Friday, March 25, 2016

Tudor Eastertide

The Crucifixion of Jesus - Good Friday
 A look at Tudor era Easter worship and celebration reveals that elements that are not all that different than what we enjoy today. Egg decorating, for example, has been done for centuries. Since eggs were one of the many foods prohibited during Lent, Easter has long included this symbol of new life in colorful glory. Other Tudor traditions surrounding Holy Week may not seem as familiar.

For someone living in the 16th century, Easter was a more reverent and holy time than it is for many modern celebrants. Following the fasting and repentance of Lent, Easter celebrated new life. Not just the new life of spring but new life in Christ who rose from the dead to defeat death.

Holy week could include an ebb and flow of emotions as worshipers remembered the sacrifice made for them. Holy Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday, commemorates the Last Supper. In Tudor times this day was spent purifying the church, in confession, and taking communion. Some people may have also experienced the symbolic washing of the feet on this day, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples before giving them the bread and wine. Maundy Thursday began the service of the Triduum or Three Days that follows Jesus from the upper room, to Gethsemane, before Pilate, and to the cross. The altar was stripped of decor and swathed in black in preparation for Good Friday.

Queen Mary I Blessing Cramp Rings
Good Friday was and is the low point of Lent. A day of fasting was recognized in reverence for the death of the Savior. It was common to prostrate oneself before a crucifix in sorrow and repentance. In low light, the priest would read John's record of the passion of the Christ in place of a traditional liturgy. In the darkness of Good Friday, the light of Easter was on the horizon, and this was often represented by a single candle lit in the dark sanctuary. The candle was one symbol of hope pointing to Easter morning.

Another hopeful tradition that was included one this day until it was forsaken as a result of the Reformation was the blessing of rings. Catholic monarchs from Edward III to Mary I had held rings in their royal hands, blessing them and asking God to infuse them with healing power before giving them out to those in need. Known as cramp rings for their supposed ability to cure cramps and epilepsy, the rings were blessed by the king or queen and sprinkled with holy water before being distributed from the chapel at St. James Palace on Good Friday. This practice was abolished by Elizabeth I.

The Triduum ended with a joyous celebration of Easter Sunday. This capstone of the Christian calendar was met with great feasting and heartfelt worship during Tudor times, just as many continue to do today. The end of the Lenten fast would include foods that had been much missed during the previous 40 days and that were symbolic of the great resurrection.

The Resurrection - Easter Sunday
Lamb is a traditional dish on Easter Sunday that represents Jesus as the lamb of God. Eggs are a symbol of new life in heaven. Hot cross buns had been enjoyed long before Tudor times, but it was Elizabeth I who designated them as a special food for Easter with their simple cross to represent Christ. The Protestant queen may have abolished the superstitious cramp rings but she let the people keep their buns, if only on Easter and Christmas.

As I look at the Holy week traditions that some of my favorite historical figures would have celebrated, I am struck by just how similar it is to what I will experience. It is wonderful to feel so close to the people of the past and that great cloud of witnesses.


  1. Lovely post Samantha - Happy Easter to you.

  2. Thnaks for this timely and interesting post. Happy Easter to you!

    1. Happy Easter to you, Christoph! Thanks for being a regular reader of my blog.