Published: 06:00, 19 December 2020
With rising Covid cases leaving this year's festive celebrations hanging in the balance, we take a look at what happened in Kent the last time Christmas was cancelled....
The Mayor of Canterbury stood in the freezing cold in front of one of the largest crowds he’d ever seen.
Christmas had been cancelled - with the city's shops ordered to stay open and all the traditional garlands and wreaths torn down.
But only a dozen or so shopkeepers and stallholders had complied with the demand.
Faced with the hostile crowd, the Mayor, William George, summoned up the courage to make his way along the street, encouraging traders to open their doors.
Infuriated, the mob surged forwards. Shouts were growing louder and curses were flying at the city officials.
The Mayor kept his men back, leaving the stalls and shops to bear the brunt of the crowd’s rage. Goods started to fly over their heads, smashing onto the ground and scattering around.
Such was their anger, people didn’t even bother to pick up the valuable wares, which were trod into the ground, broken, ripped and ruined.
One of the traders was standing near to his shuttered premises. Mr George asked him to open up, warning he would face the full force of the law if he stayed closed.
But then the crowd surged again, shouting support for the shopkeeper and heading straight for the Mayor.
Mr George tried to shout - to order the crowd to move back. As they pressed against him, he lashed out - and was immediately pushed violently to the ground.
He tried to get up, but was trodden down into the muck and dragged by his feet into the gutter. He gasped for air, suffocating in the press of legs. As he flailed about, his clothes were ripped.
Somehow, he managed to get to his feet and find his voice. He ordered the crowd to disperse.
It seemed to work. The spell was broken. The crowd receded, rage replaced by dumb insolence. There was quiet again in the broken wreck of the market square.
He felt his back straighten, tilted his face upwards. He was the authority and he would be respected. His tattered, mud-splattered robes fluttered in the wind. But he was the Mayor of Canterbury and he would be obeyed.
Just as his confidence was surging back, he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
From out of a growing crowd, someone had produced two inflated pigs bladders.
It was time for a game of football.
A truly English rebellion
And so it came to pass, on Christmas Day in 1647 in Canterbury, that the people rebelled in the most English way possible - with a game of football followed by a riot.
These were the days when football was unconstrained by pitches and rules. A game could wend its riotous way across a whole town. It usually involved most of the population, whether they wanted to take part or not.
Crowds charged around Canterbury shouting: "Conquest!"
The city’s aldermen were jeered and then, more seriously, chased, beaten and forced back into their houses.
The sporting action was interspersed with nods to a traditional Christmas. Holly bushes were set up in doorways and entertainment offered.
The records are silent about what this entertainment was. But it was guaranteed to upset the county's ruling Puritan elite.
Not that the crowd cared very much about what the Puritans thought. One of the more uncompromising ministers, Richard Culmer, was pelted with mud.
And that could have been the end of this unruly Canterbury Christmas. The Mayor, sheriff and aldermen had been knocked about but suffered no lasting physical damage. Only their pride had been badly bruised.
Yet the trouble was only just beginning.
Ultimately, the city’s Plum Pudding Riots led to a revolt by Royalists across Kent and the second round of the English Civil War. Within five months, 10,000 supporters of King Charles I were gathered on moorland outside Maidstone ready to take the fight to the Parliamentarians.
Aftermath of Canterbury chaos
Following the embarrassment of Christmas Day in Canterbury, Kent's Puritan and Parliamentary leaders were determined to make an example of the ringleaders.
They sent their leader, Sir Anthony Welden, an aged and particularly officious Parliamentary commissioner to "punish merrymakers who had played football in Canterbury the previous Christmas".
Before they could be tried, the rioters had to be indicted by the county’s grand jury. The authorities took no chances, carefully selecting a reliable panel. Even so, the grand jury refused to indict.
Once again, there were rowdy celebrations in the streets of Canterbury. This time, however, the protests developed into something far more worrying for Parliament.
Within days, thousands signed a petition calling for a reconciliation between the King and the Parliamentarians, whose New Model Army was led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.
Charles had recently escaped imprisonment at Hampton Court and fled to the Isle of Wight.
Things started to look serious when one of Queen Henrietta Maria’s favourites, the Earl of Norwich, landed to lead the rebellion. Sailors aboard Parliamentary ships around the Kent coast mutinied and took the towns of Deal, Walmer and Sandwich. Dover, the key to the kingdom, was besieged.
The Battle of Maidstone
On May 21, 1648, thousands of Kent rebels gathered on Penenden Heath. The Royalists were just 35 miles or a day’s hard march from a largely undefended London.
With Cromwell and the bulk of the New Model Army fighting in Wales, it was left to Fairfax to cobble together a force to put down the revolt. In the end, the farmers and tradesmen that made up the rebels were no match for professional soldiers.
A sharp summer thunderstorm marked the end of the Battle of Maidstone. Rainwater ran down the narrow streets, washing away pools of blood and hopes of a Royalist revival.
Sir Anthony was shocked by the rebellion, writing that: “Never was the fair face of such a faithful county burned of a sudden to so much deformity and ugliness."
He should have paid more attention to history. Kent was a crucible of rebellion - the home of Wat Tyler, Jack Cade and Thomas Wyatt.
A year later, Parliament asserted its authority by executing Charles. There was no repeat of Kentish rebellion.
You can kill a king, it seems. Just don’t cancel Christmas.
*This is a version of an article which appeared on the Almost History podcast website and is borrowed heavily from here with the kind permission of the owner.