A Very Cavendish Christmas with Dr Fiona Clapperton

A Very Cavendish Christmas

Learn about the different ways in which Christmas has been celebrated at Welbeck throughout the centuries with historian and Education Manager, Dr Fiona Clapperton.

This talk looks at a variety of festive traditions, from feasts thrown in the day of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, to the Christmas shoots organised by his descendant, William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland.

Find out whether the Stuarts preferred to serve roasted swan or turkey, and hear about the shooting party of December 1913, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand visited Welbeck.

The talk also covers the festive traditions of the servants and staff working on the Welbeck Estate.


“Christmas in Stuart times was an extravagant affair. Celebrations lasted a full 12 days and were enjoyed by rich and poor alike. At the royal court, festivities lasted even longer. It began officially on 1 November and ended on 2 February![1]

There were three main festivals:

  • On Christmas Day, the birth of Jesus was celebrated.
  • On New Year’s Day, the New Year was celebrated and the focus was on new beginnings. Unlike today, New Year’s Day in the Stuart period was the time for everyone to give & receive gifts.
  • Finally, on the evening and the night of 6 January, everyone celebrated was called Twelfth Night. This was the date when the Wise Men were supposed to have visited Jesus. It is referenced in the famous Christmas Carol, the twelve days of Christmas. The Stuarts sang carols just as we do today. In fact, some of our favourite Christmas carols were sung in Stuart times, including The Twelve Days of Christmas, The First Nowell, I saw three ships, God rest ye merry gentlemen, and While shepherds watched.[2]

Twelfth Night marked the end of the official Christmas celebrations. It was seen out in the most outrageous manner with games, feasting and merry-making.[3]

The Lord of Misrule was the name given to the person who oversaw the entire holiday in big households and at the royal court. He was the master of ceremonies and made sure everyone had lots of fun![4]

Welbeck during the Stuart Period, the tenure of William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle

At Welbeck, Christmas celebrations during this period were held in the Great Hall. A carved wooden screen shielded the Great Hall from the service area. This part of the Abbey was known as ‘screens passage’. Drinks and dishes of food made their journeys through this passage on their way from kitchens to the Great Hall. The kinds of food and drink served at this time were a little different from our modern Christmas dinners, but there are some surprising similarities!

Every year there were around forty brewings at Welbeck, and the estate produced different grades of beer that ranged from the ‘strong beer’ drunk by William himself to the ‘small beer’ drunk by the lower servants and children. The most alcoholic of all was the ‘October ale’ which was brewed with the new season’s malt. That was saved for celebrations like Christmas.[5]

The roast meat served at Christmas was usually an extravagant bird, however, unlike today, Swan was a popular option. William Cavendish, who owned Welbeck at this time, was doubtful as to whether the swan or the turkey took pride of place amongst the roast fowl. He wrote the following poem, joking that:

The swan she did boast,
The best of the roast,
‘Nay soft’, said the Turkey, ‘’Tis I,
So plump & so fat,
What say you to that,
When in sauce of onions I lie?’[6]

Whatever your choice, the roasted meat was sent out first, according to the writer Gervase Markham. In a piece of writing from 1615 he recommended that for a banquet: ‘You shall first send forth a dish made for show only, as beast, bird, fish or fowl, according to invention; then your march-pane (marzipan), then preserved fruit, then a paste, then a wet sucket (sweetmeet), then a dry sucket, marmalade, comfets, apples, pears, wardens, oranges and lemons sliced…no two dishes of one kind going or standing together, and this will not only appear delicate to the eye, but invite the appetite with the much variety thereof.[7]

No matter what was served at the banquet, William Cavendish insisted upon a neat and well-dressed dinner table. In another poem, he praised his pantler’s (servant’s) ability to set a table fit for a Duke:

The Pantler is neat, To set his fine cheat, In napkins that is nipped so finely, His spoons knife and fork, wine bottles with cork, Cooled in snow that drinks so divinely.[8]

Screens passage also formed the backstage area for the dramatic performances taking place in the Great Hall during the festive season.[9] At this time, for members of the aristocracy, the most popular performances were Masques. These were short musical theatre performances. The whole household would get involved and would play different characters. They all wore masks to disguise their true identities.

Christmas during the Civil War

All of these traditions were thrown into disarray during the years following the Civil War.

During Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1653-58), stricter laws were passed to catch anyone holding or attending a special Christmas church service. From 1656, legislation was enacted to ensure that every Sunday was stringently observed as a holy day – the Lord’s Day. By contrast, shops and markets were told to stay open on 25 December, and in the City of London soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas celebrations.[10]

It’s important to consider these measures within the context of the Puritan movement that began in the 16th century. As we have seen, Christmas in the Stuart period, as now, was a time of both long-cherished rituals and excessive social behaviour. From the mid-1500s, objections to frivolous events like Christmas were voiced by Puritan leaders and pamphleteers like Philip Stubbs. They saw Christmas as a wasteful festival that threatened Christian beliefs and encouraged immoral activities, to (in Stubbs’ words) the ‘great dishonour of God’. The discontent felt within the Puritan community towards festivals led to the enactment of forceful legislation even before Cromwell’s protectorate. In January 1645, Parliament produced a new Directory for Public Worship that made clear that festival days, including Christmas, were not to be celebrated but spent in respectful contemplation.[11]

However, while there were no great Christmas festivities held at Welbeck during this time, William did manage to send presents to his daughters from Antwerp where he was living in exile. These included:

A ‘curious fan’, a sweet-toothed comb to ‘comb bad thoughts away’, bracelets, silks, masks and china cloths.[12]

Once Cromwell passed away, and Charles II was restored to the throne, William Cavendish was able to return from exile. Christmas festivities returned to Welbeck. But they were different from those celebrated before the Civil War. One of the biggest changes was that Masques had fallen out of popularity and they were no longer performed in the great hall.

Victorian Christmas

We are now going to whizz forwards in time to the Victorian period, but I will quickly mention a Georgian Christmas tradition.

Many of us know that decorating trees at Christmas-time was a festive activity popularised by Prince Albert. Inspired by his German heritage, trees in the royal household were adorned with lit candles and trinkets and the interiors filled with evergreen decorations.[13] However, Victoria and Albert weren’t the first royals to put up what we know of today as a Christmas tree. George III married Queen Charlotte who, like Albert, was raised in Germany. Charlotte is credited with bringing decorated evergreen trees to England when she introduced their first Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in 1800.[14]

Victoria and Albert are so closely linked to the tradition because they were famously illustrated standing beside a decorated tree with their children. This engraving was published in the press in the 1840s and it quickly took hold of the national imagination.[15]

Staff at Welbeck

While for the earlier time period, where much of our information on Welbeck’s Christmas celebrations focuses on the family living in the Abbey, for the Victorian period we have more evidence of how the staff at Welbeck spent their Christmas.

In 1850, during the time of William Cavendish-Scott-Bentick, the 4th Duke of Portland, on Christmas day breakfast in the hall was offered to 20 outdoor employees from the Stables, 15 from the Farm, 10 from the Plantation and 2 visitors’ servants.[16]

We also know that it had become common for noble individuals like the Dukes of Portland to extend their charity to the poor during the Christmas period. The tradition of bestowing gifts of meat, coal and clothing to tenants of country estates took hold during the nineteenth century. Country newspapers filled with notices of these charitable bequests. Typical of these is one from The Western Gazette dated 20th January 1871, which states: “a quantity of pheasants were sent into Sherborne by Mr. Erle-Drax and distributed among his numerous friends; and the tenants connected with the Holnest, Longburton and Folke estates have also been liberally supplied with game.” Others went to greater efforts to please their tenants. A notice from 1892, for instance, reports that Lord Wolverton, of Iwerne Minster, “had a fat bullock killed this week and distributed to the workmen and tenants on his estate.”[17] Gifts such as these were a welcome treat for many working-class families, as most could not afford to buy meat at Christmas time. The presents were often distributed by the estate steward or land agent, but occasionally the mistress of the household might take it upon herself to personally visit each of the tenants and their families.

We know from historical records that during the 4th Duke’s time, meat, bread and beer were given away at Welbeck – Always at Christmas, and often in hard winters.[18]

When the son of the 4th Duke inherited the title and the estate, William John Cavendish- Scott-Bentinck 5th Duke of Portland not only gave gifts to his tenants and staff but would come out to see them and spend time with them during the festive season. Elizabeth Butler, Laundry Maid to the 5th Duke of Portland recalls: ‘Some of the women used to work [with]… small children with them, especially in holiday times. Now one thing is certain, the Duke was fond of children, who were never frightened or nervous with him. I have heard from some of them, grown older, of their days in the woods, especially at chestnut times when he used to set them gathering chestnuts… He would help them too, till one small girl said “I don’t like gathering downhill, Mester” “Very well, we will turn and go up” said the Duke. Meeting the same child one evening as she was leaving work, he said “Where are all your chestnuts? “Ah Mester, we’ve left them all in the wood” was her answer.[19]

New Years Day was still a more important date for celebrations at this time. Elizabeth Butler recalls that “The Annual Dinner for the Servants was held on New Year’s Day, not at Christmas.” Unfortunately, one year it was cancelled at short notice because the 5th Duke’s brother had died only two days before. Butler wrote that: “The man who brought us the news did so in this way There’s not going to be any New Year’s because Lord Henry is dead. Well of course there will be New Year’s but no dinner’. It shows how little things of that sort were made public talk of in those days, because lord Henry died late on Saturday night, and the news was brought to the Duke either during that night or on Sunday, and we did not know of it till early on Monday morning. I do remember being told that on the Duke receiving the message he sat for an hour without speaking or moving, and then told his valet that the heir to Welbeck was dead.”[20]

Late Victorian/Edwardian Era

By the late Victorian, Early Edwardian period, celebrations for domestic servants at houses like Welbeck had grown much larger. Christmas was a busy time of year. It was also one of the few occasions where staff members hard work and loyal service might be acknowledged and rewarded. Many landowners – especially those with 20 or more servants – held some sort of celebration for their household staff and a local band was often drafted in to provide the musical entertainment.[21]

It was the custom for the master of the house to begin festivities by dancing with the cook or housekeeper, whilst his wife would partner the house steward or butler.[22]

After William Cavendish-Bentick became the 6th Duke of Portland in 1879, he and his wife, Duchess Winifred, usually spent Christmas at Welbeck. One of the events of the season was the Christmas Household Ball to celebrate the Duke’s birthday, which fell on December 28th. It was held in the vast underground picture gallery, and one observer, Charles Archard described ‘the subjects of the old painters looking down from their canvases upon the gay dancers.[23]

Archard noted: “Choice exotics, stately palms and seasonable shrubs add to the variety of the decorations. The band is almost hidden in a bower of foliage in the centre of the great saloon, and there are 500 guests of all ranks of society from peers and peeresses to the humblest domestic servant.[24]

About ten o’clock the Duke and Duchess appear with their house party, and dancing commences. The Duke has the housekeeper for partner and the Duchess the house-steward, while the aristocratic guests find partners among other chiefs of departments in the Welbeck household.[25]

With midnight comes supper, served in two adjacent underground rooms, that owe their excavation to the grim hobby of the old Duke. All the festive party sit down to supper at the same time, the Duke’s French chef providing the menu. The house-steward presides and proposes the health of the ducal family. This is welcomed in the manner it deserves and then dancing is resumed in the picture gallery.[26]


During the early years of the twentieth century, boxing day at the country house would often be devoted to outdoor sports such as hunting or a shooting.[27]

The 6th Duke of Portland recalled one such shoot in his memoirs, when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting Welbeck with his wife. The duke wrote that [In Dec 1913] On his first day out, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand found some of the high-flying pheasants rather more than he could manage; but on the two following days he proved himself to be quite first-class, and certainly the equal of most of my friends. I am convinced that, given enough practice in this country, he would have been equal to any of our best shots… I was told that he was considered the best rifle shot in Austria and Hungary, and I can well believe it. We found H.I.H. and his charming wife the most delightful of guests.[28]

However, the 6th Duke did draw attention to one particular incident from this time: “When the Archduke was my guest in December, 1913, he had a narrow escape from being killed. There was rather deep snow on the ground; and after a rise of pheasants, one of the loaders fell down. This caused both barrels of a gun he was carrying to be discharged, the shot passing within a few feet of the Archduke and myself. I have often wondered whether the great war might not have been averted, or at least postponed, had the Archduke met his death then, and not at Sarajevo in the following year.[29]

The 6th Duke also recalled another occasion when he hosted the future 10th Duke of Devonshire, then known as Lord Hartington. He reminisced that Hartington “was a keen though not very accurate shot. When shooting at Creswell Crags, in company with Henry Chaplin and one or two other of his old friends, he killed an exceptionally high-flying partridge in a manner equal to [some of the best shots]. His friends thereupon gave a loud cheer. When the drive was over, he said to me, I wonder why Harry Chaplin and the others cheered when I fired both barrels at a cock-pheasant and missed.’ ‘Missed a cock-pheasant with both barrels?’ I said. ‘Why, you killed the highest partridge that ever flew from Nottinghamshire into Derbyshire!’ ‘Did I?’ said Hartington. ‘I didn’t even know it was there. However, it’s over now, so don’t say anything about it, and let me keep my reputation.’ We still call the place Hartington’s stand.[30]

After the First World War, it was accepted that the large-scale shoots of the previous era were at an end. Part of the revulsion against the mass slaughter of game after 1918 arose not merely on grounds of cost and organisation but as a result of the human large-scale slaughter which had taken place in the First World War. In 1937, the Duke of Portland spoke for a number of other landowners when he admitted that he was ‘quite ashamed’ of the ‘enormous number of pheasants we sometimes killed’ on his Welbeck estate in the years before 1914. Although that was not a view shared by King George V. He prided himself on his shooting prowess, and revelled in achieving large bags, both at Sandringham and elsewhere.[31]


The final tradition from this time which we have lots of information on is presents. From the Victorian period onwards, presents were often opened on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Day itself.

We don’t know exactly when presents were opened at Welbeck, but we do know that on one evening each Christmas, all of the children on the Welbeck estate were invited to a party. Charles Archard described one of these events from the early 1900s: “the head of a giant Christmas-tree is reared in the centre of the ball-room, laden with toys for distribution to them, and the pleasures of the entertainment are varied with the tricks of a conjurer and ventriloquist. Thus is afforded a glimpse of the happy relations existing between the Portland family and their retainers.[32]

Presents were also given to servants. We know that at Queen Victoria’s royal homes, Christmas was an opportunity for her to show gratitude to her staff.[33]

Victoria was very involved with her servants, and she took a maternal interest in their wellbeing. At Osborne, for example, there were well over 100 servants and on Christmas Eve the royal family would join them in the servants’ hall to share gifts. Gifts could include books, clothing or food. The queen would also give gifts to her close personal servants like her dressers and pages.[34] This act of gratitude was so important to the queen that she did it before she and her family opened their own presents.[35]

Some noble families didn’t put quite as much thought into the presents given to their servants and tenant.  Viola Geraldine Bankes, of Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne, recalled how “the servants did not have a party, though they did have a Christmas dinner with beef instead of turkey. At nine o’clock, they lined up along one side of the dining room in hierarchical order to receive their excruciatingly dull presents…a length of cloth for each woman, either black for Sunday or cheerful flowered cotton for everyday, to be made up at their own expense, and a box of chocolates. The men were each given ten shillings, and a box or bottle of port.” The custom of presenting maids with a bolt of cloth to be tailored into a new uniform continued in many country houses up until the Second World War.[36]

While many traditions changed over the years, during the Victorian era, the festive season still traditionally ended with the celebration of Twelfth Night. Most country houses held their largest and most elaborate party at this time. Events started with the sharing of the Twelfth Night cake, baked to contain a dried pea and a dried bean. Those who received the slices containing the bean or pea were designated the king and queen of the night’s festivities, which might see the master and mistress having to obey their servants! But, as one servant noted rather soberly: “it was work again in the morning, and a case of wash and change into uniform for a day’s duty.” And so it continued until the next Christmas.[37]


[1] Stuart Christmas | Royal Museums Greenwich (

[2] Stuart Christmas | Royal Museums Greenwich (

[3] Stuart Christmas | Royal Museums Greenwich (

[4] Stuart Christmas | Royal Museums Greenwich (

[5] Cavalier p.63.

[6] Cavalier p.93.

[7] Cavalier p.112.

[8] Cavalier p.63.

[9] Cavalier pp.61-62.

[10] Did Oliver Cromwell Really Ban Christmas? | Historic England

[11] Did Oliver Cromwell Really Ban Christmas? | Historic England

[12] Cavalier p.190.




[16] The Welbeck Kitchen, p.27.

[17] How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses’, Luke Mouland, 27.01.2021

[18] The Welbeck Kitchen, p.28.

[19] Tunnel Vision, p.23.

[20] Tunnel Vision, p.29.

[21] How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses’, Luke Mouland, 27.01.2021

[22] How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses’, Luke Mouland, 27.01.2021

[23] Charles J. Archard, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907) accessed A P Nicholson | Created: 16-April-2004

[24] Charles J. Archard, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907) accessed A P Nicholson | Created: 16-April-2004

[25] Charles J. Archard, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907) accessed A P Nicholson | Created: 16-April-2004

[26] Charles J. Archard, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907) accessed A P Nicholson | Created: 16-April-2004

[27] How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses’, Luke Mouland, 27.01.2021

[28] Men, Women & Things pp.246-7.

[29] Men, Women & Things p.247.

[30] Men, Women & Things p.247.

[31] Pamela Horn, Country House Society, p.121


[32] Charles J. Archard, The Portland Peerage Romance (1907) accessed A P Nicholson | Created: 16-April-2004




[36] How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses’, Luke Mouland, 27.01.2021

[37] How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses’, Luke Mouland, 27.01.2021



Fiona Clapperton – Education

Dr Fiona Clapperton

Fiona is a historian and Education and Engagement Manager for the Harley Foundation.

She has a PhD the social history of Country Estates, and her experience includes working at Chatsworth, English Heritage, and the Wallace Collection.