The Lord of Misrule: Head of Drinking, Mischief, and Bad Behavior

By Stephanie Weber

The Lord of Misrule

Christmas festivities in Old England and its neighboring kingdoms were quite riotous and no one was a better mascot for mischief than the Lord of Misrule.

Never heard of the Lord of Misrule? That’s partially because this British custom was outlawed in 16th century Britain and it was never revived during the 19th century restoration of Christmas traditions. In the 19th century, Christmas got a heavy rebranding as a family holiday rather than the raucous 12 day party it once was.

The Lord of Misrule would then be adorned with a paper crown and was given the responsibility of making trouble in the name of Christmas delight.

Who Was the Lord of Misrule?

The Lord of Misrule, also called the Abbot of Misrule, was an official title in the late medieval and Tudor periods in England. In Scotland he was called The Abbot of Unreason which sounds even more peculiar. The job of the Lord of Misrule was to manage all Christmas activities among the nobility from the court to the universities and several nobleman’s homes.

It was like having an event planner for everyone who was anyone in medieval England. The Christmas festivities would include plays, masquerade balls, parades and many feasts. The lord would preside over his events in jest, pretending he was holding court like a real king in a manner that was hilarious to everyone who was actually more important than him but still appreciative of his job.

Lord of Misrule

Party like it’s 999.

This position and its revelry lasted anywhere from twelve days to three months until a new Lord of Misrule was appointed in the following Christmas season.

The Lord of Misrule wasn’t merely an act of the nobility. Each November villages would draw lots among the peasants to choose that year’s Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule would then be adorned with a paper crown and was given the responsibility of making trouble in the name of Christmas delight.

The Height of Misrule

The Lord of Misrule is usually attributed to King Edward VI who revived the tradition after it was waning in popularity during his father’s reign. His father hadn’t formally appointed a Lord of Misrule in approximately fifteen years, so Edward relished in the opportunity to appoint one.

The celebrations during Edward’s reign were legendary for being 12 Days of non-stop entertainment, food, and drink. Allegedly his Twelfth Night in 1552 ended in a huge mock tournament between Protestants and Catholics, a masquerade, and “a feast of 120 dishes”.

Possible Roman Origins

Some scholars claim the crowing of the Lord of Misrule dates back to ancient times, appearing as a feature in Roman Saturnalia in which a mock king would be chosen, but the ancient Lord of Misrule was met with a rather un-festive end. At the end of the merry-making month of mischief the Lord of Misrule may have been sacrificed on the altar of Saturn.

Saturnalia. When in Rome, right? Photo: Wikipedia

At least he went out with a bang! In the Middle Ages, this tradition returned in a milder form as the sacrificial rituals were replaced with burning bundles of sticks at the end of the Christmas season.

The Death of Misrule

As mentioned previously, the Lord of Misrule was officially made illegal in Britain, but it wasn’t as simple as that.

The custom went in and out of popularity throughout medieval and Tudor rule, culminating in its zenith during Edward’s era. When Queen Elizabeth I came to power she saw The Lord of Misrule as being an old school, and old-church, custom. She formally abolished it and the custom was largely forgotten.

About the Author

Stephanie Weber
Stephanie Weber is a comedian and writer whose work has been published on Atlas Obscura, Slate, The AV Club, Reductress, The Whiskey Journal and more. She performs stand up comedy at The Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.