Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A riotous Christmas at Canterbury, 1647

The anonymous pamphlet titled The declaration of many thousands of the city of Canterbury, or county of Kent. Concerning the late tumult in the city of Canterbury

(1647) tells a sad tale of oppression by the puritan mayor, whose miserable opposition to Christmas celebrations leads him to ban as ‘superstitious’ even a Christmas day sermon the good people of his town gathered to hear. These modestly festive folk were then attacked by his men.

As you read the account in the brief pamphlet, hints of the real circumstances appear amid the general ‘what is the world coming to?’ note of pious indignation:

“The cause of this so sudden a posture of defence (sic) which we have put ourselves into, was the violent proceedings of the Mayor of this City of Canterbury and his uncivill carriage in pursuance of some petty order of the House of Commons for hindring the celebration of Christs Nativity so long continued in the Church of God. That which we so much desired that day was but a Sermon, which any other day of the week was tolerable by the orders & practice of the two Houses and all their adherents, but that day (because it was Christs birth day) we must have none; that which is good all the year long, yet is this day superstitious. The Mayor causing some of us to be beaten contrary to his oath and office, who ought to preserve the peace, and to that purpose chiefly is the sword of justice put into his hands, and wrongfully imprisoned divers of us, because we did assemble our selves to hear the word of God, which he was pleased to interpret a Ryot, yet we were unarmed, behaved ourselves civilly, intending no such tumult as afterwards we were forc’d into: but at last seeing the manifest wrong done to our children, servants, and neighbours, by beating, wounding, and imprisoning them, we were moved to vindicate the wrong done them, and to release them that were imprisoned, and did call unto our assistance our brethren of the County of Kent, who very readily came in to us, and have associated themselves to us in this our just and lawfull defence, and do concurre with us in this our Remonstrance concerning the Kings majestie, and the settlement of Peace in this Kingdome.”

Dress it up as he may, the writer cannot quite conceal that a demonstration, a pointed political act, had been intended. Could those ‘brethren’ of the County of Kent have assembled quite so quickly when called to come to the assistance of the royalist townsfolk? Who exactly was to give this edifying sermon all had come to hear? - the writer rather suspiciously does not say. When the mayor sent whatever forces he had against the assembled people, we are told that they provoked the riot by beating just the children, servants, and neighbours of these civilly behaved citizens, who were of course “intending no such tumult as afterwards we were forc’d into” (‘forc’d’ is nicely judged here). These same citizens had by January 5th published in London a direct repudiation of the commonwealth, demand for the King’s release from Carisbrooke, and general diatribe against the injustices of the supposedly ‘reformed’ Commonwealth.

Perhaps the mayor did panic and overreact: that so commonly happens in such circumstances. But it seems quite likely he had a good understanding of what was going to happen if the Christmas day sermon had gone ahead, and it might even have been worse. What a way to spend your Christmas!

The declaration of many thousands of the city of Canterbury, or county of Kent. Concerning the late tumult in the city of Canterbury, provokt by the Mayors violent proceedings against those who desired to continue the celebration of the Feast of Christs Nativity, 1500 yeers and upwards maintained in the Church. Together with their resolutions for the restitution of His Majestie to his Crown and dignity, whereby religion may be restored to its ancient splendour, and the known laws of this Kingdom maintained. As also, their desires to all His Majesties loyall subjects within his Dominions, for their concurrence and assistance in this so good and pious work 1647

My image is a map of Canterbury from William Somner’s The most accurate history of the ancient city, and famous cathedral of Canterbury 1641. Object ‘S’, just outside the gate into the cathedral close, is the stake for bear-baiting.

1 comment:

Richard Dadd said...

It's such an interesting series of events, the Canterbury Christmas riots.

Also, what a lovely map od Canterbury. Fascinating to see the subtle differences in the city's streets.

By sheer coincidence, the day you published this post was the exact same day that I broadcast a 5-minute docu-dramatisation of the Christmas riots on BBC Radio Kent.

Please do have a listen here:

Hope you don't mind a bit of comedic artistic licence! :)