The ECW Q&A: did Cromwell ban mince pies?


Over on Twitter we asked if there were any questions people would like answered about history, politics, and society during the English Civil Wars. Meaghan Brown (@EpistolaryBrown) asked about the oft-repeated line about Oliver Cromwell banning mince pies as part of the Puritan ‘war on Christmas’ in the 1640s and ’50s.

Thanks for the great question, Meaghan!

This is one of those ‘facts’ that everyone knows – dour old Puritan Oliver Cromwell hated merriment and fun and laughing and dancing and so banned mince pies when he was Lord Protector because nothing is more guaranteed to bring pleasure and enrage a killjoy than a little pagan sweet pie dusted with icing sugar…

Except it’s just not true.

While there was an effort during the 1640s by Parliament to clamp down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints’ and holy days as part of a general de-Romanisation of the calendar, it wasn’t personally directed by Cromwell and he didn’t play a particularly large role in the various pieces of legislation which restricted the celebration of Christmas. We know that, as a Puritan, it is likely that he was sympathetic towards and supported such measures, and as Lord Protector from December 1653 until September 1658 he supported their enforcement.

But does that mean he banned mince pies?

Without going too much into the ‘Puritan War on Christmas’, measures to reduce the importance of Christmas as a festival began before Cromwell rose to national prominence – a 1631 pamphlet called The Complaint of Christmas urged the enthusiastic observance of the mid-winter feast in reaction to perceived Puritan interference and The Long Parliament met as usual on 25 December 1643. Rather than aiming to ban foodstuffs, anti-Christmas legislation of the 1640s and ’50s took aim at ending special Christmas church services and ensuring shops remained open. In January 1645, Parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, their radical alternative to the Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all.

The only Christmas Day on which eating mince pies was technically illegal was in 1644, when 25 December fell on the same day as a legally-mandated national fast, about which MPs issued an ordinance specifically reminding people:

The Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled doe order and ordaine that publique notice be given that the Fast appointed to be kept on the last Wednesday in every moneth ought to be observed untill it be otherwise ordered by both Houses of Parliament: And that this day in particular is to be kept with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights.

In June 1647, this was reinforced by another ordinance cracking down on the celebration of feast days in general, including Easter and Whitsun, and there were numerous legal attempts to stop celebrations and force businesses and markets to remain open on Christmas Day.

None of these ordinances mention mince pies or, indeed, pies of any kind. Pies themselves were a fundamental part of the cuisine of 17th Century England, as recipe books of the time attest, including one filled with recipes by Leticia Cromwell (any relation?). there was nothing ‘Popish’ or ‘Pagan’ about a pie…

When Christmas Day fell on a fast day you shouldn’t have been eating at all, but mince pies – or pastries of any kind – were never singled out. In any case, although mince pies were and are associated with Christmas, they were probably eaten at other times of the year and contemporary recipes do not insist they are meant only for Christmas. A captive Charles I was apparently denied the chance to eat ‘plum pudding’ on his last Christmas Day in 1642 – though this had more to do with the general petty austerity imposed by his gaolers throughout his terminally final stay in London.

That’s not to say people at the time were complicit or weren’t concerned about these proposed changes. Pamphlets such as The Vindication of Christmas were published in the 1650s and as early as December 1643, apprentice boys in London rose up in violent protest against shop-keepers who had opened on Christmas Day and the same happened in 1646 in Bury St Edmunds. After Parliament declared the celebration of Christmas to be a punishable offence in 1647, there was trouble at Bury, while pro-Christmas riots also took place at Norwich and Ipswich, with the worst disturbances taking place in Canterbury where a crowd of protesters seized control of the entire city. However, most people were more concerned about the end of traditions such as free ‘Christmas ale’ provided by their local church on 25 December than about sweet pies.

So why does this ‘fact’ about Cromwell banning mince pies persist?

Its roots may be a good deal more recent than the Civil War: Mercurius Politicus mentions various references in 18th Century texts that link refusal to eat mince pies with Puritanism but the popular myth doesn’t seem to to really gain traction until the mid-to-late 20th Century when it is repeated ad nauseum. Like so many myths, it may well have originated from satirical pamphlets either being taken at face value or treated in a ‘no smoke without fire’ manner – Royalists loved to lampoon their opponents and portray them in the most extreme manner possible, so poet John Taylor’s reference to mince pies in his Christmas In and Out (1652) – Plumb-Pottage was meer Popery, that a Coller of Brawn was an obhomination, that Roast Beef was Antichristian, that Mince-Pies were Reliques of the Whore of Babylon, and a Goose, aTurkey, or a Capon, were marks of the Beast – has to be taken with a pince of salt.

It could be that mince pies and their proscription is meant to represent the wider attack on Christmas as a secular holiday separate to Christian practices. The ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ still celebrated in song, if not in practice, was a long-established period of feasting and celebration that had little connected to Christian practice. It was despised by Puritans for several reasons, not least because of the associated wantonness and debauchery but also because of their mission to do away with anything not ordained or permitted by biblical scripture. At the Restoration in 1660, all legislation passed during the period of 1642 to 1660 was declared null and void, so both the religious and the secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas could once again be celebrated openly. As a potent symbol of non-religious Christmas feasting, ‘banning’ mince pies is a simple shorthand way of explaining a much broader attack on Christmas tradition by religion zealots – a symbol that, over time, became fact – and, as the arch-Puritan, regicide and king-in-all-but-name, of course it must have been Cromwell himself who did away with them.

This popular conception about Puritans, and the ‘dour Roundhead vs dashing Cavaliers’ myth so beloved of children’s textbooks, has its own roots in Victorian monochromatic attitudes towards British history as well as towards non-conformist denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers, who have their roots in the Civil War and who were often portrayed as dour killjoys thanks to their focus on sobriety and eschewing of alcohol and public frivolity. There is also the popularly perceived sharp contrast with the subsequent reign of the ‘Merry Monarch’ Charles II and the supposed riot of colour, happiness, and devil-may-care frolicking of the Restoration after the religious zealotry and suppression of the Interregnum.

The myth does, perhaps, also tap into the way we think about history and its appearance on endless ‘crazy laws that have never been repealed’ listicles confirms that we often want the past to be archaic, odd, senseless, and irrational.

So no, Cromwell had nothing against pastry.

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