The Canterbury Christmas Day riots, 1647

anon-canterbury_christmas-wing-c453-66_e_421_22_-tpOn 10 June 1647 the Westminster Parliament passed an ordinance declaring that the celebration of Christmas was a punishable offence. There had been long-standing opposition on the part of the Puritans to the festivities of the twelve nights of Christmas and to special church services to mark Christmas Day.  The June ordinance was a culmination of earlier attempts to suppress the marking of Christmas which they considered a superstitious popish festival. There was opposition to this ruling in a number of towns including by the apprentice boys in London.

On 22 December 1647 the Canterbury city Burghmote noted that Saturday 25 December was market day and ordered the town crier to announce that shops should stay open and that the market should be held. The locals (especially the country people) were unhappy about this and trashed the shops which refused to close.

The Mayor and Sherriff and their men attempted to restore order but were resisted. The Mayor took a cudgel to one protestor who promptly knocked him down and tore his cloak. The aldermen and the town constables managed to arrest several of the protesters and tried to take them to the city gaol (presumably at the Westgate). The rabble attacked the jail and released the prisoners, giving Captain Bridge a broken head. They then smashed the windows of the Mayor’s supporters.

At the beginning of the week after Christmas, the Mayor set armed guards on the city gates under the command of Captain White, a local barber who was a leading Puritan. White was challenged by one of protestors who called him a Roundhead, whereupon White shot him, in spite of the Mayor trying to intervene. The populace then hunted down Captain White and broke his head. They took control of the city gates, released all the prisoners, and then broke the Mayor’s windows and those of others on the Puritan side.

Eventually peace was restored, two ringleaders were jailed and put on trial, but the main body of protesters handed over their weapons after promises of no further action.

We know about the Canterbury Christmas Day riots because an eight-page news book was published in London early in the New Year giving details of the events. Canterbury Christmas: or, a true relation of the insurrection in Canterbury on Christmas day last was published on the first of January 1648 (1647 old style), as noted on the title page by the bookseller George Thomason who formed a huge collection of the pamphlets produced during the Civil War period. His collection of 22,000 of these pamphlets is now in the British Library. A catalogue of the Thomason Tracts Collection was published in 1908 in two volumes; the Cathedral Library and the Templeman Library at the University of Kent both have copies. The pamphlet is listed in the English Short-Title Catalogue ( English books printed before 1801) at the British Library (ESTC R204765). Only four copies are known to survive.

100.e23_1A follow-up pamphlet was published a few days later in January 1648 (ESTC R204766). This clearly took the side of the rebellious citizens and asked for the reversal of the ban on the celebration of Christmas Day and for the restitution of the monarchy and the Church of England. This declaration was of course unsuccessful as civil war broke out again between the crown and the parliament resulting a year later in the execution of Charles I.

David Shaw

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