The Lord of Misrule Comes to Court: 1551/52

In December 1551, as Edward VI’s uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, sat in the Tower of London awaiting execution, the king’s court was preoccupied with another matter entirely: the Lord of Misrule. Some time before Christmas, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, sent a letter “scribbled in haste” to Thomas Cawarden, the Master of the Revels, announcing the appointment of George Ferrers as Lord of Misrule, to serve for the twelve days of Christmas. Ferrers was a courtier and poet who later contributed to A Mirror for Magistrates, described by Scott Lucas as a “compendium of tragic monologues” by a series of historical personages.

Ferrers began his reign by, as he recalled later, “coming out of the moon.” Despite this auspicious start, not all went smoothly at first. Ferrers wrote to complain to Cawarden that although his own costume was satisfactory, the same could not be said for the apparel of the gentlemen who were to accompany him on his grand entry into London.  Cawarden also was expected to come up with, among other items, “counterfeit harness and weapons,” a hobby-horse, eight vizers for a “drunken masque,” and eight daggers and swords for the same purpose. Meanwhile, lest Cawarden fail to get the point of Ferrers’s missive, the king’s council, including the Duke of Northumberland, wrote a stern letter on January 3, 1552, expressing its disapproval of Cawarden’s having “prepared not aptly” for the Lord of Misrule’s entourage.

The beleaguered Cawarden, however, eventually rose to the occasion, and the Lord of Misrule’s entry into London was a memorable one. As reported by the diarist Henry Machyn:

The iiij day of Januarii was mad a grett skaffold in Chepe hard by the crosse, agaynst the kynges lord of myssrule cumyng from Grenwyche; and landyd at Towre warff and with hym yonge knyghts and gentyllmen a gret nombur on horsebake sum in gownes and cotes and chynes abowt ther nekes, every man havyng a balderyke of yelow and grene abowt ther nekes, and on the Towre hyll ther they went in order, furst a standard of yelow and grene sylke with Sant Gorge, and then gonnes and skuybes, and trompets and bagespypes, and drousselars and flutes, and then a gret compeny all in yelow and gren, and docturs declaryng my lord grett, and then the mores danse dansyng with a tabret, and afor xx of ys consell on horsbake in gownes of chanabulle lynyd with blue taffata and capes of the sam, lyke sage men; then cam my lord with a gowne of gold furyd with fur of the goodlyest collers as ever youe saw, and then ys . . . and after cam alff a hundred in red and wyht, tallmen of the gard, with hods of the sam coler, and cam in to the cete; and after cam a carte, the whyche cared the pelere, the a . . . , [the] jubett, the stokes, and at the crose in Chepe a gret brod skaffold for to go up; then cam up the trumpeter, the harold, and the doctur of the law, and ther was a proclamasyon mad of my lord’s progeny, and of ys gret howshold that he kept, and of ys dyngnyte; and there was a hoghed of wyne at the skaffold, and ther my lord dranke, and ys consell, and had the hed smyttyn owt that every body mytht drynke, and money [?] cast abowt them, and after my lord’s grase rod unto my lord mer and alle ys men to dener, for ther was dener as youe have sene; and after he toke his hers, and rod to my lord Tresorer at Frer Austens, and so to Bysshopgate, and so to Towre warff, and toke barge to Grenwyche.

With the Duke of Somerset soon to die (he was executed on January 22), the scene at the scaffold, which included props such as stocks, manacles, a “heading ax,” and a “heading block,” was tasteless, to put it mildly, and more offense was to come. As reported by Jehan Scheyfve, the imperial ambassador:

[The Lord of Misrule] was accompanied by about 100 persons of the same description; and besides several witty and harmless pranks, he played other quite outrageous ones, for example, a religious procession of priests and bishops. They paraded through the Court, and carried, under an infamous tabernacle, a representation of the holy sacrament in its monstrance, which they wetted and perfumed in most strange fashion, with great ridicule of the ecclesiastical estate. Not a few Englishmen were highly scandalised by this behaviour; and the French and Venetian ambassadors, who were at Court at the time, showed clearly enough that the spectacle was repugnant to them.

Despite this lack of political correctness, or perhaps because of it, the Lord of Misrule was a hit at court. As the chronicler Grafton wrote of Ferrers:

Which Gentleman so well supplyed his office, both in shew of sundry sightes and devises of rare invention, and in act of divers enterludes and matters of pastime, played by persons, as not onely satisfied the common sorte, but also were very well liked and allowed by the counsayle and other of skill in the like pastimes: But best of al by the yong king himselfe, as appered by his princely liberalitie in rewarding that seruice.

Ferrers was indeed such a success that he was invited to reprise his role: in September 1552, the council wrote to Cawarden to announce Ferrers’ appointment for the Christmas season of 1552/53. Soon, Ferrers was planning the festivities, which would include a “Triumph of Cupid” (with Venus and Mars also featured) for Twelfth Night of 1553. Sadly, the Christmas and New Year’s of 1552 and 1553 would be the last ones Edward VI and the Duke of Northumberland would spend on earth.


Sydney Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy. Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 10: 1550-1552.

Jennifer Loach, Edward VI. Yale University Press, 1999.

H. R. Woudhuysen, ‘Ferrers, George (c.1510–1579)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 17 Dec 2011]

Alfred John Kempe, The Loseley Manuscripts and Other Rare Documents.

John Gough Nichols, ed., The Diary of Henry Machyn.

5 thoughts on “The Lord of Misrule Comes to Court: 1551/52”

  1. Thanks for this interesting post! The resurrection of the Lord of Misrule in order to distract Edward from his uncle’s fate is of course an old theme in the list of the Duke of Northumberland’s misdeeds. If we believe de Schefye things were not as clear yet: (27 December) “As for the Duke of Somerset, the Earl of Arundel, Paget and the other prisoners, it is still believed that the whole affair will be put off until the next Parliament, which is to meet on January 25th; though others say that Somerset will obtain his pardon and be released before that. He is kept in less strict confinement now, and is not so closely watched as before, though he has been examined twice during the last few days, and certain other prisoners with him, as it appears. As on those occasions the Duke of Northumberland talked with him a long time, it seems that the Earl of Pembroke, the Marquis of Northampton and other of Northumberland’s supporters considered the conversation so suspicious that the Earl of Pembroke was said to have somewhat fallen out with the Duke; though it is all smoothed over now. In any case Northumberland has lost not a little of his reputation, and it is believed his authority will diminish day by day because he has been unable to carry out his designs, though he has twice got as far as arresting and accusing the Duke of Somerset. It seems he is sorely puzzled at present, and does not know how all this is to end.”

  2. Thanks, Christine! I wonder if Northumberland was hoping for some graceful way to avoid executing Somerset.

    Carol, thanks!

  3. Barbara Gaskell Denvil

    I knew only the bare bones of this before (nearly 50 years beyond my ‘scope’) – and so found it an absorbing article with some deliciously fascinating detail. Great insight into the times.

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