The ever-present spectre of the Grim Reaper did not mean that people were any less willing to enjoy themselves than people in the twenty-first century. The six-day working week, together with long working days of around fourteen hours (and longer for apprentices) meant that holidays were to be made the most of. Shrove Tuesday was the traditional holiday for young people and apprentices, perhaps with games and races in the town. Mothering Sunday was the day young servants and apprentices could visit their homes, if they were near enough. Easter and Whitsuntide were also celebrated, but it was May Day that was the most important spring holiday. There was dancing, especially round the maypole and gathering branches and flowers to make May garlands; there might be hobbyhorses, Morris dancers, baiting, and wrestling. It was second only to Christmas as a time of festivities.
Lest a picture of bucolic innocence be conjured up by this description, it must be added that the authorities, secular and religious, were generally uneasy about holiday merrymaking, which invariably also involved alcohol, foul language, fighting and sex. The Puritan government of the Commonwealth years was particularly disapproving of these excesses.
The Puritans latched onto the maypole as the paramount symbol of wickedness and depravity. It was, they said, a ‘heathenish vanity’ and should be removed wherever it was found. Hythe corporation was ahead of the game here, and had removed their maypole in 1615. Removing the maypole did not however remove all ungodly jollifications. In 1655 Thomas Kelsey, then the Major-General in charge of Kent issued an edict to all local magistrates, telling them to ban the traditional Whitsun celebrations which ‘produced no other fruits but drunkenness, swearing and all other kinds of lowness and debauchery’. Christmas was targeted, too, as it was ‘superstitious’ and ‘unbiblical’. Predictably this was unpopular. There were riots in Canterbury in 1647, when the mayor tried to enforce the ban.
There had been a time, under James I and his son Charles I when having some good, clean, fun after church on Sunday had been positively encouraged. The Book of Sports, first issued in 1617 and re-promulgated in 1634 set out what sports were acceptable and included Morris-dancing, archery, dancing and ‘leaping and vaulting’. Bowling, for reasons unknown, was excluded. By the time of the 1634 declaration, the Puritans were in the ascendant, and there was widespread antipathy towards the book, culminating in an order in 1643 that it should be publicly burned. By 1650, the attitude had hardened into a ban on having any sort of fun at all on Sundays: ’No person or persons shall without reasonable cause for the same, travel, carry burthens, or do any worldly labours or work whatsoever on that Day’ and there was ‘a prohibition against wrestling, shooting, bowling, ringing of bells for pleasure or pastime, masque, wake, otherwise called feasts, Church ale, dancing, games, sport, or pastime whatsover’.
Local magistrates had no option but to follow these laws. In 1655 Hythe corporation fined two people for travelling on the Lord’s Day and put one of them in the stocks for six hours. The stocks were probably not often used, as they had to obtain a new lock to secure the miscreant in place.
Bowling might have been banned on Sundays, but it continued to flourish in Hythe on other days of the week. The bowling green was a true civic amenity, owned by the corporation and maintained by a keeper appointed and paid by them. It was situated off the modern day Stade Street, in approximately the position where ‘Oaklands’ now stands, and was conveniently placed next to a horse pond, where players could rest their mounts during the game. Its demise started in 1687, when the corporation, strapped for cash, agreed to sell part of it off.
Feasting was also banned on Sundays but could be enjoyed on other days. St John’s and St Bartholomew’s hospitals both had feasts to celebrate the small occasions of institutional life. Ordinary people of all stations in life had feasts to celebrate baptisms and marriages. Feasts were held after musters of the Trained Bands. The Bailiffs to Yarmouth were expected both to attend and to host feasts. The corporation had a big annual feast after the election of the mayor and smaller ones after each quarter sessions, usually held in the ‘White Hart’ inn. This was conveniently owned from 1648 by Ferdinando Bassett, a jurat, although the corporation also had an account at the ‘George’ (now the ‘King’s Head’) which was owned by the other Bassett brother, Elias, another jurat.
This is not to suggest that Hythe corporation was particularly greedy or profligate with rate-payers’ money. Feasting and food gifts were a legitimate form of expenditure for corporations as well as individuals. Wine, sugar and marzipan were often given to notables on their visits to towns, and food changed hands in the form of gifts, bribes and fines at all levels. The Lord Warden, on his brief visit to Hythe in 1615 was served with sugared wine and in 1650 Hythe corporation sent fish to the M.P. Henry Heyman. He reciprocated with a side of venison. Thomas Browning in 1620 wooed the freemen and jurats of the town with dinners in his mayoral election campaign, and towards the end of the century William Honeywood did the same for the electors of Canterbury.
Feasts always included two essentials: a lot of meat and a lot of alcohol. A typical bill from the ’White Hart’ for a corporation supper in 1677 included roast beef, a leg of mutton, three chickens and some bread. No vegetables were served, and dessert was a dish of damsons. Beer and wine together cost nearly as much as the food, and by this time it had become the norm for tobacco to be provided as well. The final item on the bill was hay and oats for the gentlemen’s horses.
Given the quantities of wine and beer consumed, some high spirits were inevitable. In 1626, the corporation, noting the disorder at muster feasts directed the Chamberlain to take note of the wine and beer brought into the rooms, and to allow no ‘superfluyitie’. The boot was on the other foot in 1678 when they were themselves penalised: after a feast at the ‘White Hart, the landlady charged them two shillings and sixpence extra for ‘glasses broke’.
The excessive consumption of alcohol concerned the government and local authorities in the seventeenth century every bit as much as it does in the twenty-first. Alehouses, where beer was cheap, and, until it was banned in 1637, home-brewed, were anathema to the respectable classes, and there were repeated attempts by parliament in early years of the seventeenth century to limit them. In 1608 the king issued orders that licences should be more judiciously issued and strictly monitored. Old licences were to be repealed and new ones issued, with stringent conditions as to illegal gaming and good order attached. To solemnise this undertaking, each licence was to be ‘sealed with a common seal, ingraven in brass with a rose, and the inscription of the county, city or town-corporate’.
The sting in the tail was that these impressive seals were only to be had from one man, the king’s engraver, who had premises near Goldsmith’s Hall in London. He charged twenty shillings for each seal, and as he said himself, he had been ‘promised the 20s for every county, city, and town’ in England. James I loved to give money to his favourites, and if that money belonged to other people, so much the better.