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Christmas during the English Civil Wars

13th Dec, 2021

The English Civil Wars (1642-51) between Parliamentarians and Royalists is considered to be one of the deadliest conflicts in British history. As the Royalist capital, Oxford was at the centre of it. The war also had an impact on one of the biggest celebrations of the year: Christmas.

The English Civil Wars

In the middle of the 17th century England was divided by a struggle for control between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. It was sparked by the difficult relationship between the Parliament and the King, differences in religion and economic policy. The loss of life was huge, estimated at around 4.5% of the population.

Portrait of Charles I on a horse
Equestrian Portrait of Charles I, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1637–38, The National Gallery via Wiki Commons

Oxford was the Royalist capital and prisoners of war were imprisoned in Oxford Castle.

In 1649, the Parliamentarians were in control and committed one of the most shocking moments in British history. Their army was made up of professional soldiers instead of aristocrats. This included Oliver Cromwell, who rose to power from his role as a military commander. A number of victories in battle had led to the King leaving Oxford to surrender to enemy forces. He had been imprisoned for years, yet people across the country were still loyal to him and fighting. To stop this, the Parliamentarians put the King on trial. He was sentenced to death and beheaded. His ghost is rumoured to haunt Oxford, sometimes without his head.

The fighting continued. In 1649 the Rump Parliament was formed, though it could not decide on a constitution on how to govern the country. Cromwell, with the army’s support, dissolved it and replaced it with a National Assembly. After years of in-fighting and no progress, this was also dissolved by Cromwell.

Cromwell declared himself Lord Protector and introduced a written constitution. The Protectorate government was in power until Cromwell’s death in 1658. He named his son as his heir, though he could not control the army or Parliament. He was removed from power.

In 1660 the monarchy was restored with King Charles II on the throne.

Portrait of Charles II
Charles II, portrait by John Michael Wright, unknown date, Dulwich Picture Gallery via Wiki Commons

Christmas during the English Civil Wars

In the medieval era, Christmas was a huge celebration for many. It was twelve days where people decorated their homes, exchanged gifts and enjoyed delicious food. However, the English Civil Wars divided people of every social class. Both armies demanded money to keep fighting. Few people would have been able to afford their usual festivities during these years. 

Once the Parliamentarians were in control there was even less of a chance for celebrations: they were outlawed. The decision was inspired by strict Puritan values that believed people used the celebrations as an excuse for sinful behaviour. The New Model Army were ordered to stop any celebrations. Traditional decorations like holly and ivy were banned and singing carols was outlawed.

This did not completely stop Christmas celebrations because many were unwilling to abandon their traditions. People protested and rioted on Christmas Day against the Parliament’s decision. Private, subdued celebrations were common.

Christmas after the Restoration

In 1660, Parliament declared that Charles II was the rightful successor to the throne. The monarchy was restored and the new King removed the ban on Christmas celebrations. People were allowed to celebrate once again. Their celebrations often included visiting friends and family, attending church services, going to the theatre, sports, music and eating finer foods than usual.

Celebrate Christmas in the Castle this holiday season with a lantern led tour or a visit to Santa’s Grotto. Book your tickets now: https://www.oxfordcastleandprison.co.uk/christmas-at-the-castle/

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