Christmas dinner with James I and his favourites

Orazio Busino, chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador in London, describes riotous Christmas festivities at the court of James I. Busino disapproves: “Should your lordships writhe on reading or listening to this tediousness you may imagine the weariness I feel in relating it.”

At about the 6th hour of the night the king appeared with his court, having passed through the apartments where the ambassadors were in waiting, whence he graciously conducted them, that is to say, the Spaniard and the Venetian, it not being the Frenchman’s turn, he and the Spaniard only attending the court ceremonies alternately by reason of their disputes about precedence.

On entering the house, the cornets and trumpets to the number of fifteen or twenty began to play very well a sort of recitative, and then after his Majesty had seated himself under the canopy alone, the queen not being present on account of a slight indisposition, he caused the ambassadors to sit below him on two stools, while the great officers of the crown and courts of law sat upon benches. The Lord Chamberlain then had the way cleared and in the middle of the theatre there appeared a fine and spacious area carpeted all over with green cloth. In an instant a large curtain dropped, painted to represent a tent of gold cloth with a broad fringe; the background was of canvas painted blue, powdered all over with golden stars. This became the front arch of the stage, forming a drop scene, and on its being removed there appeared first of all Mount Atlas, whose enormous head was alone visible up aloft under the very roof of the theatre; it rolled up its eyes and moved itself very cleverly. As a foil to the principal ballet and masque they had some mummeries performed in the first act; for instance, a very chubby Bacchus appeared on a car drawn by four gownsmen, who sang in an undertone before his Majesty. There was another stout individual on foot, dressed in red in short clothes, who made a speech, reeling about like a drunkard, tankard in hand, so that he resembled Bacchus’s cupbearer. This first scene was very gay and burlesque. Next followed twelve extravagant masquers, one of whom was in a barrel, all but his extremities, his companions being similarly cased in huge wicker flasks, very well made. They danced awhile to the sound of the cornets and trumpets, performing various and most extravagant antics. These were followed by a gigantic man representing Hercules with his club, who strove with Antaeus and performed other feats. Then came twelve masked boys in the guise of frogs. They danced together, assuming sundry grotesque attitudes. After they had all fallen down, they were driven off by Hercules. Mount Atlas then opened, by means of two doors, which were made to turn, and from behind the hills of a distant landscape the day was seen to dawn, some gilt columns being placed along either side of the scene, so as to aid the perspective and make the distance seem greater. Mercury next appeared before the king and made a speech. After him came a guitar player in a gown, who sang some trills, accompanying himself with his instrument. He announced himself as some deity, and then a number of singers, dressed in long red gowns to represent high priests, came on the stage, wearing gilt mitres. In the midst of them was a goddess in a long white robe and they sang some jigs which we did not understand. It is true that, spoiled as we are by the graceful and harmonious music of Italy, the composition did not strike us as very fine. Finally twelve cavaliers, masked, made their appearance, dressed uniformly, six having the entire hose crimson with plaited doublets of white satin trimmed with gold and silver lace. The other six wore breeches down to the knee, with the half hose also crimson, and white shoes. These matched well their corsets which were cut in the shape of the ancient Roman corslets. On their heads they wore long hair and crowns and very tall white plumes. Their faces were covered with black masks. These twelve descended together from above the scene in the figure of a pyramid, of which the prince formed the apex. When they reached the ground the violins, to the number of twenty-five or thirty began to play their airs. After they had made an obeisance to his Majesty, they began to dance in very good time, preserving for a while the same pyramidical figure. and with a variety of steps. Afterwards they changed places with each other in various ways, but ever ending the jump together. When this was over, each took his lady, the prince pairing with the principal one among those who were ranged in a row ready to dance, and the others doing the like in succession, all making obeisance to his Majesty first and then to each other. They performed every sort of ballet and dance of every country whatsoever such as passamezzi, corants, canaries see Spaniards and a hundred other very fine gestures devised to tickle the fancy (fatte a pizzego). Last of all they danced the Spanish dance, one at a time, each with his lady, and being well nigh tired they began to lag, whereupon the king, who is naturally choleric, got impatient and shouted aloud Why don’t they dance ? What did they make me come here for ? Devil take you all, dance. Upon this, the Marquis of Buckingham, his Majesty’s favourite, immediately sprang forward, cutting a score of lofty and very minute capers, with so much grace and agility that he not only appeased the ire of his angry lord, but rendered himself the admiration and delight of everybody. The other masquers, thus encouraged, continued to exhibit their prowess one after another, with various ladies, also finishing with capers and lifting their godesses from the ground. We counted thirty-four capers as cut by one cavalier in succession, but none came up to the exquisite manner of the marquis. The prince, however, excelled them all in bowing, being very formal in making his obeisance both to the king and to the lady with whom he danced, nor was he once seen to do a step out of time when dancing, whereas one cannot perhaps say so much for the others. Owing to his youth he has not yet much breath, nevertheless he cut a few capers very gracefully.

The encounter of these twelve accomplished cavaliers being ended, and after they had valiantly overcome the sloth and debauch of Bacchus, the prince went in triumph to kiss his father’s hands. The king embraced and kissed him tenderly and then honoured the marquis with marks of extraordinary affection, patting his face. The king now rose from his chair, took the ambassadors along with him, and after passing through a number of chambers and galleries he reached a hall where the usual collation was spread for the performers, a light being carried before him. After he had glanced all round the table he departed, and forthwith the parties concerned pounced upon the prey like so many harpies. The table was covered almost entirely with seasoned pasties and very few sugar confections. There were some large figures, but they were of painted pasteboard for ornament. The repast was served upon glass plates or dishes and at the first assault they upset the table and the crash of glass platters reminded me precisely of a severe hailstorm at Midsummer smashing the window glass. The story ended at half past two in the morning and half disgusted and weary we returned home.

Should your lordships writhe on reading or listening to this tediousness you may imagine the weariness I feel in relating it.

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