Friday, April 6, 2012

Elizabethan Fact of the Day: Easter in Elizabethan Times

Happy Easter!
If you celebrate Easter, we wish you a happy day filled with friends, family, and faith.

And because I never miss an opportunity to tie anything to Queen Elizabeth I, I would like to share with you some information on the Elizabethan Easter....

The celebration of Easter is the most important feast day in the calender of the Elizabethan Church, also known as the Anglican church. Just like today, Easter was a "floating" holiday in the 16th century, and could occur on a Sunday in either March or April.

By the time Elizabeth was on the throne, Easter resided on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurred on or after March 21st. This means that Easter could fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th during Elizabeth's reign (Wagner, 93-94).

Proceeding the actual feast day of Easter was 40 days of Lent, a period of fasting and abstinence from a variety of forms of merriment. Lent was, and still is intended as a time for reflection of Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and concludes with the week before Easter, appropriately titled "Easter Week" or "Holy Week". Easter Week begins on Palm Sunday. Holy Week concludes with Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, all of which were observed retaining some Catholic traditions (Wagner, 94). Queen Elizabeth I herself continued the royal tradition of having a Maundy Thursday rendezvous with the common people, and the annual event was commemorated in the miniature below:

An Elizabethan Maundy, a miniature of Queen Elizabeth observing the tradition of a Maundy with the common people. The miniature is by Elizabethan female court painter Leevina Teerlinc. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

The Easter Sunday service was one of the three times in a year that Anglican church-goers took communion; the others were Christmas and Whitsun. Whitsun was the feast of Pentecost, which fell in either May or June. After attending church, the Elizabethans would partake in extravagant feasting celebrations.

Since we know that by Queen Elizabeth's reign Easter had acquired some secular customs, the Elizabethans, like modern Christians, were celebrating with decorated eggs and other pagan-derived symbols from ancient Anglo-Saxon culture (Wagner, 94). Though we can say with surety that the Queen herself probably did not participate in any sort of an egg-hunt!


Wagner, John A. The Historical Dictionary of the Elizabethan World. Print.

(Pages 93-94.)

For further reading on Elizabethan religious customs, please see: 

Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calender in Elizabethan and Stuart England by David Cressy

ALSO: On this Day in Elizabethan History, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster died in 1590. But because this year this weekend is Easter Weekend, and every year ever-after April 6th will be the death of Sir Francis Walsingham, we will write a mini-bio on him and his achievements next year!

A detail of a 16th century portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, whom Queen Elizabeth called her "moor", due to his swarthy complexion. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In the meantime, to learn more about Walsingham's life and work, please read:

Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky.

Mr. Budiansky is an author who specializes in military and intelligence history. We own this book and highly recommend it!