Tag Archives: Oliver Cromwell

Charles I and the Undoing of the Vintner’s Company

On September 29, 1639, the Red Bull players found themselves on the wrong side of the law. They’d recently performed The Whore New Vamped, whose author has since faded into obscurity. The play satirically alluded to the new duties on wine, which were instigated by Charles I but supported by few members of the Vintner’s Company of London. In a government statement, the players were accused of having “in a libellous manner traduced and personated some persons of quality and scandalised and defamed the whole procession of proctors belonging to the court of the civil law.”


Willam Abell

The New Whore Vamped pokes fun at William Abell, an alderman of London and Master of the Vintner’s Company of London. Abell spearheaded the effort to move the Vintner’s Company from an autonomous, self-governing entity to a royal monopoly. The move rankled not only Vintner’s members, but also members of the general public. This play would not be the first to call Abell to task; indeed, the war against Abell and his co-conspirators raged in print even before the infamous Long Parliament took up the issue.

An Influential and Privileged Organization

Though the exact date of the first English guild’s establishment is unknown, a number of livery companies had been established in London by the medieval period. People who practiced the same trade lived in the same area, and they often organized themselves to influence the market for their products and services. These groups had immense power: they influenced not only the economy and politics, but also social institutions and even religion. It’s no wonder, then, that the groups came to be known as guilds, a word that derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for “to pay.”


The Vintner’s Coat of Arms, circa 1633

The vintner’s guild seems to have been well established by the 1200’s; there was already record of “lawful merchants of London” fixing the price of wine. The Vintner’s Company received its first official charter on July 15, 1363. The charter was actually more like a grant of monopoly on trade with Gascony. A far-reaching document, the charter gave the guild duties of search and the right to buy cloth and herring to trade with the Gascons. Over the next century, wine would become vital to England’s economy. From 1446 to 1448, wine comprised almost a third of England’s entire import trade, and the Vintner’s Company was the eleventh most important of livery companies in London.

In the sixteenth century, the Vintner’s Company lost some of its prestige, along with its duties. Edward VI drastically limited the company’s country-wide right to sell wine in 1553. The company managed to regain some of its previous favor with the early Stuarts. Unfortunately a fateful alliance with Charles I would tarnish the Vintner Company’s reputation.

An Unsavory Arrangement with the King

When Abell took office as Master of the Vintner’s Company, the organization was a self-governing organization whose members oversaw all aspects of the wine business in London. But in June 1638, Willam Abell struck a deal with the king. He used the organization’s seal to sign a four-part indenture that transformed the Vintner’s Company into a royal monopoly. Under the contract, any profit or power derived from the wine trade went into a common “farm” that the company would purchase from Charles’ courtiers each year for the not-so-paltry sum of £57,000. While the arrangement might have been profitable for the company—and certainly for the king—many members saw it as far from ideal. As a royal monopoly, the organization was now much more susceptible to the whims of a monarch—and to transitions of power.

Then thanks to the Bishops’ Wars, Charles was forced to call Parliament to meet in 1640. He needed them to pass finance legislation to fund his war. But the MP’s hardly bent to the monarch’s wishes. They passed an act stating that the session of Parliament could not be dissolved until the members agreed to do so. They would not officially end the session until twenty years later, earning the nickname the Long Parliament. The Parliament moved to strip Charles I of the powers he’d accrued since ascending the throne, effectively ensuring that he would never again be an absolute ruler. They also freed everyone held in the Star Chamber and passed the Triennial Act of 1641, sometimes called the Dissolution Act, which stipulated that no more than three years would elapse between sessions of Parliament.

The Long Parliament also launched an investigation of Abell’s agreement with the king. They swiftly threw Abell and his co-conspirators in jail, but it took them ten months to work through the rest of the affair. In August 1641, Parliament took aggressive action, declaring forty importers delinquent for taking part in the wine contract. These merchants, too, were thrown in prison. Clearly Parliament stood not with the Crown-supported merchants, but with the city shopkeepers.

A War Waged with Pamphlets

Meanwhile on April 21, 1640, members of the Vintner’s Company had formed a committee to consider the wine sellers’ grievances with Abell’s contract. They made less than satisfactory progress, however, as the members could agree on little. Around this time, many vintners started refusing to pay tax on wine. And when Parliament convened, they delivered a petition without approval from company leaders.

All this time, a war was being waged with the printing press. From 1640 to 1642, countless pamphlets were printed by both Abell’s defenders and the Vintner’s Company. The Abell contingent claimed that the deal struck between Abell and the court represented the apotheosis of two years’ discussion among Vintner’s Company members. They said that the decision to become a royal monopoly had the full support of the membership, and had even passed when put to a vote.

Abell’s opponents claimed that Abell had achieved agreement only by threatening members with “many promises and persuasions,” some of which took the form of “divers and fearful threatenings.” By 1642, eminent parliamentary pamphlet printer Henry Parker had taken up the vintners’ cause, rushing to defend the company’s “own Reputation to the World.”

Cromwell Undermines the Company

The Long Parliament would sit from 1640 to 1648, when the membership was purged by the New Model Army. Remaining members were called the Rump Parliament. When Oliver Cromwell effectively took complete control of England in 1653, he sent all the MP’s home. A Puritan, Cromwell believed that extraneous entertainments should be eliminated. Women could no longer wear make-up or colorful dresses. The theaters were shut down. Cromwell even outlawed Christmas.

Act_Limiting_Prices_Wines_CromwellThough Cromwell’s rules were stringent, he did facilitate a number of important improvements, including stimulating the British economy. On September 17, 1656, Cromwell issued an Act for Limiting and Setling (sic) the Prices for Wines limiting the prices of Spanish and French wines. The act was a direct hit to the Vintner’s Company. Such a move from Cromwell should hardly surprise anyone; he actively and loudly supported the execution of Charles I and sought to undo as much damage from the former monarch as he possibly could. Charles II and James II similarly restricted the company’s influence. The Vintner’s Company took another hit with the Great Fire of London in 1666, when Company Hall and other properties were destroyed.

William and Mary restored some of the privileges that had been stripped away by their predecessors, but the Vintner’s Company would never regain its former dominance in the British wine trade. In 1725, the duty of search was finally abandoned, and membership dropped off. Yet the Vintner’s Company has survived to this day, a testament to the evolution of the wine trade.

The Abell-Kilvert controversy is merely one episode in the rich history of grape cultivation and wine making. Today there is little controversy over the statement that California has become one of the premier producers of quality wines. Next Tuesday Tavistock Books will issue a 40+ item FS list, with wine as its focus, and California looming large in this offering. Please watch for it.

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Temperance, Prohibition, and the WCTU
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Irving and Dickens: The Authors Who Saved Christmas


When Clement Clarke Moore published “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” anonymously on December 23, 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, he couldn’t have known that it would become an international phenomenon. But the poem not only gave names to Santa’s eight reindeer. The illustrations of the poem’s reprints significantly impacted our perception of Santa Claus. Caricaturist Thomas Nast would later illustrate jolly old Saint Nick, cementing our concept of him as a jolly. bearded man. And Coca-Cola would eventually be the first to bring us Santa in a red coat. We can thank Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, however, for resurrecting Christmas as a holiday for joyful family celebration.

A Brief History of Christmas

Before Christianity took hold, pagan rituals were routinely honored on the winter solstice. On this day, people would celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. Early church officials, eager to supplant these rites with their own, wisely chose to make Christmas celebrations correspond to these pagan rituals. The strategy had one caveat: the Church couldn’t dictate how people would celebrate Christmas. Thus, Christmas had mostly replaced pagan holidays by the Middle Ages, but holiday observances were usually far from pious. Believers might go to church, but afterward citizens would gather for rowdy festivals similar to Mardi Gras. Each year a student or beggar would be named “Lord of Misrule,” and festival attendants would play the role of his subjects. Meanwhile the poor would go to the homes of the rich to demand food and drink. Non-compliant homeowners risked mischief.


Oliver Cromwell was the original Grinch, canceling Christmas when he took over England in 1645.

But Oliver Cromwell proved to be the original Grinch. A staunch Puritan, Cromwell believed that Christmas was a decadent and unchristian holiday. When he took over in 1645, he vowed to rid England of such indulgences and cancelled Christmas. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne by popular demand and reinstated the holiday. But the holiday wouldn’t immediately take hold. By Dickens’ time, the Industrial Revolution had all but destroyed the holiday in Great Britain–for most people, Christmas was still a work day.

Meanwhile the Puritans had left England to settle in the New World. For the most part, Christmas went uncelebrated in the colonies. In Boston the observation of Christmas even bore a five-shilling fine from 1659 to 1681. (Jamestown was a notable exception: Captain John Smith–the first person ever to consume eggnog–reported in 1607 that the settlement happily enjoyed the holiday.) The American Revolution proved a death knell for traditions of British origin, so Christmas again fell out of favor. It would not be declared a national holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870.

Washington Irving, the Real Father Christmas?

When Washington Irving published Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809) under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, New Year’s Eve was New York’s only real winter holiday. The book parodied American life, and Irving satirized the traditions of New York’s Dutch settlers. He poked fun at their patron saint, Nicholas, whom they called “Sanct Claus.” In Irving’s account of Oloffe the dreamer, Oloffe, a prophet and land speculator, dreams of a night where “the good Saint Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents for children.” Irving’s St. Nicholas not only delivers presents to children in a sleigh; he also smokes a pipe and places the presents in stockings hung by the chimney.


John Pintard’s St. Nicholas isn’t quite the jolly figure we imagine today!

Irving had some unsolicited assistance in St. Nick’s makeover. New York Historical Society founder John Pintard publicized an engraved picture of St. Nicholas–admittedly looking less than merry–as a symbol of New York City. But Americans remained ambivalent about the holiday. Members of different religious denominations had different concepts of what the holiday should be; some saw Christmas as sacred, while others still believed it blasphemous. Observation was spotty at best, though enterprising Boston merchants advertised ritual Christmas gift exchange as early as 1808.


A stray leaf from the correspondence of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens

Irving moved abroad in 1815, and it was not until several years later that he would write another bestseller. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon was published in several installments from 1819 to 1820. Sandwiched in between American classics like “Rip Van Winkle” (first installment) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (sixth installment), Irving published five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book’s fifth installment on January 20, 1820. He’d spent time at Astor Hall, recently leased from Adam Bracebridge by James Watt and passed the Christmas holiday with the Watt family. Irving was charmed by their Christmas traditions, reinventing Watt as the benevolent “Squire Bracebridge” in “Bracebridge Hall.” In “Christmas,” Irving writes, “But in the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm and wrapped in her shroud of shielded snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources.” He would later explain the tradition of hanging mistletoe to American readers with a footnote in “Christmas Eve.” Irving believed that America could use a dose of English Christmas tradition, particularly the part where the poor are welcomed into the homes of the wealthy for a meal.

Historians mostly agree that Irving idealized the English country Christmas in The Sketch Book, but the veracity of his accounts wasn’t important to Americans. They embraced Irving’s stories. Then in 1828, the New York City Council had to create its first police force in response to a Christmas riot. The upper class decided it was time to reinvent the holiday, and Irving’s accounts fit the bill. By 1835, New Yorkers had all but abandoned Christmas revelry in favor of more idyllic celebrations at home. Christmas was revived in America.

Charles Dickens Follows Irving’s Footsteps


Report of the Dinner Given to Charles Dickens in Boston (Feb 1, 1842)

Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842, and Washington Irving hosted a dinner in his honor on February 1 of that year. Numerous luminaries attended, and the event made headlines. When Dickens addressed the audience and thanked his host, he admitted his own devotion to Irving: “I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.” In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens evokes Irving’s Squire Bracebridge in the character of Mr. Wardle, who merrily reminds his guests that it’s customary to while away the hours of Christmas Eve with games and ghost stories. Dickens again adapts Irving’s presentation of Christmas in A Christmas Carol, placing them in Mr. Fezziwig’s hall and in the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Thus he takes Christmas out of the country manor and brings it to working class London. Dickens’ Christmas is also centered on family and children, rather than church or community, another paradigm shift that Victorians readily embraced.


Dickens brought suit against five defendants for selling a piratical edition of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Only one fought the charges, and the account makes for interesting reading!

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in only six weeks during the autumn of 1843. It was published on December 19, and all 6,000 copies sold out that day. Dickens had chosen to illustrate the book with colored plates, but the expense associated with that method cut into his profits. It would be the first and only book he published with such plates. The illustrations, however, helped to bring Dickens’ Christmas to life and have since inspired a number of talented illustrators–not to mention printers and book binders who have also been taken with the work. A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print, and so many editions exist that the book is the perfect subject for a single-title collection. Dickens would write other Christmas tales, but none of these would have such an influence on the way the holiday was celebrated. Dickens’ exhausting schedule of reading tours–the first of which was for A Christmas Carol– doubtless helped promulgate his vision of Christmas, as well.

Washington Irving and Charles Dickens helped to pave the way for a rich tradition of Christmas literature, ranging from community cookbooks to children’s books. But these contributions are merely one facet of the authors’ incredible legacies.

Related Posts:

Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas? 
Charles Dickens Does Boston
Charles Dickens’ Debt to Henry Fielding
Happy Birthday, Washington Irving! 


Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?



Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a beloved part of the literary canon–and for many an indispensable part of the holiday season. The story embodies the goodwill associated with the Christmas season–and it has the Victorians’ favorite elements of a good Christmas story: ghosts. Dickens wrote other Christmas tales that also incorporated phantoms and ghosts, as did his Victorian cohorts. But why this obsession with ghosts at Christmastime?

An All But Dead Holiday–With Pagan Roots

By Dickens’ time, Christmas was not much of a holiday. In fact, for most people it was still a work day. The Industrial Revolution meant fewer days off for everyone, and Christmas was considered so unimportant that no one complained. This was thanks to none other than Oliver Cromwell, the Lord and Protector of England in mid seventeenth-century England. Cromwell had toiled to eradicate Christmas altogether because the holiday had no scriptural basis; the Bible mentions no “holy day” other than the Sabbath and certainly doesn’t exhort Christians to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25.


Furthermore, Cromwell knew that the date of December 25 was shrewdly chosen by early Christian officials who wanted to replace pagan rituals with Christian ones. The day was selected because of its association with two pagan holidays, Yule and Sol Invictus (the birthday of the Unconquered Sun). Both were celebrated in conjunction with the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. On this night, the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds were considered particularly permeable. It was believed that spirits would return to Earth to finish unsettled business–exactly what Jacob Marley does in A Christmas Carol.

Spinning a Winter’s Tale

While there’s scant proof that the Christmas ghost tale existed as a consciously undertaken tradition before the Victorian era, there is etymological evidence that the tradition stretches back at least to Shakespeare’s time. In “A Christmas Tree” (1859), Dickens writes, “There is probably a smell of roasted chestnuts and other good comfortable things over time, for we are telling Winter Stories–Ghost Stories, or more shame for us–round the Christmas fire.” That phrase “winter stories” and its variant “winter’s tale” had mostly fallen into disuse by Dickens’ day, but it refers to a fantastical yarn that one would weave to entertain interlocutors around a wintertime fire.

An even more specific connotation for “winter story” or its relative “winter’s tale” notably shows up in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jews of Malta (1589) with a very specific definition: a “winter’s tale” is a ghost story.

Now I remember those old women’s words

Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales

And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night

Shortly thereafter Shakespeare would play on this meaning with A Winter’s Tale (1623), in which Prince Maximillius says, “A sad tale’s best for winter; I have one/Of sprites and goblins.” Later in Saducismus Triumphatis, Joseph Glanville’s treatise on witchcraft published posthumously in 1681, Glanville admonishes individuals who dismiss the existence of witchcraft as “meer Winter Tales or Old Wives fables.”

Robert Louis Stevenson would later evoke the winter’s tale with The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale (1889). Though the story contains no ghosts of the usual sort, the Master cheats death multiple times. He essentially haunts his brother, Henry, who eventually exclaims, “nothing can kill that man. He is not mortal. He is bound upon my back to all eternity–to all eternity!” Later, after the Master’s body has been buried, Henry still does not believe the Master has perished. Henry is incredulous: “He’s not of this world, neither him nor that black de’il that serves him.”

A Victorian Predisposition for the Ghostly

The Victorian Age was one in which spiritual beliefs were constantly being upended by scientific discoveries. It’s no wonder that Victorians turned to spiritualism and other superstitions to distract from that state of uncertainty, or that seances, table rapping, and other fads took hold. Another of these was telling ghost stories, and Dickens was far from the only author to participate. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was noted for his rather eccentric spiritualism. Edith Nesbitt, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Rudyard Kipling all wrote ghost stories that often get overshadowed by their more famous works. And Henry James uses Christmas ghost storytelling as a frame for Turn of the Screw. Most importantly, Washington Irving had actually presaged Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers’ Gabriel Grub character (a character visited by goblins in Mr. Warble’s Christmas tale) with his own depictions of the Christmas holiday, a relationship that we’ll explore in an upcoming post.

The tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas stuck. Slightly later, Eton Provost and author Montague Rhodes James would entertain his students with ghostly tales around the Christmas fire. HP Lovecraft’s “The Festival” was written for Christmas. And twentieth-century Canadian author Robertson Davies would spin ghost tales for Massey College students every Christmas season. Though not widely practiced, the winter’s tale lives on as a Christmas tradition.

This month, in anticipation of the Christmas season, we offer select acquisitions of Dickensian Christmas literature. We invite you to peruse the list, which includes 60 items. Should you have a question about any item, please don’t hesitate to contact us!