks like an ordinary pious gentleman, but he was the Avery Brooks of his time. Tamburlaine was HUGE — it rocked the whole theater-going world back on its heels. Marlowe’s reputation rocketed into the stars; not bad for a 20-year-old shoemaker’s son.

It was so popular, he wrote a sequel. (Was this the first box-office-driven sequel in dramatic history?) Tamburlaine the Great, Part 2, has the oft-quoted line, “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!” This is the play in which Tamburlaine harnesses the captured kings to his chariot and forces them to pull him through the streets.

Part 2 came out in 1588, followed by The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, and The Massacre at Paris. Doctor Faustus is worth reading, or you could watch the very 60’s movie with Richard Burton. I’ve mentioned the excellent RSC production of Edward II with Ian McKellan, findable at Netflix. That’ll probably do you for Marlowe.

I’ll end with one more nice long quote from Tamburlaine:

What is beauty, saith my sufferings, then?

            If all the pens that ever poets held

            Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,

            And every sweetness that inspired their hearts,

            Their minds and muses on admirèd themes;

            If all the heavenly quintessence they still

            From their immortal flowers of poesy,

            Wherein as in a mirror we perceive

            The highest reaches of a human wit;

            If these had made one poem’s period,

            And all combined in beauty’s worthiness,

            Yet should there hover in their restless heads,

            One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least,

            Which into words no virtue can digest.”



Jones, Emrys. 2008. “‘A World of Ground’: Terrestrial space in Marlowe’s ‘Tamburlaine’ plays,” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1/2, Tudor Literature (2008), pp. 168-182.

Rowse, A.L. 1966. Christopher Marlowe: His Life and Work. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.