January 6th. The Feast of the Epiphany. Old Uphalyday

Uphalyday feast
Feast of the Epiphany. c1600-1649. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


With Twelfth Night comes an end, despite the protestations of Sir Toby Belch, to all the cakes and ale. But the ceremonies close with one last cake in hand: twelfth cakes were baked to close the Yule festivities, and contained a bean; whoever found the bean inside was master of the final revelries, king for one short day, in the spirit of the Roman Saturnalia. The ‘bean king’ and his antics have the whiff of flatulence embodied in the Shakespeare play by Toby Belch himself – the archetypal Lord of Misrule and Buffoonery.

The ‘king of the beans’ – ‘rex fabarum’ – was elected for the Christmas period at Merton College Oxford from 1487 to 1557, but St Andrews University, according to Anna Mill’s Mediaeval Plays in Scotland, predates this with its ‘rex ffabe’ (at the Feast of Kings) by more than fifty years. The rex fabarum had the power to punish misdemeanours, and calls to mind the schoolboys who lorded high at Candlemas, in return for payments of silver to their masters. Revels such as these allowed the underdog his chance to have the upper hand, and schools and universities were the mirror miniatures of the Royal courts.

A little more refined were the ‘queens’ of the bean, elected at the court of Mary, queen of Scots. The English envoy Randolph attended the festivities at Holyrood on Uphalyday Eve in 1563, and sent Robert Dudley a somewhat besotted report of the favourite Mary Fleming, queen for the day: ‘you should have seen…the great solemnity and royal estate of the queen of bean. Fortune was so favourable to fair Fleming, that, if she could have seen to have judged of her virtue and beauty, as she went blindly to work and chose her at adventure, she would sooner have made her a queen for ever, than for only one day, to exalt her so high and the next to leave her in the state she found her’.

Fortune proved more even-handed; Mary Beton was bean queen the following year. In the meantime, though, ‘the queen of bean was in a gown of cloth of silver, her head, her neck, her shoulders, the rest of her whole body so beset with stones, that more in our whole jewel house were not to be found,’ Randolph writes.

More poignantly, for us, perhaps, he adds – ‘The queen herself’ was dressed in white and black, ‘no jewel or gold about her but the ring that I brought her from the Queen’s majestie’ – a gift from Queen Elizabeth – ‘with a lace of white and black about her neck’.

The treasurers’ accounts for the Scottish courts show payments to the ‘king of bean’ from 1489.

In 1496, £5 were paid to John Goldsmith as his expenses as king of bean, while the incumbent the following year received £3 17 shillings and sixpence. There were payments too for trumpeters, and guisers to help see out the Yule.  In 1539, play coats were required for uphalyday amusements at the court of James V. Cards and dice were played – at the English court and universities, playing cards were permitted only at Christmas time, since they were thought to distract the young men from archery practice.  (There were similar complaints of football games in Scotland.)

At the Protestant courts of Edward VI and Elizabeth in England, the tyranny of bean kings had come to an end. Nor is there a record of the king of the bean at the Scottish court of James VI. In James’ case, perhaps it was a mark of his own insecurity, sensitive to ridicule, rather than the pressure of the Kirk, for he remained a staunch defender of the Yule – and of the authority of kings.

Lesser folk could still enjoy their twelfth cake, with a bean for the king for a day, and sometimes a pea for the queen. The Uphalyday traditions appear to have survived, or perhaps were revived, in the nineteenth century, when the Yule in Scotland had long become eclipsed by the New Year holiday. The teenaged son and daughter of Sir Walter Scott enjoyed a ‘magnificent’ party for twelfth night held at Dalkeith house by the duke of Buccleugh in January 1814, where ‘the whole of Edinburgh’ (all, we may suppose, of a certain class) were royally entertained. In London at the time, the pastry cooks’ windows were filled with elaborate confections, the twelfth cake refined to extravagant excess. William Hone’s Every Day Book for 1825 reports ‘Scarcely a shop in London that offers a halfpenny plain bun to the purchase of a hungry boy, is without Twelfth-cakes and finery in the windows on Twelfth-day’:

with every pastry cook in the city, and at the west end of the town, it is “high change” on Twelfth-day. From the taking down of the shutters in the morning, he, and his men are fully occupied …Before dusk the important arrangement of the window is completed. Then the gas is turned on… to illuminate countless cakes of all prices and dimensions, that stand in rows and piles on the counters and sideboards, and in the windows. The richest in flavour and heaviest in weight and price are placed on large and massy salvers; one, enormously superior to the rest in size, is the chief object of curiosity; and all are decorated with all imaginable images of things animate and inanimate. Stars, castles, kings, cottages, dragons, trees, fish, palaces, cats, dogs, churches, lions, milk maids, knights, serpents, and innumerable other forms in snow-white confectionary, painted with variegated colours, glitter by  “excess of light” from mirrors against the walls festooned with artificial “wonders of Flora”.

The elaborate twelfth cakes of the 1820s no longer carry beans. Instead, they come with characters, each on a paper in a pretty verse, which are drawn by lots as the cake is cut, the characters beginning with a king and queen.

The papers can be bought in packets from the cake shop, like a game of charades. ‘ “According to Twelfth-day law, each party is to support their character till midnight.” The maintenance of character is essential to the drawing.’ Yet, the author warns, ‘Within the personal observation of the writer of these sheets, character has never been preserved. It must be admitted, however, that the Twelfth-night characters sold by the pastry cooks, are either commonplace Or gross — when genteel they are inane ; when humorous, they are vulgar.’ So the king of bean, in his rude excess, bows to the politeness of a parlour game.


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