Christmas 2016: Twelfth Cake

by Prof Anne Lawrence


Twelfth Night: or King and Queen’ by the early-modern poet, Robert Herrick begins:

Now, now the mirth comes With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Beside we must know, The pea also
Must revel, as queen, in the court here.
Begin then to choose, This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot, And who shall not
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here.
Which known, let us make Joy-sops with the cake
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink To the base from the brink
A health to the king and queen here.’

The poem goes on to give a rough recipe for spiced ale flavoured with apple, which is to be drunk with the cake – and clearly the cake itself is to be luxuriously full of fruit as well as hiding the bean and the pea which will determine the Lord of the feasting (also called the Lord of Misrule) and the Queen.  It must be admitted though that the cake’s status as a luxury food appears less important than its role in the drinking, dressing-up, rule-breaking and trick-playing which characterised the last days and nights of the long Christmas feast.

The idea of Twelfth Night (or Twelfth Day or Twelfthtide) is recorded in England as early as the tenth century, when a poetic account of the Christian calendar recounted that Christ was born in December, at midwinter (the winter solstice), eight days before the Roman New Year, and that five days after New Year came Christ’s baptism, known as Twelfth Day in Britain.  Few descriptions are given of how the feast was celebrated until the fifteenth century.  Church records in the late middle ages mention the Feast of Fools on 1st January, and themes of dressing up, cross-dressing and misrule are linked to this feast and to Holy Innocents (28th December) as well as Twelfth Night.  Senior clergy were expected to give way to their juniors, who could go too far.  In 1495 priests in Paris apparently celebrated mass on this day while wearing terrifying and monstrous masks, and ran round their church dressed up as women whilst burning old shoes instead of incense.  The only food mentioned is black pudding, which was scandalously eaten at the altar.  Similar ‘outrages’ are recorded from Wells, Exeter, Lincoln, Canterbury and York.

This theme of going to extremes in eating, drinking and rule-breaking, characterises Christmas in medieval sources.  Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas, opened a period of fasting, reaching a peak on Christmas Eve – when sleep was also in short supply, due to the night-time and early-morning services which saw in Christmas Day itself.  After all this, the Christmas celebrations took off, with the wealthy expected to distribute festive food and drink.  Perhaps especially popular was the custom that peasant farmers were freed from labour on their lords’ lands throughout the twelve days – and that the lord should lay on a feast for them.

This feast echoes the ‘world-turned-upside-down’ theme; and appropriate entertainments were expected.  The emphasis in these was on disguise, cross-dressing, trick-playing, and a lot of drinking…  An extreme version was described in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when a supernatural figure appeared in King Arthur’s court, demanded that someone cut off his head, and then issued a challenge from the decapitated head.  The food at Arthur’s feast is not described, but King Henry V’s Christmas visitors were regaled with: brawn (made from the belly flesh of wild boar); prawns, crayfish, eels and lampreys; an enormous range of fish (including turbot and porpoise); roast meats; marzipan; and dates in spiced cream.  The poorer guests at feasts were expected to sing for their suppers by putting on musical and dramatic performances, sometimes going from house to house throughout the twelve days.  Courtiers wearing elaborate masks and animal disguises danced and rode through the court and the streets with torches and lanterns.

By the later middle ages the bringing into the feasting hall of a whole, cooked boar’s head at Christmas had become a ceremonial event, apparently involving a procession of costumed dancers and the singing of a special song.  The boar’s head was apparently symbolic, since it was replaced in some locations by a wooden version in the early modern period.  The ‘Goodman of Paris’ in his late-fourteenth-century book on housekeeping, says that Special Feasts included: a first course of pasties, sausages and black pudding; four courses of fish, fowl and roast meats; and a final course of custards, tarts, nuts and sweetmeats.  Sadly, while flans, tarts and pastries abound in his lists of recipes, there is nothing equating to a fruit cake.



References to the ‘bean cake’ in English sources begin in the fourteenth century, when Edward II and Edward III seem to have imitated the court customs of their French rivals.  The finder of the bean was ‘bean king’ and lord of misrule for the day – but no recipes for the cake are recorded.  The custom was not immediately successful in England, but rose to great heights of popularity in the 16th century, as celebrated in the poem above.  It is perhaps because of this break in the tradition that the English cake is always described as a heavy fruit cake, very different from the King Cake associated with Twelfth Night and Epiphany in France and many other countries.  The emphasis on hearty drinking to wash down the heavy cake would help to keep out the winter cold – and make it easier for party guests to join in whatever games the Lord (and Lady) of misrule ordained …

If you would like to have a go at making your own Twelfth Cake then have a look at the following recipe.  It might not quite be medieval, but as the tradition of Twelfth Cake was part of Christmas celebrations up into the mid-Victorian period, we think it is suitably historic!



Our recipes come courtesy of the FutureLearn MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ‘A History of Royal Food and Feasting’, which has been created by the University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces.  Our particular thanks to HRP’s food historian Annie Grey for her research into these historic recipes.


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