The Christmas of 1644 was a bleak time. England was embroiled in a bitter civil war that had already lasted over two years, with a consequent breakdown of law and order and social norms. Bury St Edmunds formed part of the ‘Eastern Association’, which backed Parliament against King Charles I, but the town’s corporation was divided between Royalists and Parliamentarians, as were the local gentry who normally governed the town’s local politics. People eyed their neighbours with suspicion – and more than suspicion; in the coming months, accusations of witchcraft would explode into the open with the largest series of witch trials ever conducted in England at the Bury Assizes in the summer of 1645. Bury’s godly (Puritan) community was in the ascendant, imposing plain worship in the parish churches, but a significant population with Royalist sympathies bristled at the imposition of Puritan discipline, especially Parliament’s insistence that the last Wednesday of every month should be a day of fasting and repentance. Because in 1644, the last Wednesday in December was Christmas Day.
Contrary to popular belief, Oliver Cromwell did not ‘ban Christmas’; it was Charles I, in fact, who agreed to make the last Wednesday of every month a fast day, thereby implicitly banning Christmas. But whether Christmas would be included in the fast was not tested until 1644. On top of this, Puritans believed the celebration of Christmas was an idolatrous relic of popery because it was an arbitrary date in the calendar that did not correspond to the Lord’s Day (Sunday) which people used as an excuse to feast and get drunk. As far as most Puritans were concerned, Christmas was a superstitious observance of times and seasons that belonged in the dark Catholic past (although it was not until 1647 that Parliament formally ‘banned Christmas’ by statute).
One way in which Parliament wanted to send the message that Christmas was an ordinary day like any other was by compelling shops to open on Christmas Day. This became the focus of the unrest in Bury St Edmunds, where on 25 December 1644 apprentice boys ran riot, smashing the open wooden shutters of any shop that dared open on Christmas Day (this was in the days when most shops literally ‘opened’ by lowering a suspended wooden shutter into the street, where shopkeepers would display their wares). Apprentice boys were traditionally associated with festive misrule such as mummers’ plays, so it is not especially surprising that they were leaders of the riot – not to mention the fact that the abolition of Christmas meant that they got no day off!
In response to the imposition of the Puritan ‘Directory of Public Worship’ to replace The Book of Common Prayer in 1646, there was a further riot in Bury. Apprentice boys assembled to force shops to close, and when ordered to disperse by a magistrate and constables, scuffles broke out. However, the authorities managed to put down the disorder. A pamphlet of the time reported that the ‘bloody designs’ of the ‘malignant party … against the people of God, and the members of Jesus Christ … were frustrated, [and] their mischievous design, in case that any one of them should presume to open their shops on Christmas Day, and to that end had prepared divers weapons for the execution of the same’. But a further riot broke out the next year, in 1647.
In retrospect, these later riots had more ominous overtones, since May 1648 would see the eruption of an actual armed rebellion against Parliamentarian rule in the town focussed on May Day, another traditional holiday. As the initial enthusiasm for Parliamentarian rule waned, Royalist sympathisers among the West Suffolk gentry were getting bolder in subverting the new order; perhaps the only reason serious violence did not erupt at Christmas 1646 was that the middle of winter is not the best time to launch a rebellion…
Bury St Edmunds was not the only town where pro-Christmas riots occurred in the 1640, but its unrest was among the most prominent in the country. These incidents are historically important because they illustrate the extent to which towns like Bury – apparently deep in solidly Parliamentarian territory – remained bitterly divided right the way through the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.